In a word . . . yes.
But let’s talk about why. Because the principal seems confused. (Or is, at least, feigning confusion in an effort to deflect responsibility.)
In case you missed it, last week a high school principal shocked students and their families by exclaiming “Look who’s leaving … all the black people.” TNT Academy Principal Nancy Gordeuk had completed the graduation ceremony and then asked everyone to stay as a student delivered a speech that had been forgotten. A few families got up and left, and the whole thing was caught on tape, including her racist remark. At that point, most of the black families DID get up and walk out. I would have done the same.
After seeing the outrage to her comments, Gordeuk issued an apology to parents via email:
However, in a later interview she seemed to recapitulate. During an interview on Monday with MSNBC she said:
You know, oh you say the word ‘black,’ you know, was I supposed to say ‘African American?’ Were they all born in Africa? No, they’re Americans. And, they live here. And, but just, I’m not a racist. People that know me, I’ve worked with disadvantaged kids like this that couldn’t get through school, we help them get a high school diploma.”
This statement is problematic on a number of levels, and illustrates both the insidious nature of veiled racism and the denial that many people put forth when their racism has been exposed.
I talk a lot about it’s okay to discuss race, and how we need to be more comfortable in these conversations. But there is always the concern that someone will exploit this idea and then use racial descriptors in a way that doesn’t actually promote a conversation about race, but rather promotes an negative stereotype about a whole group of people based on the behavior of a few. That’s exactly what happened here. The principal said “ALL the black people are walking out” when the video clearly shows many black people still seated. And their race has nothing to do with them walking out. Her statement had a charged and racist implication . . . that their decision had something to do with their race.
And then she further dug in, pretending to be confused as to why it would be offensive to point out race.
Let’s talk about when it’s okay and not okay.
I think many of us probably grew up hearing people use racial descriptors in a negative way. I can certainly remember my grandparents doing it:
Another black family just moved in. They’re taking over this neighborhood!
Those Puerto Ricans behind me were talking so loud.
I nearly got in an accident with someone today! He was Asian.
Hopefully I don’t need to explain how these are examples of inappropriate racial referencing. In these instances, the race of the individual is irrelevant, but included in the conversation to confirm a generalization or prejudice. The reference to race is not about describing the other person, but rather about ascribing a stereotype or judgment to the situation based on another person’s race. That is exactly what this principal did.
As a result of growing up with this kind of racism, many of us had well-meaning parents or teachers who wanted to create a better environment, but in doing so we were taught that we should ignore race. “Race doesn’t matter” . . . we were told. Everyone’s equal. Don’t notice someone’s race, and for heaven’s sake, don’t talk about it if you do. This is the credo that I think a lot of white folks were raised on, and while it’s certainly an improvement over the more overt racism of racial ascription, it has (in my opinion) created a generation of people wearing a set of blinders to the real and ongoing issues of prejudice that people of color deal with. It has also created a society in which mentioning someone’s race is deemed offensive even when race is relevant to the conversation.
Which is kind of a problem when a black friend tries to describe her experiences of subtle racism, and her white friends argue with her that no one notices race, and that she’s being overly sensitive. Or when I talk to a preschool teacher about my son’s experience as the only African American in his class and it results in an awkward conversation where the teacher feels as though I’m being confrontational. Or when I mention my concerns about the prejudice my sons may face and I’m told I’m just being paranoid.
The idea that race doesn’t matter is a lovely dream, but the truth is that it DOES matter. Still. Today.
Another way I see this sense of racial denial play out is that people frequently relate stories to me about how their kids don’t notice race, as if this is a confirmation that their children don’t hold any prejudice. But the truth is that kids do notice race, as well as eye color and hair color, and if they avoid racial descriptors in describing a friend, it might be an indication that we’ve shamed them from talking about it and in doing so, given them some of our own racial baggage.
It’s really important to recognize context, and not presume that every mention of a person’s race has a racist undertone. There is a big difference between using race to describe someone and using race to ascribe a behavior to that group. When my own children ask me to delineate which Heather is coming for a visit by inquiring if it’s Heather with brown skin or Heather with white skin, that’s not racist. Race is a descriptor. However, when a principal remarks on what she sees as a negative behavior and then comments on race, she’s ascribing behavior to race.
And that is racist.