I am sitting in a classroom. The class is English, I am sixteen years old, and I am in my element. All semester, I’ve been firing away with the right answers, I’ve been getting great marks, and I’m clearly the teacher’s favourite. My friend, H, who is also really good at English, has taken to sitting at the back of the class and answering questions shortly. This is because, just as obvious as the teacher likes me best, we can all see that the teacher has taken a great and inexplicable disliking to my friend. (From memory,) we’re the only two non-white students in the class.

All semester, while I’ve been working hard in class, the teacher has found occasions for little chats. Little chats about my name, about my background, about other people with my background, about my family history. I’m getting increasingly uncomfortable, but she’s not saying anything bad, right? Nothing explicitly wrong? It’s just kind of weird.

This day, I’m sitting in this classroom, and everything is just as usual until I dispute a point about Othello. And then it all comes crashing down. I won’t repeat what she said. I can still remember the blank and hostile look with which she said it, the cool assurance that it was entirely academic, entirely professional, to say it.

My fellow students are quiet. I sit there for several minutes but there is hot rage and I can’t concentrate on the task she’s set us to write. I stand up. ‘I’m going, is that okay?’ Why did I ask? I should have just left, I think. I’m too polite. She nods stiffly. It’s the last class of the day so I walk out of there and all around me there are sunlight and a haze of pure rage and I can’t see through them. I touch things and it’s hard to grip them because in the infinitesimal gap between atoms, between objects and my fingers, is profound hurt. I am producing horror and it is coating me. I have to concentrate to keep walking straight down that corridor.

When next I see the head of department, she calls me to sit down with her. The head tells me that my English teacher had to file that I’d left class without authority. That the teacher isn’t racist, that she loves people of my background. (I am a bit surprised. I haven’t even thought of what she’d done as explicitly racist until now, just hurt hurt hurt hurt.) That she, the head, is recommending I apologise. I am more surprised than ever; apologise for what? ‘No.’ ‘So I’m going to write down that you’re not taking my recommendation?’ ‘I will not apologise.’ The head has a look on her face I have never seen, and we’ve been in close contact all through high school. She says she doesn’t want to have to deal with this a few days before her retirement. I see her a few more times after that, and I can never see her the same way again. She was kind and helpful and now she is a person who can defend this.

I am devastated, but I am have matters to attend to yet, so I go to see my English teacher at lunchtime. ‘Have you got something to say to me?’ She asks me this in that particular voice of condescension some adults save for very small children who they think owe them an apology. I explain to her how incredibly inappropriate her actions were. She explains to me that she’s a professional, that what she said was perfectly in keeping with what we were talking about. She asks me again, ‘Are you going to apologise?’

‘No. Are you?’

Three guesses what she said.

Will I apologise for your racism? For having dignity? For not suffering existing as your fascinating pet?

Never. Never.

I’m crying writing about this years later. For the record, I ended up ranking first of all the candidates taking that English course that year. Because I’m just that good.

[Cross-posted at Zero at the Bone]

69 comments for “Memory

  1. Beppie
    June 13, 2010 at 4:22 am

    These sorts of memories can still hurt us in such a very powerful way. I’m sorry that your teacher acted in this way, and that the head teacher was no better.

    For what it’s worth, I think you did the right thing, and I admire you for it.

  2. June 13, 2010 at 5:26 am

    There are many rotten things about being a kid, but one of them is this:

    You can be right – completely, absolutely, no doubt about it right – and all the adults involved will still put you in the wrong and insist you be the one to apologize.

    I’m glad you were never in doubt you were right, and didn’t apologize.

    I come at it from this angle because I remember exactly what it was like to be the kid in the room who was right… and I was usually convinced by the adults that somehow, somewhere, I must be wrong.

    I’m crying writing about this years later.

    I hope writing it down helped. It does for me, even if I don’t share the writing: just getting it out.

    For the record, I ended up ranking first of all the candidates taking that English course that year. Because I’m just that good.

    Yeah. And I bet that stuck in that teacher’s throat. Good for you.

  3. autre.auteur
    June 13, 2010 at 5:31 am

    I admire you for sticking to your guns and still kicking ass in the class. One of my best friends almost dropped out before changing schools as a result of an issue like this (though it wasn’t clear to us which was more offensive to the staff– his race or his perceived sexual orientation).

  4. Beppie
    June 13, 2010 at 5:32 am

    You can be right – completely, absolutely, no doubt about it right – and all the adults involved will still put you in the wrong and insist you be the one to apologize.

    While I think that this is definitely true of being a kid (and no doubt that element was certainly in play in the memory Chally has shared with us), I think it’s also more broadly true of being a member of ANY marginalised group — which means that that pressure to apologise (essentially, to apologise for being RIGHT in a way that makes dominant groups uncomfortable) is there doubly when one is both under 18 AND a non-white person.

  5. June 13, 2010 at 5:36 am

    While I think that this is definitely true of being a kid (and no doubt that element was certainly in play in the memory Chally has shared with us), I think it’s also more broadly true of being a member of ANY marginalised group — which means that that pressure to apologise (essentially, to apologise for being RIGHT in a way that makes dominant groups uncomfortable) is there doubly when one is both under 18 AND a non-white person.

    Agreed. I’m sorry: I didn’t intend to imply otherwise.

  6. June 13, 2010 at 5:40 am

    No worries in the least, Jesurgislac.

    For the record, in my culture, people attain adulthood a lot younger than eighteen; I identified as an adult when I had this experience, though I don’t doubt the teachers didn’t identify me as such.

