Mississippi Teacher Corps

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Perceptions of race in the Delta: musings of a Sunday morning insomniac

I haven't updated my blog in a long time, in part because we didn't get Internet access in my house until a few weeks ago and my ability to access the Internet at my school is, to say the least, sub-par. At any rate, I plan to soon add some entries where I talk about my students, my first month of teaching, other teachers at my school, and so forth, but this Sunday morning, as I grudgingly accept the fact that my body won't let me sleep much past 7 am anymore, even if I need to catch up on sleep, I'm pondering race. More specifically, I've been thinking a lot lately about how I really want to talk to my students about race in a meaningful way, since even though it's a month into school, students still ask me questions about my own race on practically a daily basis (in an effort to give this blog at least the semblance of anonymity, I'll just state here that I'm one of the many corps members of mixed race). I'd like to have some sort of conversation with my students where they explain their conceptions of race to me, though I'm not really sure how to make this happen (in addition to being unsure how to facilitate this sort of conversation with a bunch of seventh graders, I'm wondering how I can justify having this sort of conversation during a science class... hmm).
This morning, I started thinking about all this when I was reflecting on the puzzling fascination my students have with my hair. My hair is black and wavy, and I'll go out on a limb here and say that I like my hair. That being said, I don't think there is anything distinctive about my hair, and have been wondering why my students seem to be fascinated by it. They frequently ask me questions about my hair and will always comment if I put it up one day instead of wearing it down. Several of my female students have touched my hair out of curiousity and been surprised by the texture (one of my girls even commented to her friend, "Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket's hair feels just like tissues!"). What's the big deal? I keep asking myself. Just recently, it occured to me that perhaps my students are fascinated because they have never seen hair that was black but not kinky before. This explanation makes sense to me in light of all the other questions I've been asked about my race.
At this point, I've probably discussed my race with the majority of my classes, prompted by questions from curious students who have tried to guess my race and come up with everything from Japanese to Puerto Rican to African. A student told the guidance counselor that he'd seen that the school had an"exchange student" this year (yes, he meant yours truly). Yet there still seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding my race. After I told one student that I was mixed race, he asked, "What does that mean? Puerto Rican?" Another student asked me, after I'd explained my family's ancestry, "So what does that make you?" I think what this really comes down to is that to my students, race is categorical. In their minds, a person is either white or black, and most have a few additional categories that are more abstract to them, i.e. "Mexican" or "Asian." Many of them have probably never met someone before who does not fit neatly into one of these few categories, and I am confusing to them.
Sadly enough, this lack of knowledge about race does not seem to be the result of the young age of my students. Several days before students showed up to school, I had to attend an orientation for all the new teachers in the district. For legal reasons, all of us were fingerprinted, and we needed to fill out information on a card for the fingerprinting. There was a tiny box, too small to fit more than a single letter, labelled, "RACE." I looked all over the card to see where the code letters for each race were listed, but couldn't find them anywhere. I looked around to see what the other teachers were doing. It was an easy enough job for them; they were all putting either "B" or "W." I approached the personnel director, explained my race to him, and asked him what I was supposed to write in the box. Perhaps an "O," for "other," or an "M," for mixed? He looked very confused, admitted that he had no idea, and teased me that I was messing everything up.
The long and short of all this is that I've never felt anywhere near as conscious of my race as I do here. That is not to say that I feel that I am being discriminated against or anything like that, but when I walk down the street, I can tell that people are looking at me and wondering. Random Mississippians ask me about my race on almost a daily basis. The fact that my students are having such a hard time grasping my racial identity makes me feel the need to somehow make them more aware of race issues beyond the black/white dichotomy. I'd be really curious, too, to hear how my students perceive their own racial identities. At my school of about 500 students, there are 5-10 white students, two of whom I have in my classes. I've noticed that most of the white kids at my school bleach their hair, as though to look even more white and stick out even more. I find myself wanting to ask my two white students what it feels like to be the only white kids in their classes, but worry that it might seem insensitive to ask. A local TFA teacher was telling me the other day that it bothers him that there are so many blatant racial problems in Mississippi that no one is willing to talk about, such as the white side of the tracks/black side of the tracks phenomena in the very small Delta towns. I agree with him, but at the same time, thinking about all these issues makes me understand why they are so difficult to discuss.


  • At 1:39 PM, Blogger Ben Guest said…

    Great post. I think discussions of race are important and are certainly appropriate in your classroom. Only suggestion, wait a month or so longer. Get known a little bit more. The more your kids know you the more meaningful the discussion is...


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