Monday, June 7, 2010

Something Stinks At Seattle's Thurgood Marshall Elementary School.

Sweet baby Jesus.

It took me a minute to shake the tomfoolery that went down last month when a high school teacher—one in the lily white sticks of Lumpkin County, GA, no less—dressed up four of her students in KKK outfits and paraded them through the school lunch room on her way to teach a “history” lesson about racism. The teacher gave a “my bad,” and the school slapped her with some sensitivity training and so, you know, all the little Negro children who may have genuinely been offended/surprised/frightened by what looked like a gathering of the homegrown terrorist organization that systematically lynched, raped, tortured and murdered African Americans, needed to, like, hurry up and get the eff over it.


And now, THIS from The Seattle Times: A third-grade teacher kicked an 8-year-old black girl—the only brown baby in the advanced placement class—out of the classroom because the Organics Olive Oil Hair Moisturizing Lotion her mom uses on her natural hair made the teacher, who allegedly has allergy issues, want to vomit and faint. Yup, you read that right: The smell of the baby's afro made the teacher throw up a little in her mouth and almost pass out.


Hold up, though—it gets better: After the teacher, a 3rd grade instructor at the Thurgood Marshall Elementary School (isn't the irony of the name of the school just delicious?) pulled the baby from the class and had her sit out in the hallway, she sent the girl to another non-gifted classroom full of black students, and then refused to respond to the parents when they questioned what was up with all of that. 

Now, the parents are in a tizzy and won't let their kid go back to school (with good damn reason); the NAACP and lawyers are involved; and the school district, citing the lawsuit, has zipped its collective lips on the issue, except to say that they're positive the teacher's actions weren't racially motivated.

Uh huh.

Now, I'm all kumbaya on the teacher having allergies or sensitivities to smells or whatever. And a little web investigation revealed that the teacher handed out letters in the beginning of the year explaining the sensitivity and asking the parents not to send their kids into the classroom smelling any kinda ways, lest the teacher suffer an attack. But er, um, you mean to tell me the only way this adult—this teacher who is responsible not only for molding students' minds but also their emotional and mental well-being, no matter their size, skin color, sexual orientation, looks, hairstyles, and, yes, smells—could keep from throwing up and fainting was to a) single out the one black child in the class; b) tell her she stinks in front of said class; c) banish her from the gifted class to one that is educationally inferior to the one in which she was placed (Lord, this alone is worth a whole 'nother post), and; d) refuse to give the parents a head's up or return emails and phone calls to explain?

I mean, come on, son—really?

I'm the mother of an 8-year-old, 11-year-old, and 17-year-old, and they regularly assault my wolf nose with the funk of a 1,000 years—stank, deodorant-less armpits, farts, sweaty shin guards and soccer cleats, shard-filled underwear, Cheetos-induced exorcist vomit slicks, head-to-toe Tag body spray spills you can smell a quarter mile away. And those are just my three. I can only imagine how gross a class of 30 or more 8-year-olds must be, with their sweaty, playground bodies and their stinky peanut butter and banana lunches and their  sparkly, strawberry sour pucker lip glosses and their "I just forgot to brush my teeth this past week" morning breath.

Simply put: Kids smell. Moms and teachers alike have to put up with it. 

And feign as much ignorance about it as you want to, but moisturizer to natural black girl hair is like water is to the human body: We have to have it or our hair dies. And sometimes, that moisturizer's got a little something in it to make your hair smell nice.

And if a teacher can't handle normal, average, everyday kid smells (scratching my head trying to figure out how the teacher keeps from fainting and vomiting at the grocery store, on the bus, at the mall, in church...) and the fragrance of a little girl's afro puffs, well then maybe said teacher needs to find a new damn job instead of kicking smart little black girls with afros out of the smart kid class and refusing to explain what's up to her parents, leaving the parents to make a federal case out of it.

And make a federal case out of it, they must. Because the damage caused to that little girl, a black child already charged with having to fit in to a class full of kids who don't look like her, could be irreparable if the parents aren't standing up, speaking out, and talking to that baby about how special she and her natural hair—the hair God gave her—is, no matter the reaction her insensitive, dummy of a teacher has to it. No matter how many people stand at the ready to question why she wears it that way and why she doesn't just pull a hot comb or some relaxer through it.