    I really appreciate your comments, everyone. Thank you.

  7. June 13, 2010 at 6:36 am

    This is horrifying. A similar thing happened to me in college, though the prejudice was against my gender and not culture. I reported it to the Head but because the professor in question was immensely powerful, I had to either apologise or leave.

    I go to a different college now. You’re right, it still gets me down, whenever I think of it.

  8. DAS
    June 13, 2010 at 7:22 am

    You can be right – completely, absolutely, no doubt about it right – and all the adults involved will still put you in the wrong and insist you be the one to apologize. – Jesurgislac

    This was one of the few child-rearing disputes I’ve had with my wife where I’ve turned out to be right (we have a friend who is an expert on early childhood education/development): a lot of parents like to make their kids apologize when the kids do something “wrong” and TeeVee shows like that nanny show encourage this as, e.g., a final step in the “time out” process.

    My wife subscribed to this part of the process and I did not. Our friend explained why this was a bad idea for reasons I had already grocked: (i) a forced apology is not a sincere apology and children should learn to show contrition because they truely are sorry not because some authority figure forces them to do so and (ii) sometimes the kid is right (and sometimes even if the kid is not right, the kid believes herself/himself to be in the right and has good reason to do so) — and what kind of lesson is it to teach kids that authority figures not only can punish them unjustly but also that those authority figures are the ones who deserve an apology and not the other way around!

  9. Sarah
    June 13, 2010 at 8:13 am

    You are that good.

    And thanks for sharing this.

  10. June 13, 2010 at 8:54 am

    my minister used a phrase–
    ‘prejudice plus power’.
    you can’t just let it roll off when someone has the power to affect your education, when they can define you to other people, when they try to define you to yourself.
    thank you for telling truth.

  11. David
    June 13, 2010 at 10:20 am

    Leaving out what it was the teacher said makes it really hard for me to gauge the appropriateness of how everyone responded to this matter. Was eliciting judgments of the responses from readers a goal of the post. I’m not trying to degrade the impact the experience had on you or even suggest that you reacted inappropriately, I’m just nagged by the fact that the teacher’s words were not even hinted at.

    Regardless, when I stop thinking about the racial facet of this issue, I’m stricken with empathy toward you. I only wish that I had the boldness you had at 16 because I can remember very well what it feels like to be looked down upon because you are a child, and I can also remember what it felt like to bite my tongue and regret it later.

  12. Steph
    June 13, 2010 at 10:30 am

    I never bit my tongue about stuff like that, but that’s why I spent so much of my time in school in the hallway or the principal’s office. I was lucky to graduate – kudos to you for excelling.

  13. June 13, 2010 at 10:38 am

    “Without permission.” When she said ok. Boggle.

  14. June 13, 2010 at 10:57 am

    David; I’m just nagged by the fact that the teacher’s words were not even hinted at.

    I thought about that, too, and decided it didn’t matter. (Especially as Chally’s made clear that what the teacher said, with reference to Othello, was offensive enough to make a well-behaved, hard-working teenage student get up and leave the room.)

    The teacher said something offensive. We don’t need to know what it was to know that the student (Chally) behaved with a correctness that would have satisfied Miss Manners or Jane Austen’s most meticulous heroines: She asked permission to leave, and left: later, in private, she explained to the teacher why what the teacher said had been inappropriate and offensive.

    Even if the teacher didn’t intend to be offensive, that private interview would have given a good teacher the opportunity to understand that she had been offensive, and that she owed her student an apology – indeed, that she owed the class an apology for what she had said. A good teacher would have taken that incident as an opportunity to expand on the understanding of one of the great themes of Othello, race and racism.

    That the teacher and the headteacher both just assumed the kid had to be in the wrong and they didn’t need to pay attention to anything she had to say, proves them to be bad educators, if nothing else.

    We really don’t need to know what it was the teacher said to know that Chally’s offense at a bad teacher’s arrogance and dismissiveness was justified.

  15. Salix
    June 13, 2010 at 11:11 am

    @ David,

    “Regardless, when I stop thinking about the racial facet of this issue, I’m stricken with empathy toward you.”

    I am curious why you don’t feel you can empathize with someone subject to racist discrimination. (I assume you’re white?) Empathy (and please correct me if I’m wrong!), involves understanding and feeling the same emotions as another person, even if you can never have the same experience. You use your own experiences as a lens, not as tunnel vision.

    Can you really only grasp the weight of this if you imagine it as an interaction of three white people (plus a class of many others who stayed silent)? Or are you just trying to say, “Yeah, I’ve never suffered racist discrimination, but I’ve been there in another way”?

    Also, if chally doesn’t want to share something, why do you feel comfortable demanding thus? Especially since you also state that you do understand the experience? If it made her feel as she described, why on Earth does it matter whether the teachers’ response was “appropriate”?

    (Ugh, I feel sort of weird about this comment…hope it’s not, well, inappropriate). And chally, you are indeed that good.

  16. Salix
    June 13, 2010 at 11:15 am

    Blah, should’ve hit refresh again before I posted. Oops. Um, seconding what Jesurgislac said.

  17. Sailorman
    June 13, 2010 at 11:32 am

    We really don’t need to know what it was the teacher said to know that Chally’s offense at a bad teacher’s arrogance and dismissiveness was justified.

    Sure, if we can rely on Chally to avoid all of the (normal, human, relatively-universal, and widely-acknowledged) problems that people have with memory, recollection, and reporting. It’s just that this reliance is unusual.

    Chally’s obviously writing in good faith, but she’s human, and humans tend to have relatively bad memories. Humans also tend to be very subjective in reporting of past events.

