Dangerous Rhetoric: Confronting Hate in the Classroom

I had planned on writing a very different sort of blog post this week, but after what occurred in my classroom recently, I feel obligated to address it. Not even obligated, really, but compelled. Because the words a few of my students spoke are still echoing like hammer-fall in my mind, so unsettling they were. I will warn you now that I have no intention of merely implying or sugarcoating what was uttered because it would soften the blow, and I want you to feel it as rawly as I did that day. Because the power and intent of those words, and the actions they whispered at, should be felt in such a way as to move you to acknowledge the fullness of their significance. And more than that, perhaps even move you to action. 

In discussing Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, we were discussing expectations that affect our daily lives. This conversation grew to include gender expectations and with that came talk of gender identity and sexual orientation. Normally, class discussions stay civil and fairly open-minded, so I was completely unprepared for what happened. In short, this student voiced the following: homosexuality is a mental illness, it is an abomination, self-harm, should be illegal, and anyone who identifies as part of the LGBTQ community should live in a separate area—“separate but equal,” he actually said. While I certainly addressed the comments, and probably more aggressively than is considered wise, the damage had been. A few other students piped up with comments like “I don’t care if someone is, but they should just hide it,” and I felt the floor fall out from under me. 

I had assumed that society had progressed to a point where we were more openly accepting of differences. I had assumed that things were substantially better for the LGBTQ community today than they were when I was in high school. But I learned that these are the assumptions of the uninitiated. I’ve been more or less blind to the realities and experiences and struggles of these students, even within my own classroom. And something shattered in me. I was shaken. I was angry. Because our society has become eaten up with a hate that grows like cancer. Because this hate was being instilled in my kids. Because it had bled into my classroom and reared its ugly head. And I was disappointed. Because they latched on to the hate. Because they regurgitated it and spread its seeds. Because they didn’t stop to think how their words were harming others. 

Before bringing a halting end to the entire conversation, I chose to speak my own thoughts. I couldn’t not say something. All I kept thinking was that I had to protect my kids. I knew statistically there was a good chance at least one student in my classroom identified with the LGBTQ community, even if only privately. I knew personally that one student in particular had a sibling who publicly identified. How could I stay quiet? So I spoke. I spoke about the lack of difference between what this student was suggesting and in forcing Jews into the ghettos or in clasping iron around the wrists of an African American because of a difference in skin tone. I spoke of the Civil Rights Movement and Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education. I spoke of HUMAN rights. Because what these students were saying went beyond opinion, and I felt bound to speak against it. 

The rhetoric of our current administration has normalized hate, and has emboldened people to verbalize it publicly. If we do nothing, if we say nothing, we allow it. We send the message that it is ok. That we agree, even. And when ideas like the ones my students expressed are normalized—when hate is normalized—it opens the door to violence. As teachers, we have the power that comes with our position of authority to shut down this dangerous rhetoric when it surfaces in our classrooms, and that is exactly what we should do. We must confront hate and passionately disallow it. And we must be a light that shines brighter than the hate. 

That’s the only thing I know to do to help turn the tide. After the incident, I went straight to the teacher who sponsors the GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) at our school and spoke to her about what happened. I told her I wanted to get involved—in any and every way I can. I realized I had been asleep this whole time. I realized that some of my kids face serious daily struggles and discrimination over a fundamental part of who they are, who they love—something no person should ever have to endure—and I wanted to do anything I could to help lessen the struggle. Or at the very least, to be a buffer against it, however minimal. 

This week is Ally Week, and I encourage each and every one of you to take the pledge. And I encourage you to remain an Ally next week, and the week after that, and the week after that. Make it public. Make it known. Because you cannot know who might need to know it. Because our kids need us. You not only become a safe place to those who need it, but you become a beacon of acceptance and a shield against intolerance. Furthermore, when you refuse to tolerate intolerance, it quiets and withers on the vine; with enough of us, we could snuff it out. 

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