Are these teachers—the "Let's play dress up in KKK robes" one and the "I faint at the slightest whiff of afro juice" racist? I don't think so. But they're both ignorant as hell, and inexcusably insensitive to the students and parents who do not look like them.  And they absolutely do not deserve a pass for the foolishness. Two snaps up and a twist to the reader who left this brilliant comment at the end of THIS PIECE written by the little girl's father:

It's unlikely this teacher was thinking about the significance and connotations of hair -- and that's because for her, as a member of the "default" racial group, hair doesn't have significance and connotation. She has the luxury of having "default" hair; she has the luxury of never feeling singled out or racially defined by her hair. Does this mean she's off the hook, because she didn't know or because it didn't occur to her? Can the racial connotations of a white teacher singling out a student of color by making an issue of her hair be dismissed? Absolutely not. White people plead ignorance all the time for things like this: "I wasn't being racist when I said/did that -- I just didn't know any better. I didn't know that was offensive." 
Well, I think that's pretty weak (I'm white; I kind of think it's my own damn responsibility to be as conscious of the role race plays in our society as everyone else, who is being fucked over by it, is). Race is an issue in this story the way it is more and more frequently in America -- not because of an overt act of aggression, but because of a passive act of inconsideration.
Say word.

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  1. Wow, what a fantastic post, Denene! Made me furious. Made me think. Made me see what truly goes on in some tiny tiny minds. That teacher makes me want to lock her in a storage room full of Organics Olive Oil moisturizer, which by the way *I* think smells rather good. I have to fall back on my basic thought that humans are often very very disappointing.

  2. I am gonna play devil's advocate here. Just for matter of discussion. Would it have been an issue if it were a little white girl with smelly hair products? Seriously. Would her parents have viewed it as a racist action? Just because the black child was the ONLY one in the class, it seems to have been made a racial issue. What if there were other black children in the 'gifted' class, and she had been removed? Would her parents still interpret it as a racist action? Probably not. I am the first to admit I love perfume and am annoyed by all the ultra-sensitive allergies of the world nowadays. But really, I think it was the situation which made the whole thing become a racist issue, not the teacher herself. All children, no matter what their race, should be treated with sensitivity and respect. The teacher may be at fault for not being as discreet as she should have been, but as far as her 'singling out the one black child', I don't think that was the case. If we all overreact to these kind of incidents, then race does INDEED become an issue that we are drawing attention to, and our children become even more aware of it. We should absolutely have no tolerance for racist actions. But we need to be careful to point the finger when it is intentional and malicious racism.
    We also need to lead by example. Calling one of the teachers a 'lily white stick' does not do your argument here the validity it deserves. Racist sensitivity works both ways.

  3. @Anonymous, a.k.a. Devil's Advocate:
    Do I think this big of a deal would have been made if there were other little black kids in the class? Yup. Regardless of how many other black people are in the room, no mother or father of a black child with natural hair is going to tolerate an adult making their little girl feel embarrassed, defensive or bad about her hair. Black hair—specifically, black hair in it's natural, kinky state—is a racially-charged issue that pre-dates the cotton fields; we natural sistas (and the mothers of them) tend to take it personal when ANYONE, black, white, or whatever you are, question our decisions/habits/hygiene based on what we do not feel we should have to change: the curly, kinky, nappy hair God gave us. So I'd argue that the parents probably would have raised holy hell even if the teacher were black. I would have. (One of these days, I'll tell you about the time I stopped talking to my own brother for three months because he talked sideways about daughter's hair.)

    Would folks have gotten as upset if this were a white child? Are you kidding me? Do you really think the white parents of a smart child would tolerate their kid being sat in the hallway, and then switched into an academically inferior class WITHOUT SO MUCH AS A PHONE CALL, MUCH LESS AN EXPLANATION from the teacher or the principal? Really? Because the parents of gifted children (I happen to be one of them) would burn the school down before we'd let someone disrespect us and our children's education experience like this. If their gifted program is anything like ours, your child has to work darn hard to get on that track, and work even harder to stay on it, and if for any reason they're kicked out, it's hard as hell to get them back in. So my guess is that the parents of a white student would have gone ballistic, too.

    Your suggestion here is that because these are parents of a child of color (the dad is black, mom is white), they do not have the right to advocate for their child or question, at least, the racial insensitivity of the teacher's actions. The little girl is the only black child in her class. A reasonable, thinking teacher should have sense enough to take that into consideration when making decisions like the one she did—to handle the situation with "kid gloves" (pun intended) so that actions not meant to be racially offensive don't turn into a racially-charged pile of mess. This is the point I was making when I specifically said (for practically half the post) that I DO NOT THINK THE TEACHER IS A RACIST, but she should NOT have the luxury of feigning ignorance and claiming she didn't think what she did was going to be viewed as offensive. She is a teacher. Of little people. And if she doesn't know better than that by now, then she doesn't need to be in the classroom around little people who can easily be scarred by her ignorance.