    It is very common for two people–in completely good faith, and without any intent to mislead–to have conflicting versions of the same event, so that the conflicting reports cannot both be true. We like to think that “good” people or “our friends” or “right minded” people don’t have this problem. They do; it happens all the time.

    In this case, the subject of this post happens to be Chally: someone on “your” side, and a woman, and someone who has a perspective that you support. So it’s easy to assume that she is accurate, and judging correctly, and avoiding any memory imperfections. That is also a common theme; we tend to see our friends and allies as “more accurate” and “more reliable” and “more objective” than our non-friends. We see them as such, even though each person in the world has at least some people who think s/he is more accurate and more reliable than “everyone else.” We just conveniently ignore the overlap.

    If you would accept this report from Chally, but would not accept or give credence to a conflicting version of the same incident from Chally’s teacher: that’s probably an example of confirmation bias. We are not as objective as we think we are.

  18. June 13, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    Sorry if this is derailing in any way but this hit me really hard because it suddenly reminded me of an incident when I was twelve years old. I’m white and come from a predominantly white community – in my school year there were around 120 kids and only 5 were non-white. My best friend was Filipina. A bunch of boys in our year had started calling her “Pocahontas” all the time rather than using her real name. Not just in conversation; they’d yell it at her when she came into class. We went to the teachers because that’s what we’d been told to do if we were bullied. The teacher we went to responded with surprise; why was she offended? Pocahontas was very famous, a historical figure, etc etc. We both stood there completely stunned. These boys had been reducing her to a stereotype about the fact she looked like the Disney character rather than the real woman behind the story. They’d been negating the fact she had a name of her own. They’d been harassing her. Not to mention the fact SHE WASN’T EVEN NATIVE AMERICAN so they were erasing her culture, something very important to her, completely (definitely not saying it would have been okay if she was Native American, obviously). It was the first time I saw how fucking racist the society we live in is, even the people who are supposed to be educating us, and it’s influenced me for a long time. It made our entire friendship group very mistrustful of whether the “authorities” could ever protect us, considering it turned out that some of the teachers were just as bad regarding harassment based on gender, weight, mental health problems etc. I can’t even begin to understand how hurtful it must have been to her, and how hurtful your teacher’s actions were to you.

    Wow, that turned out longer than I thought.

  19. June 13, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    A similar thing happened to me when I was 16 in my high school English course. Actually, several times. I brought it up with the department head, and nothing happened.

    It really really sucked.

    I also pulled off an A, and the teacher totally congratulated herself for showing “tough love” and took credit for my writing success post-high school.

    Right. Ugh.

    I’m really sorry that you had this experience. I think some of my toughest moments in dealing with other people’s privilege were during high school. Teachers who expected me to teach parts of my history for them, or who didn’t even try to pronounce my name correctly, even when I told them multiple times. I think the teacher-student power dynamic really magnifies other power dynamics.

  20. R-Cop
    June 13, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    I think one of the worst things an adult can do when disagreeing with a kid is shut down conversation. Your teacher had an opportunity to open herself up, learn something, and make herself a better person, as well as possibly to teach you something (I’m not sure how, but it’s a possibility), but instead decided that asserting and maintaining her authority was more important.

    So what she’s left with is, at best, a nagging feeling that causes her to reassess her behaviour and act differently the next time (which is okay in the long run but doesn’t do you much good), and, at worst, the defensive feeling that she really was right that causes her to further stifle any disagreements from people she has authority over.

  21. Marina
    June 13, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this. That story was simultaneously moving and infuriating. I admire you so much for refusing to apologize to your teacher. I wish I could say that I would have had that courage had it been me, but I fear that I would have given in and sat at the back of the bus.

  22. Steph
    June 13, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    Also – sixteen + years ago? I was under the impression that you were still a teenager. Not that it really matters! Then again, I guess if it’s more than one year it was actually years ago. So maybe never mind, haha. Just wondering!

  23. Kai
    June 13, 2010 at 3:31 pm

    Although I admit I’m also really curious about what the teacher said, I suspect it’s because, being white (and never having studied Othello), it’s difficult for me to imagine what it could have been. Not that it is important to the story, but it’s an example of how people of colour and other marginalized groups are made to feel “less than” in more ways than it’s possible for people of privilege to even register. If that makes sense.

    Anyway, I am really in awe of your courage, Chally. I never would have had the courage to speak up, let alone walk out, in high school. I’m doubly impressed that you explained yourself to the teacher AND refused to apologise. I think a lot of people (even as adults) would have been far too intimidated to do either to a person in a position of authority, even knowing full well that she was in the wrong.

    And I’m extremely disappointed by the administrator. Especially in this situation, she should have stepped back and said “A student is offended by something a teacher said. Maybe I should actually hear her out and consider her point of view and concede that it has value even if I can’t relate to it.” Instead it seems she leaped immediately to “must defend fellow faculty member” (with the kneejerk “so-and-so isn’t racist!!!” defensive mindset) which just shows, as others have noted, that neither was really a good teacher. Teachers need to be both capable of and open to learning, and these two obviously weren’t.

  24. June 13, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    Okay, here’s the thing, David. What the teacher said is none of your business. What the teacher said clearly caused and causes me a lot of pain. What the teacher said is not up for your personal scrutiny. Eliciting judgements as to other people’s reactions as to the legitimacy of this experience was really obviously not the point of the post. Given the ‘she’s not racist, she loves people like you!’ type comment, at the very least, the level of appropriateness going on should be pretty obvious. If I had provided nothing else than ‘one time a teacher said something racist towards me and I was upset,’ that should be enough for you.

