By Matthew Kay
Over the past half-decade, our students have been bombarded with high-profile race conflicts; the Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner decisions, the riots in Baltimore, the mass-shooting in Charleston, supremacist marches and murder in Charlottesville, a tangible spike in hate speech and a sharp decline in civility. The same media that delivers these issues to students tends to serve as a terrible model for how to discuss them. Fully siloed, 24-hour news networks turn important race conversations into macabre theatre. Hosts ask unsubstantial questions, which split-screen “experts” answer with bloviation and shouted accusations – each segment an attempt to inspire a viral YouTube clip. It’s just as difficult for our students to find meaningful race conversation modeled over social media, with its equally siloed Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Here, meaningful discourse is often twisted into a competition for likes and retweets, one that ultimately rewards rapidity over introspection, snark over humility. Too often, our students’ conversational habits are only made worse by engaging this social media exchange. These habits don’t fix themselves. If we, as educators, do not provide a counter vision, show another way to engage race thoughtfully, energetically, and empathetically, many of our students will never see one. Furthermore, if we do not provide opportunities for our students to practice habits that lead to quality race conversations, any nascent skills will atrophy, especially with so many bad examples out there.
We know this. As educators, we know just how many people are invested in our students’ destructive conversational habits. When White, Black, Latino, and Asian students remain strangers to each other, so many walls remain intact. If our students do not seek complexity, leaving both Conservative and Liberal orthodoxies to go unchallenged, our political parties can settle into a deleterious status quo. Most importantly, if our students are not encouraged to engage race issues with empathy, so many unethical power structures can continue to thrive. Kindness in conversations, so often spoken about as a foundational American quality, has always been more elusive than we admit. While America’s current political discourse has aggressively devalued kindness, we have never, in history, been particularly good at being compassionate to “the other side” when talking race. It’s just so much easier to tease and belittle, to attack with the intention to destroy, to bury, to end each other. It seems so much more fun to be a troll, so much more entertaining to be a troll’s audience, so satisfying to see an “enemy” bewildered and publicly embarrassed. Many have grown so attached to this congenital meanness (in conversation) that it has become a key part of their cultural identity. So key, in fact, that many are invested in passing it to the next generation. They mislabel it “toughness.” They praise an ability to “keep it real.” They roll their eyes at “political correctness.” To them, any teacher who closely examines any of these terms has chosen to challenge entrenched value systems, which leaves us open to accusations of overreach.