    As for the line "lily white sticks": Please read it again. I was not referring to the teacher as a lily white stick; I was saying that she teachers in a school in the lily white sticks of Lumpkin County, a county in the woodsy hills of North Georgia, where the population is 90% white.

  4. Let me play God's Advocate here. Racist sensitivity does not work both ways. To be a racist one must use his/her race to oppress another globally. When have Black people done that? Secondly, the situation was not that it was a class full of Black students, it was that the class was full of White students with one Black. As an educator, she must be sensitive to all of her students and take into particular consideration cultural pieces that perhaps she may not have been exposed to. Denene is right, kids come to school with all kinds of aromas and smells. I had a teacher who would get sick from the smell of strawberry Hubba Bubba. She didn't embarass anyone, she simply made it clear that she would fall the hell out if she smelled it - this was a high school class. This teacher, as with many teachers today, are just that, teachers. That teacher had options besides putting the little girl outside. What if it had been a white student? Do you think she would have sat her outside the classroom? I think not. She would have flipped through her mental rolodex and figured it out. Kids come to school with all kinds of perfumes and shat (yes, I spelled it with an "a") on their hair and bodies. Teachers are not allowed to put a student out of the classroom for that. As a parent, I would be on fire as well!!! Call me at home to pick her up, notify me of something, but don't sit my child outside of the classroom and make her feel, yet again, that her hair (products, style, etc.) is bad. This is another reason why we have to take responsibility for our own.

  5. @ anonymous: Why must we always look at white folks intentions instead of looking at how their actions impact us? Since when/why do their intentions trump our outcomes? Don't we teach our children that when they hurt someone, regardless of whether they meant to our not, that they are wrong, and should apologize?

    We must also not be fooled into thinking that racism or racial bias should only be pointed out when it is "intentional or malicious." This is not the world we live in any longer, but that does not mean it is less damaging to us or our psychological well-being. Racial bias is hardly ever intentional or malicious, but it almost always leads to unequal outcomes for our brown children and our brown community. Racial bias means that she treated this child differently than she would have a white child, and while this treatment was probably unconscious, it was motivated by race. There is so much social science data on this, it's hardly worth debating that it's true.

  6. I wish I could churn out an intelligent and well thought-out comment to all this ridiculousness, but the unfortunate truth is just that: The teacher and the school are ridiculous. Thurgood Marshall is rolling in his grave or shaking his head in Heaven somewhere. I agree with God's advocate. We must indeed begin to take responsibility for our own.

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  8. I'm horrified. And frankly, I don't even have to get to the awfulness of singling this child out based on her natural hair. That any teacher, ever, for any reason, would remove a child from their class and place her in a different class without speaking to her parents is awful. Then, to do it based on her appearance or her smell. It makes me feel ill. Add the racial issues which Denene has addressed so much better than I ever could. Horrid.

    I use olive oil moisturizer on my brown baby girl's hair every single day and I would be beyond rationality furious if this happened in her classroom. I support teachers. Have a discipline problem with my child and kick her out of a class, no problem, but appearance? smell? at eight? Are we kidding?

  9. As you mentioned in the beginning of this post, Jesus certainly needs to intervene in such a situation...these type of events have been cropping up over the country and despite what we would like to think, we are not living a post-racial U.S.A. just because a black man is at the helm...

  10. Oooh, if this were my little girl, I'd be furious!!! This is another example of a teacher who probably should not be teaching! My mother taught 4th grade for 20+ years, and I always remember her talking about springtime bringing horrible body odors and such - but she never sent kids out of her class!! I'm also wondering if the classroom was the size of a closet? I mean, we use plenty of different hair oils and creams in our house, and admittedly, some are pretty strong... when I'm applying it or standing right over my babies. But, if I walk a few steps away or even cross the room, I'm not smelling it at all (unlike those body sprays/ colognes). Seriously, this teacher couldn't just stand a ways away from the child and then send a short explanatory note home to the family that day??? Unbelievable!! Parents (of any race) do not send their children to school expecting them to spend ANY time sitting in the hall, doing nothing. Completely unacceptable.