    Steph: I’ll be twenty in November. :)

    Thanks, folks, for sharing your stories and sympathy, it means so much.

  25. June 13, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    Sailorman, you have quite an ability for leaving horrible comments in just about every thread you enter. It’s almost like you’re calculating how to dismiss people’s varied experiences of oppression as much as you possibly can while still presenting as “reasonable”. And, this time, you didn’t even exercise the decency to say it to me directly. Because it’s not like this was a post about having my experiences of oppression dismissed in the least. That’s enough out of you. You’re banned.

  26. June 13, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    I also find myself burning with curiosity over what the comment was, but I eventually concluded (and this appears to have been more or less confirmed) that Chally was hoping to avoid a tedious and quite possibly painful discussion of whether the comment was all that bad really. And the desire to avoid that does seem more important than my curiosity, even given my enormous ego and tendency to over-rate the importance of my curiosity.

  27. Katie
    June 13, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    Chally- I had similar experiences in school growing up. I admire your strength so much and I thank you for reliving it long enough to share it in this post.

  28. June 13, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    Wow. Thanks, Chally. A tribute to your good judgement: I’d have been sorely tempted to argue with Sailorman, and my more sensible self can tell me that would be a waste of time.

  29. Ivan
    June 13, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    Your story makes me say to myself, OK, there are things that an oblivious person might see as completely professional to say but that are likely to be considered offensive.

    Not wanting to be an oblivious person myself, it would help to know what the teacher said.

  30. June 13, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    We’re going to be deleting further comments that demand that my pain be exacted to commenters’ satisfaction. Talk about the post. Talk about similar experiences. Talk about the significance of these. Don’t act like I owe it to you to relive this experience yet again.

  31. PosedbyModels
    June 13, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    God, I dealt with so much shit like this in high school. I’m white and the teachers and adults who were set on hurting me/”teaching me a lesson” were always men, so I don’t share those dimensions of Chally’s experience (though we are the same age!), but I am sure that every one of these episodes I went through had something to do with the fact that I was a young woman or that I had questioned the authority of the adult in question, or both. I also still get upset even thinking about those situations–there was one in particular that I couldn’t talk about without crying uncontrollably for over two years. It’s such an awful feeling to be so angry and so powerless, and to have your real and painful experience dismissed, to be told that it doesn’t matter, to be told that you and your story can’t be trusted. Sometimes I feel glad that these situations taught me to stick to my guns, but other times I just think it wasn’t worth the hurt of being silenced. I’m so sorry you had to go through that Chally, and the same goes for anyone else who’s had something similar happen to them.

  32. Ivan
    June 13, 2010 at 7:30 pm

    No demands, just curiosity. I won’t trouble you more.

  33. Melinda
    June 13, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    I am a long-time feminste reader but this is my first time commenting. This post really struck a chord with me. I am a high school English teacher in the US. I am a white woman working with an extremely diverse student population. During most of my class sessions, I am the only white person in the room. Many of my students speak English only at school. Others speak English only, but cannot communicate with their own grandparents because of that.

    I love my job and my students. I work hard to come up with methods of helping them relate to the reading we do, most of which of old and British (at least for seniors in high school). I try to provide context – to help them see that racist elements of the text might indeed be racist, but that they also exist in the historical world of the work. I try to let them get annoyed and angry at a work when it contains racist assumptions, but still help them see what else might be going on in that work.

    This can be a really fine line and I try hard to be sensitive. To let them tell me how a work impacts them rather than telling them how it should. To encourage them to analyze works through the lens of their own experiences, but still teach them enough of the background and established academic interpretations of that work. Still, my students have a huge array of backgrounds, and I am constantly worried that I will hurt a student this way. Especially with my brightest students, I sometimes assume that they will be able to navigate the complex and subtle art of finding merit in a work even while acknowledging its racist undertones and assumptions (Rudyard Kipling’s work, for example).

    Sometimes I fail. I had a student come to me about a year and a half ago and tell me that she had found something I’d said in class to be racist. We had a long talk about what I had said, what the context was, and why it had upset her. I told her that I was really glad she had felt comfortable enough to talk to me about what she was feeling. In the end, I did apologize for hurting her. In the end, I think she understood that I hadn’t quite meant what I’d said the way she’d thought I did. In the end, it was a positive interaction and I still hear from this student now that she is in her first year of college.

    Still, I wonder about the times I’ve said something and the student hasn’t felt comfortable enough to come and clear the air – who have just shut down in my class. I wonder about it all the time.

  34. QLH
    June 13, 2010 at 7:57 pm

    I really admire you for leaving the class. At that age, I wouldn’t have had the strength to walk out. With both the teacher and the department head, you acted very maturely.

    I wonder what the other students thought. If any of them wished that they’d walked out with you, too. The more people stand up/walk out/speak up, the harder it becomes for the authority figure to brush it aside.

    Apologies for adding to the derail, but I am really surprised and frustrated by the demands that you further explain yourself.

    Thank you for sharing this memory with the inclusion of personal details. Things like how you felt, how you viewed the people involved before and after the incident, etc.

    It’s a minor point, but incredibly frustrating, that you were given explicit permission to leave, but she claims that you weren’t. Infuriating. It’s little shit like that…

  35. Ailuridae
    June 13, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    I found that the discussion surrounding what the comment, and my own curiosity about it, to be an opportunity for me to examine my own privilege.

    I can’t guess what the comment was, and I’m intensely curious–primarily because I don’t want to make the same mistake at some point, and partly just human morbid curiosity.

