“Racist”

I hate this epithet, but I’ve heard it more in the last few weeks than I’ve heard it in most of my life. Where would I hear the phrase multiple times a day? At the local middle school. I guess the kids have stopped saying everything’s gay and have moved on to racist. The kids say it all the time – to their friends, to their classmates, and to their teacher. Anytime someone does something they don’t like, the students call the offending party a racist. It’s disgusting. 

 What disturbs me most about this is the casual way students throw words about, as if their words hold no power, no threat, no agency. Gone are the days when we used to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” We know better now. Words have the power to hurt or to heal, to destroy or to mend.

 I had a serious talk with one class Friday. I had heard the word racist one too many times that day, and I had heard enough. I reminded the students that their words have power, and to go around calling people racists (even as a joke) was unacceptable. Yes, they’re adolescents. Yes, they are still learning social skills. But, they are not too young to understand that using words casually can be costly, even dangerous.

Friends can be made with words, but so can enemies.

I’ve lived my entire life in the South, and friends, I know people who are self-described racists. I am, in fact, related to some of them. They spent the 60’s and the 70’s hating the blacks, the 80’s hating the gays, and now they’ve moved on to hating (in their words) the “Mexicans.” These same relatives are devout Christians and patriotic Americans who would give you their last twenty dollars. They’re not bad people, just misguided, uninformed, ignorant.

I love them, but I don’t agree with them.

And I don’t agree with letting students get away with using the term racist against their peers or their teachers without regard or caution.

This may be the most important thing I’ve taught them this year.

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