  11. This is the part of child-rearing that I have totally not been looking forward to. I honestly and probably naively was hoping that things would get better. But they haven't and I've got my mother warrior armor on tight, ready to do battle for my baby. 'Cause like Denene basically said, I'll be damned if some ignorance derails all the hard work that my family is putting into raising my child into a sensitive, productive, whip-smart, culturally aware, and gifted woman. Nice post, Denene.

  12. Denene,
    This is an awesome post for reasons almost too numerous to mention. First, thanks for bringing this issue to our attention. The teacher's actions were inexcusable. Also, thanks for including the father's statement, and overall for just delivering an excellent piece of writing. I laughed out loud at the "funk of a 1,000 years," (slick MJ reference). In short, I hope that the little girl continues in her rightful place in the gifted class and that this is a teachable moment for the one who needs it most: the teacher of that class.

  13. I applaud you and this piece. I loved the post of the person of the "default race", I think that is magical.

    I too had the pleasure of experiencing first hand mess from someone of the "default race". She is the mother (white) of my daughters (brown baby) best friend (adpoted latina brown baby). When her daughter saw my daughter and I leaving the book store she ran with 14 year old excitement to chat. Her mom took her time getting out of the car which started me to thinking but ya know...I gave her pass (strike one). I slowly walked to my car and waited for the girls to finish their chat. Once I got there her mom got out of the car and reach for the door of the book store and I said “hello”. She turned with hesitation and said "Oh...(kinda startled) hello there". I walked over to her with hand out stretched and said, "I'm Zianne's mom" and she struggled to reach out to shake my hand as if I had the cooties (strike two). Then this chick said to me "your daughter speaks so well"(strike three). Scene - You remember that part in the Colored Purple when Oprah balled up her fist after that white man slapped her….long pause…. I didn’t slap her but I said in my cut to the chase Brooklyn-style "as opposed to what?" She paused and said "…. bye" and ran into the store. She did not mention how gorgeous my 5'9 14 year old is or how elegant and confident she is, or how intelligent she is (honor roll student since preschool yall), can bang out a tune on the piano without being taught or her voracious appetite for books (like her daughter - that's how they became friends). None of those things were even considered. I had a long talk with my daughter and she in her ever so cool way said, "Mom it's ok, I deal with people like her in school all the time, it's a shame they are so ignorant".

    From the mouth of babes!!

  14. I don't know how to feel about this event or some of the comments that accompany this post. I feel so much rage as of late because you really cannot make this stuff up, can you? From teachers cutting braids to provacative Black Barbie dolls...I guess we are under attack in a not-so-subtle way.

    Thanks, as usual Denene, for bringing this to our attention.

  15. Well said, had that been my little girl or my son I would have had that school on it's toes apologizing to no ends. I have had numerous issues with teachers or people that hold responsible positions in my child's school come at me sideways and always (after i cool down a little bit) I go back and let them know that in no way is that appropriate and believe me I will not tolerate that anymore. I command as much respect as the other people in the schools, just because my skin happens to be brown does not make me any dumber or slower or poorer than you. This is not to be tolerated in no way shape or form and as it was pointed out everyone needs to be held accountable for the things they do be it intentional or unintentional...

  16. As a white teacher who makes guest appearances at T. Marshall elementary I have an opinion to share. I think the point made by Anonymous was missed. "If we all overreact to these kind of incidents, then race does INDEED become an issue that we are drawing attention to, and our children become even more aware of it". Overreaction or not, I believe constantly drawing attention to the differences between races does not move the race discussion in a positive direction. It is important for children to understand that we are ALL different and that yes, there are fundamental differences in the cultures of black and white; share them and embrace them. But negative comments about race whether directed at black or white are just that, negative.

    Let me share a story. The student population at T. Marshall has recently changed with school closures and went from being a predominantly black school to a more mixed race school. Classes from the school attend my programs as a field trip that is educational and fun for the students. Last year the parents in one classroom in particular, fought each other so much that they couldn't even get it together for the kids to take this trip. The argument? The new student's parents were still upset about having to move their kids to a new school with a less than shinning reputation. The other student’s parents said they didn't want the news kids there anyway. Without going in to a lot of detail the whole scene was racially charged and disappointing. It's time to GET OVER IT and do what's best for the kids. Please share positivity in the discussion on race with children and adults and not only point out the awful things that happen. Call out the teacher for her inexcusable actions and disrespect to her student and her family and find her a position in the mail room where she won’t be bothered by scents, but PLEASE don’t focus on the differences in a way that puts one or the other in a place of superiority.

  17. The picture is way to funny. I am still laughing about it. Little rascals was way to funny and the first glimpses of comedies aren't bad.


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