    It’s not your job to use your trauma to educate me. It’s not my right to make you go through it again just so I can understand someone else’s experience better. How selfish of me to want, on some level, to hold it up and pick it apart for any reason. Human suffering isn’t an abstract philosophical though experiment–that’s something I say quite often. How incredibly eye opening to realize that I fall into that trap as well.

    Thank you for sticking to your guns.

  36. Rachel
    June 13, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    I thought this piece was beautifully written and I greatly identify with it. Thanks so much for this Chally, Zero at the Bone is now in my blog feed :)

  37. June 13, 2010 at 9:11 pm

    I want to yell, shake someone, jump up and down if it would help people wake up and end their self-justification. Thank you for sharing your story.

  38. June 13, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    @Ivan, David, and hell, Sailorman if he’s still reading.

    You’ve all missed the point. The point isn’t WHAT the teacher said and evaluating from your own perspective. It’s not Chally’s job to put together for you a handy-dandy guide to not saying racist shit.

    Part of the problem is that as a non-white woman Chally is often going to be considered unreliable, disreputable even. So the point is not whether YOU consider something racist, but whether you can listen to her tell you a story and put aside your own privilege(s) and believe her when she says that it was.

  39. June 13, 2010 at 10:41 pm

    Wow, Chally.
    I never had the courage — never in all the years that I put up w/ people making “all in good fun” comments about “people like me” or all the great holidays they celebrate here that I am just supposed to grin and ignore while navigating public schools — to get up and calmly walk out on a teacher who was being so horribly inappropriate. But, you have always been a class act for as long as I have internet known you.

  40. minna
    June 13, 2010 at 11:31 pm

    That is such a shitty, shitty thing for you to have to deal with, I don’t even. Fuck them so much. And thank you for being willing to share something that can’t have been easy, especially in light of some of the comments you’re receiving.

  41. June 13, 2010 at 11:35 pm


    Just on that, I get the impression some people are thinking I didn’t include the comment so as the legitimacy of my response wouldn’t be questioned. That’s a reasonable assumption – in the light of what’s been going on in comments here – but not an accurate one. That reason is also my business.

    And what queen emily said.

    I’m finding a lot of the responses here really heartening – thank you again.

  42. Ellid
    June 14, 2010 at 6:29 am

    I had something similar happen to me, and I’m white. My 11th grade English teacher hated my mother (another teacher in the department) and took it out on me. When I refused to apologize for challenging her in class (she tried to take a horror story by Ambrose Bierce and turn it into her favorite theme, The Death of the American Dream), she gave me detention. Then she told me, in the snottiest voice imaginable, that she wanted me to write an essay about my bad behavior in apology.

    I refused. I think I said something pretentiously teen-ish like “I won’t use my god-given writing talent on this” and walked out, but it’s been thirty years and I’ve tried to block this from my memory. I then went to my mother’s office, sobbing so hard I was incoherent…and miracle of miracles, Mum believed me, supported me, and said she would not *allow* me to write such a ridiculous essay, consequences be damned.

    Even better, the teacher supervising detention felt so sorry for me and the one other non-burn out who’d somehow gotten a detention that she cut it short by fifteen minutes and sent us home. I still don’t remember much of The Great Gatsby, though, which is what I tried to read during the detention.

    The kicker was that a year later I entered a national writing contest and had to get the snotty teacher’s signature on a form stating that I hadn’t plagiarized the story since I’d written it in her class. She’d forgotten it completely AND claimed she’d discarded her copy. Fortunately I’d kept one, and another teacher agreed to sign the form…and when I came in fourth in the contest, the snotty teacher tried to claim credit!

    No one believed her, but I’m still steamed about it, years later. A teacher who abuses her/his power can do so much harm….

  43. Samantha b.
    June 14, 2010 at 6:46 am

    I thought actually there was a really lovely, or at least really powerful, effect to Chally’s lack of specification: it allowed for a (relative) universalization of experience. I think that most of the comments in this thread make clear how effective that choice was, regardless of the not terribly germane issue of its motivations. I found a lot of the responses really heartening as well. Thanks for that, commenter kids.

  44. Vic
    June 14, 2010 at 7:48 am

    It sounds like you handled the situation incredibly maturely despite the justified anger while still defending yourself. Much more so than your English teacher or the department head. I’m glad you didn’t give into their demands to apologize for something you didn’t do wrong.

  45. Bob
    June 14, 2010 at 8:35 am

    Seeing the mess above, I’ll just note that I also find it odd that the comment isn’t mentioned, and that it’s actually pretty disgusting of commenters here to accuse anyone interested in what the teacher’s comment was, of racism or of asking for a “guide on how not to say racist shit”. It’s VERY UNUSUAL to hear anecdotes where the writer leaves out entirely the key precipitating event, but when I do I put on my scepticism hat, regardless of who it is saying it. To ask people to discuss this and then throw a shit when people try to discuss it is just bizarre.

  46. exholt
    June 14, 2010 at 10:12 am

    Had a foreign language teacher in high school who took great pleasure in failing his students and enjoyed making sarcastic biting remarks to the point his students cried.

    Worse, he was allowed to stay on as a teacher despite trying to violate a disabled student’s right under the NYC Board of Ed regulations to have extra time for exams and had to be FORCED by the higher ups to grant that student extra time.

    Not too surprisingly, he also refused to provide help to any student who asked, including yours truly. He also took extra delight in reminding me and other classmates each day “College is the big leagues. If you cannot make it in my class, you’ll never survive in college.” He especially liked to single me out by saying that if I failed his class the way I have been doing, I’ll never last a semester in college.

