Sometimes, you must take matters into your own hands. It was Friday when I heard a problem student in my class utter the words “teacher” and “come here, boy” in the same breath. After I inquired about who said it, Juan Diego looked surprised and said he had been trying to get the attention of me and the student he had been partnered with, claiming he was not speaking to me. Just an hour before however, the psychologist had called me into a meeting with Juan Diego’s parents for a report I had written for him last week. As I entered, JD was silent with his head down and tears in his eyes while his two stern-faced parents greeted me. The behavioral specialist and his homeroom teacher were also present. We spoke about a situation that involved their child turning around during a quiz and asking to another student for the answer. He wasn’t very sly, I took his quiz and wrote him up. Cheating is taken very seriously where I work. Turns out, JD will face a day of suspension for that.
“Wait, boy?” I thought. “Is he retaliating at me for the situation he is in?” I initially asked myself this after recognizing the culprit who called me, the teacher, “boy.” There was little time to fickle over it since it had been a long week and this class was the first of my last two back-to-back sixth grade classes. I was eager to catch the bus (provided by the school) to go home for the weekend and relax. Once I’d gotten my nerves together, after leaving the schoolhouse, the thought did cross my mind that maybe I should have let someone know. The hesitation was probably due to the fact that while I knew the school takes cheating seriously; teacher abuse and cultural sensitivity, not so much.
I already had an idea how it might go after recounting the experience I had leaving one of my sixth grade classes one day. As I walked upstairs to enter the teacher’s room, a ninth grader was walking towards the same direction. As I followed towards the teacher’s room, he began making monkey sounds. After these monkey sounds he persisted into a mockery of Xhosa – an native South African tongue – by making click sounds. He stopped to greet his fellow white Latino friends and as I finally entered the room, I heard him greet them with “Que más, mi negro.”
I had immediately spoke to one of the school psychologists afterwards. I surely did, which led to nothing but a meeting with the coordinator of Junior High who was unable to get the student to face me and apologize after calling him to the meeting. Apparently he felt he had done nothing wrong and refused. She did tell me she spoke to the young man’s parents and they’re very sorry. Insert sarcastic side eyes here.
I didn’t leave the States thinking I would never face discrimination or awkwardness in regard to my race. However, my patience with such encounters has been rooted in the fact that I don’t fully understand the nuances of language and race in Latin America and I’m not sure whether they understand the nuances where I come from. My black experience has been colored by my natal country so I try to keep an open mind in discriminating between blatant racism and innocent ignorance. Most of the time, I vow to believe the latter. With all the uncensored media from the north that many South Americans consume, it’s hard to say how any given person may comprehend nuanced language in music and movies. I’ve misused words in Spanish, believing they had my intended meaning.
What I’ve come to learn of many Colombians of millennial age and younger is that many are enchanted by hip hop and love to incorporate language from mainstream media into their vocabulary. However, the misuse is sometimes awkward. I’ve had some students light-hearted joust at me and call me “bo,” “bro” or begin a sentence with “yo” when addressing me, most likely because I have dreads and they liken me to Wiz Khalifa and entertain themselves using urban slang.
Anytime my students address me in such a way, I calmly correct them. But after this last occurrence I felt it appropriate to address my problem with it to my students. To get engage them I began, “I’ve noticed how common it is for some of you to address me informally and that you think it’s cool or funny.” Students began to get silent.” I had given my students a lesson on cultural sensitivity some weeks prior. “I want you to recall our lesson on cultural sensitivity. First thing’s first, don’t call me boy, I’m a grown ass man.” I had never seen my students so attentive. “You are to address me as Mr. Black, Eric or Teacher. Not “bro” and especially not “boy.”
“But teacher ‘boy’ isn’t a bad word, it’s not like the N word or anything?” I explained that during Jim Crow in the United States black people were not respected and a white man could always belittle a black man by calling him ‘boy’ or ‘the N word.’ The class was silent and seemed to be pondering about what I’d just revealed. “It’s culturally insensitive to call me boy after learning that it’s offensive to me, the same goes for the N word.” I continued that I was taught as a child to respect elders and that you can’t go wrong by addressing them formally or using ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am.’ However I must say, since working with young people, I’m finding that respect for elders is a lost narrative.