Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Teachable Moments

Yes, the Super Bowl was Super Boring (what game starts with a safety? I mean, seriously?) but, surprisingly, so were the commercials! Even so, I managed to find some that fit perfectly into class discussions - so I guess I didn't completely waste time watching the game. 

In my public speaking class today, we were talking about cultural diversity. I always start with a discussion on the concept of white privilege. Given that 99% of my students are white, this discussion is always interesting. Many students get defensive at the words, they equate "white privilege" with "racist." I work very hard to guide them to an understanding that they do have advantages because of their ethnic makeup, but those advantages can be used for "good" or for "evil" - kind of like superpowers.

After seeing the Coca-Cola "America the Beautiful" commercial (which you can see here) during the Super Bowl, I knew it was the perfect commercial to play during our class discussion. Then I caught some of the comments being posted online about the commercial . . .

"Being a coke fan over pepsi, after seeing your superbowl ad, I will no longer support coke products. Lost the true meaning of an American. Very sad."
"That ad was downright disturbing. Disturbing enough to make me stay away from Coke and it's products."
"So was Coca-Cola saying America is beautiful because new immigrants don't learn to speak English?"

"Coca Cola is the official soft drink of illegals crossing the border. "

"Nice to see that coke likes to sing an AMERICAN song in the terrorist's language. Way to go coke. You can leave America,"

These postings on Twitter, Facebook and other social media just broke my heart. How can people post such hateful things? How can people believe such things? I felt like I could make this a teachable moment in class. So, in I jumped . . .

After about 20 minutes of discussing how we define culture and how our white privilege can affect our perception of a cultural group, it was time to play the commercial. After watching it, I explained the types of negative comments that were being posted on social media sites. Several students had observations they shared. And then the most unexpected, unimaginable thing happened . . .

A 19 year old white male, whom I will call "F", raised his hand. I motioned for him to speak and he said, "I'm sorry, but if they are going to live here they need to speak our language." (This is a direct quote, I can't make this shit up.)

I was stunned. It was a moment that time froze, except my brain was scrambling into high drive trying to figure out how to respond. Had there been a recording device running, I think you would have heard the collective intake of breath that came from every other student in the classroom, would have seen the slow motion movement of students looking at me for my reaction, heard the scrape of chairs as those sitting close to F reflexively tried to distance themselves.

It was a teachable moment, but not the teaching moment I expected. How do you respond when someone says something so vile and ignorant and racist in your class? Knowing that your response is going to have a lasting impact? Knowing that you have no clue what the "right" response is supposed to be?

That ever-so-long-ever-so-short moment ended with 4 students talking all at once, seeming to "yell" at F. I wanted to join them. I wanted to scream at him that he was a horrible person. I wanted to tell him to leave my classroom and never come back.

But I didn't.

I told the students to calm down, reminded them that everyone in my classroom had the right to their opinion. I told F that I thought his response was an interesting one, and I asked how that opinion was formed. He said he'd worked "with 2 Mexican dudes" and they didn't know English so it was hard to "order them around." (Again - I can't make this shit up.) I asked him if his white privilege of knowing the commonly spoke language may have affected his perception of his co-workers. His response? He rolled his eyes.

When I read the hate-filled comments on Coca-Cola's Facebook page, I couldn't imagine that people could be so filled with bigotry. I had a hard time believing they were real people with real ignorance. And then one of them was in my class.

The teachable moment wasn't just for my students today. I was taught a lesson today as well. I'm just trying to figure out exactly what it was.

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