    Not too surprisingly, I ended up failing his class at the end of the semester. Considering I knew I was already going to fail the class, he was not willing to help, school administration was non-responsive, I was 13, and he was an asshole to boot, I felt the only thing I and another like-minded could do was to do whatever we can to antagonize and otherwise drive him up the wall and hopefully into early retirement. Incidentally, he did end up retiring a year after I graduated.

    Though it meant I failed him 3 semesters in a row and caused my GPA to dip to the point I graduated with the same class standing as John McCain did from Annapolis, I ended up having the last laugh.

    When I came back to visit my high school as a third-year undergraduate on a near-full ride scholarship at a national top 25 private liberal arts college, all I needed to do was to go up to him and appraise him of all that along and tell him that his comment about college being much harder than high school was complete garbage….he immediately ran in terror as if he saw a ghost. :lol:

  47. June 14, 2010 at 10:25 am

    I feel it’s pretty disgusting that people are coming in here and heavily implying that Chally shouldn’t be trusted in this anecdote because she’s not sharing every little detail that someone else has deemed important to Chally’s very personal post.

  48. Samantha b.
    June 14, 2010 at 10:53 am

    Bob, suppose she just made the story up out of whole cloth? It strikes me as unlikely, but I also don’t particularly care. “Beloved” is made up (mostly.) But does that make it less socially relevant or powerful?

  49. June 14, 2010 at 1:19 pm


    Uh yeah, cheers for that. I (and indeed Chally) didn’t “throw a shit” because commentators fixated on that particular comment. I pointed out the problematics of that given the general cultural biases against accepting the words of non-white (Chally’s preference, for all wondering why I’m not using the more usual North American term “woman of color”) women. Funny how you read anger in that (tone argument anyone?). Perfectly calm, me.

    Marginalized people tend not to have our privacy respected much, and it is definitely possible to have a discussion about racism and sexism without violating people’s boundaries. We can – and should – be able to discuss Chally’s post without knowing every single painful detail.

  50. June 14, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    gosh bob. chally did not leave out the KEY PRECIPITATING EVENT. if you’ll read the post as was written it’s rather clear what the KEY PRECIPITATING EVENT was.

    what you are doing, bob, is trying to ask “so what the fuck are you anyway?” without seeming to ask “so what the fuck are you anyway?” because you’ve managed to pick up enough to realise this is an extraordinarily rude and bigoted question when asked outright. it’s still rude and bigoted when you dance round it.

    please do stop. learn the rules of working towards social justice which start with: we trust people to report accurately the experiences of their lives. we don’t require anyone to be privileged. we don’t require anyone to disclose anything. your prurient curiosity is insufficient grounds for overriding those rules.

    it’s only VERY UNUSUAL from your privileged vantage, bob. it’s rather ordinary round here.

  51. DAS
    June 14, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Part of the problem is that as a non-white woman Chally is often going to be considered unreliable, disreputable even. So the point is not whether YOU consider something racist, but whether you can listen to her tell you a story and put aside your own privilege(s) and believe her when she says that it was. – queen emily

    I agree with this, 100%. What really gets to be a sticking point is deciding who gets to be considered privilaged and who gets to be considered non-privilaged, and often the people making these decisions don’t even realize their own privilage they exercise in making these determinations. I have heard many people, who would ostensibly agree with queen emily’s point here, claim certain sources are “unreliable, disreputable even” because those sources are blind to their own privilage when, in fact, the narratives being questioned are narratives of non-privilage while the people deciding which sources are “blind to their own privilage” are, ironically, blind to their own privilage, e.g. that they have the power to make these decisions, even if only on some small corner of the internet.

  52. Cole Grey
    June 14, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    “what you are doing, bob, is trying to ask “so what the fuck are you anyway?” without seeming to ask “so what the fuck are you anyway?” because you’ve managed to pick up enough to realise this is an extraordinarily rude and bigoted question when asked outright. it’s still rude and bigoted when you dance round it.”

    The question is rude, but I don’t think that’s what poster bob is trying to ask. I read the story three times before I could follow what happened, and I think it would be clearer if there was a non-specific sentence like “then the teacher said something racist.” The ‘key precipitating event’ doesn’t have to be specified, but the way the paragraph is written the event is kind of missing.

  53. June 14, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    Bob, read the discussion again. Now think how ‘throwing a shit’ or scepticism as to my own telling of my own experience are inappropriate. Now exercise some basic empathy and consider yourself on warning.

    Cole Grey: I think it’s reaaaaaally clear. And that’s not what Bob is asking.

    If we could all stop poking at my experience, and the way I conveyed my experience, and whether I’m trustworthy enough to convey my experience. Or using blind as a metaphor.

    I am this close to shutting this thread down. If you can’t understand my experience, try and at least exercise some minimal decency when commenting. The lack of fellow feeling here is absolutely disgusting.

  54. June 14, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    uh-huh. except the original post is very clear that what the teacher said was highly offensive and racist — and blatantly offensive and racist or the head of department wouldn’t have needed to begin her defence of the english teacher by emphasising how not-racist she is and how much she just adores people of chally’s racial background.

    demanding that she tell you just what the english teacher said serves multiple purposes. protest all you like that these aren’t demands but they sure read like demands in context of chally being non-white and non-usian and a woman and all — each of you individually may not intend your idle curiosity to be oppressive but you are not individuals you are like everyone actors within a system and read the comment thread and count up all the people who have suggested chally’s story isn’t true or she overreacted or was/is too sensitive because you haven’t been given license to personally evaluate the offensiveness of what was said to her and holy shit if that isn’t directly the fuck out of derailing for dummies.

    y’all may not be able to parse your own subtext but we’ve read it enough times it lurks not at all far beneath the surface any more.

