Just this year alone, Kanye West has said slavery was a “choice,” Roseanne Barr compared former Obama Advisor Valerie Jarrett to an ape, Starbucks closed down 8,000 stores to hold anti-bias training for their employees—and we’re only in June.
As a teacher, I’m always looking for current events that highlight the classroom experiences I’ve designed, and I could hardly have choreographed these instances better.
But what I’ve come to understand is that my students don’t need to be taught that racism is bad, or even how to talk about it. They already get that. In my school, which is about 70 percent Native American, racism is never far from real-talk discussions.
I like to facilitate discussions like these at momentous times—when we’ve finished a particularly important text, or at the end of the school year.
In the Cave
The theme that most recently surfaced this topic was Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” We focused on this theme all year, using the story of men chained in a cave, whose only sense of reality is shadows on the wall. When one of the men is released and finds reality outside in the sun, he is stunned! But when he tries to tell his friends still in the cave, they reject him and respond violently.
In “Lord of the Flies,” the kids tugged and tore at the idea of the cave, finally settling on “violence is the answer” as one potential cave after a lengthy discussion. But it took them about three seconds to see that in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the “cave” is racist beliefs.
So at the end of the year, the very same day that ABC fired Roseanne Barr for her racist tweets, and the very same day that Starbucks put their employees through anti-bias training, my classes were holding their final discussion about the cave and how it applied to the whole school year.
Many of them agreed that the cave of racism was the theme that kept appearing.
The real heart of their discussion, though, centered on the lengths to which each of them would go to get someone else out of their cave. What is their individual obligation to help others see that racism is wrong? What if the cave-dweller is a friend, a loved one or a stranger? Do they have the personal fortitude to confront and persevere?
And isn’t this really the discussion we want our kids having? In this context, they challenge themselves and each other to pinpoint just how committed they are to identifying and eradicating prejudice and racism. But how?
My students understand that much of the world is not black and white but gray, and that it’s important to perceive nuance. What they need are models and examples of how to help dismantle noxious belief systems—and to extract the living souls from those caves.
If my kids were paying attention, they could have witnessed two such models of confronting bias in that one day: One, a swift stroke of consequence from the ABC executives, and another, a carefully considered plan of action by Starbucks to help, in some small part, create a slightly better America. They might prefer option A or option B, or maybe with each other, in the spirit of Parkland, students could together design an option C.
Despite Roseanne, despite the statistics, and despite the lived experiences of people of color in this country, the fact that students in this remote Montana classroom can easily categorize racism as one of Plato’s caves and are focused instead on the stealthy and successful extraction of those cave-dwellers—that is what gives me hope for our future.