A Teachable Moment

In one of my classes today, we were reading a passage about families. In the textbook was a picture of a family, with each person labeled as mother, father, aunt, uncle, etc. As soon as the kids (ages 8-9) saw this picture, they erupted into laughter.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“Teacher, they are all very ugly!” giggled Sue, one of my best students. 

“Why are they ugly?” More laughing. “I’m curious, guys. Why is this family ugly?”

“They all have brown skin!” shouted Tom, rubbing his face.

I was appalled. After taking away all of their points, abandoning my lesson to make them write about how they would feel if someone mocked them for their skin color*, and sitting in silence for the rest of class, I still didn’t get the feeling that they understood why their comments were so hurtful. Yes, they knew that Tara Teacher got very angry with them for what they said. I don’t, however, think they understood the implications of it.

The episode was further explained when I told my Korean co-teacher what had happened.

She laughed too. “I think they are just very young, and they act like babies,” was her response.

She’s right: they are young. This is partially why I was so disturbed by it. They are too young to come up with such ideas on their own, which means they are being taught these racist ideas, tacitly or otherwise, from adults. 

I understand that Korea is a homogenous society, and I’ve touched on their disdain for the different. Maybe I hold our students (and their parents) to a higher standard, though. Many of our students visit, or even move to, the US and other countries. Sue, my student from today, is spending next year in New York City. It seems strange to me that the same parents who send their children to an academy to learn English, presumably to open their minds and prepare them to see the rest of the world, would teach their children such blatant Othering. Even if it isn’t them who is personally promoting these ideas (they are quite popular in the media, as well), I would hope they are at least discouraging them.

This is not the first instance of racism I’ve heard about, or seen here. The difference is that today it happened in my classroom, while I was teaching. I’d like to think I made them reconsider, or at least examine, what they said. Ultimately, though, they leave my classroom and enter back into a society that is accepting of such casual racism. 

*I feel this exercise was lost on Tom, who wrote about how he thought that black skin is dirty, and can rub off on white people’s skin. Where the f*** are they learning this!?


2 thoughts on “A Teachable Moment

  1. You’re disappointment in your students is understandable, but then, they are young and just learning how to learn, see and understand.

    Let me share a story from a number of years ago, an event that happened to me, here in New Haven. As an architect with an understanding of historic architecture I occasionally get requests to come and advise on what is a historically appropriate treatment for some building. One such event brought me to a church owned by a Black congregation. The pastor (who I did not previously know) was very friendly and proceeded to engage me in small talk.

    Now I should point our that this occurred in the summer, and as you know, the Bawol bloodline readily transmutes sunlight into “tan” (witness your grandfather). In any case, the pastor proceeded to comment repeatedly on my “color”, asking in a friendly way if I had been on vacation. Even though I noted I hadn’t been, he continued to insist several times that I must have. At which point I held my bare forearm next to his and stated simply “We all come in different colors.” (The rest of the discussion was unmemorable.)

    So, perhaps if you hold your arm against theirs and ask “How is it different, how is it the same?” And maybe get some of them to compare their arms . . .

    But they are little children, and I have a hard time even thinking of what I knew and understood at that age. Probably not much!

  2. Pingback: My News + Gamcheon Art Village | Tara In Korea

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s