  55. BD
    June 14, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    This teacher sounds atrocious: smug and hierarchical at best and certainly averse to learning from those around her. I am sorry the burden of these defects fell on Chally, and I hope that these traits become apparent to her equally clueless department head sooner rather than later.

  56. convexed
    June 14, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    As a teacher of young people (not kids), I have to be aware of the constant potential for me to abuse my position of authority, as one who ‘distributes’ both information/knowledge and grades–the stakes for me (the teacher) demanding an apology are low. I always have a higher authority I can bring in to mediate or intervene–one inclined to take my side automatically, as the head of Chally’s program was. The students are in the position of vulnerability, as institutions’ subjective evaluations can easily result in very concrete and permanent outcomes on that student’s academic future.
    Unless I pro-actively negotiate this power differential, the default is that I *will* at some time or other say things that *should* be challenged, disputed, or called out as offensive/ignorant.
    Chally responded to the teacher’s words with composure and in a respectful manner. The only reason this could conceivably get complicated (who owes whom an apology) would be if Chally had responded in a violent, threatening, disruptive way, which she did not, nor did she instigate the situation, since a reasoned dispute of an issue in the text is expected in an English classroom, and is part of the learning transaction.
    The professional role of the teacher is to acknowledge the risk of silencing or dismissing a student, to give the student the benefit of the doubt when a conflict arises, to invite the student to discuss the matter privately, and to model the respectful attitude they expect to cultivate in the classroom.

  57. convexed
    June 14, 2010 at 7:50 pm

    All that above is to say that, no, the teacher’s offensive comments and Chally’s response can not be categorized as any sort of good faith misunderstanding between two well-meaning people. They were not given equal status in that space, and so the onus is on the teacher to navigate the playing field of her privilege vs the student’s in the institution and to prioritize the student and the learning environment over her personal sense of rightness or pride.
    It doesn’t matter what the teacher said for the reasons other commenters have mentioned, and, because it is unproductive for non-vulnerable others to sit in panel judgment over whether Chally’s response was merited or whether some other individual in some other time or place may not have been hurt or offended. That is a mirror-image of one of the fucked up aspects of Chally’s experience: instead of listening to the individuals on the receiving end of the offensive comment— who ought to know if it hurts, since it is being felt by them and not the non-vulnerable others—these teachers, heads, and commenters think they are somehow better qualified, with less information, to parse through and play umpire to the complexities.

  58. PrettyAmiable
    June 14, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    Melinda, when Gloria Steinem spoke at Wash U, she made a point about how she hated to be at the front of the lecture hall, standing and talking at people who were seated beneath her. It necessarily created a power dynamic that puts some above and others below. Like that lecture, it’s probably impossible for you to teach your class in a big circle, but maybe talking about this with your students will help create a metaphoric circle – where no one’s voice is more important than anyone else’s.

    Shrug! Thoughts.

  59. piny
    June 15, 2010 at 12:50 am

    The ‘key precipitating event’ doesn’t have to be specified, but the way the paragraph is written the event is kind of missing.

    Sort of–I mean, Chally specifically says that she will not include the teacher’s words. While she has several reasons for doing this, including some personal ones, one important reason is the way that this refusal shapes the narrative. In a way, it puts you in Chally’s shoes: you have to deal not with your own reaction to those words, but with hers.

  60. karak
    June 15, 2010 at 1:39 am

    Your post gave me a stomach-lurching, bile-in-the-mouth flashback to feeling fear and rage and humiliation and shame and terrifying, absolute powerlessness. I don’t need to know what she said, because I already “know” what it was.

    The only thing I can compare it to is being beat up in public while silent, unemotive faces watch every blow and you know that if you run away, they’ll hold you so he can hit you again.

    Thank you for sharing it with us. I hope it helps you heal.

  61. Katie
    June 15, 2010 at 3:06 am

    Thank you so much for this post. I’m currently training to become an English teacher, and so far my classrooms have been full of students from backgrounds very different than my own. I hope and pray that my future students can have your integrity and courage to stand up to me if I ever forget to check my privilege in the classroom.

  62. June 15, 2010 at 7:44 am

    The one time I refused to back down on an issue of marginalisation, I got to do it in public, in a department meeting. I had already expressed my feelings privately to the head of department regarding a decision he had made to not do something (relating to accessibility among other things). Someone asked a question relating to it at the meeting, and he publicly blamed me for nothing having been done. I repeated my private conversation to the entire department. (Anecdote edited slightly for clarity, although I’m not sure clarity was achieved.)

    I could feel my “intestines hurting” (to quote my 5 yr old) and my cheeks burning reading your story. I was never asked to apologise, but nothing was ever done either.

    I’d also like to say I’m baffled as to how the content of the comment matters (other than that knee-jerk “there’s something I haven’t been told so I want to know NOW” reaction, which I think I can get past) – the actions that followed it speak clearly enough.

  63. June 15, 2010 at 9:55 am

    Holy crap, to people who are demanding the Chally further explain herself, and the people defending those assholes.

    I have a visual disorder that makes it hard for me to understand what I’m reading the first time through. I thought that her story was pretty fucking clear without any re-reads, and it was well-written to boot. Can it.

    To the asshole defenders- HUH? Suddenly we’re here to critique Chally’s writing? What is this, a workshop? Discuss her experience, which is the point of the post, not her grammar or writing style. Excusing those comments as coming from anywhere else but a place of privilege is ridiculous.

    Exholt- I totally believe you, but 13?! Seriously?! And he told you that you wouldn’t make it in COLLEGE?!?! What an asshat! Though I’ve totally found a number of teachers justifying “I’m a big power-hungry asshole” as “College is hard and I want to prepare them.” Yes, college is hard, and you should prepare students, but not by denying assistance and not by being cruel. I don’t know a single prof in college who wouldn’t meet with you if you made an appointment. Most of them had set office hours and some of them even had open door policies. The only hard-assness I understand is being tough on deadlines, because that shit will kill your GPA.

  64. June 16, 2010 at 6:12 am

    I could’ve sworn I posted here yesterday or the day before. How odd.

    Ah well. I can’t write that comment again, so I’ll just say wow, Chally, that was an impressive show of self-restraint and strength.

  65. June 16, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    I had a couple of yucky confrontations with teachers in high school – one over some breathtaking homophobia – but for the most part, these were me defending what I believed, protecting others, not reacting to something that was directed specifically at me (well, I say that, but I didn’t recognise the class dynamic that shaped my school at all, so it was mostly about racism and homophobia, which given that I wasn’t clear on my sexuality at that point in time, and such comments were mostly about men, it didn’t feel that proximate). Then again, I did snip back a fair bit when I thought teachers were being unfair; I was irritating, I think, because I was an excellent student, but I didn’t take what they said at face value.

    At uni, that changed. I was in 3rd year when a lecturer… well, it was fairly clear he was negotiating things that *I* said differently from things that menfolk said. In fact, it got to the point where *I* said something, and it was dismissed out of hand, and when another male student said *exactly the same thing* it was treated as if it were entirely profound and insightful and the grounds for a PhD thesis or something. I was angry, so I complained. The entire session was just like an internet-privilege-derail, honestly: loads of ‘but I am conscious of it and I am sure I never did anything that would be sexist’. Now, I would be a lot more hard-headed – I have my arguments back against ‘intention’ talk PRIMED, baby! – but at the time, I just wearily listened, kept saying it was sexist, and then came to some sort of agreement. I wasn’t happy with how the department head handled it – he was very focussed on ‘finding a way to mooooove forward’ etc – but what could I do? Where could I go? I wanted some acknowledgement of the shitty sexism, and a commitment to doing better in future, but this was all about me ‘letting it go’. It wasn’t pushed quite as a far as ‘apologise, you!’ but that was definitely the vibe.

    Of course, like Chally’s story, mine has a silver lining: I finished my PhD and I’m now headed higher. I see the sexist lecturer wandering around that uni sometimes, and I grin to myself, greet him with just the edge of cockiness in my voice, and walk away, knowing I’ve shoved that sexism back down his throat… y’know, nicely.

  66. exholt
    June 17, 2010 at 1:00 am

    Exholt- I totally believe you, but 13?! Seriously?! And he told you that you wouldn’t make it in COLLEGE?!?! What an asshat! Though I’ve totally found a number of teachers justifying “I’m a big power-hungry asshole” as “College is hard and I want to prepare them.” Yes, college is hard, and you should prepare students, but not by denying assistance and not by being cruel. I don’t know a single prof in college who wouldn’t meet with you if you made an appointment. Most of them had set office hours and some of them even had open door policies. The only hard-assness I understand is being tough on deadlines, because that shit will kill your GPA.

    The funniest part was that the high school foreign language teacher who pointedly reminded me about how “college was the big leagues” was completely full of it….and knew it when he ran in fright after I told him which college I was attending and how well I was doing there.

    IME, college was a cakewalk in comparison to high school….and that was even after working part-time, taking class overloads, having the pressure of maintaining honors-level grades to keep my near-full ride scholarship, and making it a point to take more colloquiums and seminars with gigantic reading loads (up to 1300 pgs/week) than was required for my major and two of my minors.

    One of the weirdest experiences I had was rapidly adjusting from being the school dunce to being one of the “brightest” kids in my college classes……along with shock at seeing dozens of classmates at my college and at a few Ivies/Ivy-level colleges who floundered, struggled in classes I considered to be quite manageable or even a joke, and/or flunked out despite having far more impressive high school rankings, GPAs, test scores, and the benefit of attending private/boarding schools.

  67. June 18, 2010 at 12:34 am

    Several months ago, Chally, you told me, “…I think it’s great that you’ve got such a strong sense of ‘this is who I am, my experiences are valid, and this stuff is not right’ – a lot of people would have doubted themselves. Good on you, keep going!!”

    I feel much the same about you. I am so very sorry that this experience happened, that it causes you pain, that these authority figures would rather hurt a person in their care and cover their racist asses than fucking own their bullshit. I am fucking furious that teachers abuse their position just to treat students like they don’t deserve respect, to alternate between treating non-white students like exotic little rainbows and wastes of space/time.

  68. June 18, 2010 at 4:31 am


  69. piny
    June 18, 2010 at 5:31 am

    Not to derail, but I hear you, exholt.

    At one point, I was flunking all the AP high-school classes and acing all the college courses those AP tests were supposed to get you out of. The JC professors were offering to write recommendations, and my high-school teachers were telling me that I didn’t have a hope of graduating, let alone matriculating.

    I usually end up sounding like an anti-unionist when I complain about the teachers I’ve known–and that’s definitely not my intention–but high school isn’t anything like university. It’s not meant to be, and for many students shouldn’t be.

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