‘’Don’t Teach Racism, We aren’t Racist’’
By Nick Garratt and John Austin Byrne
I’m walking through the halls and I hear a lot of enthusiasm from my next class. I wonder what my students are so excited about. Today, three of them are presenting Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, which is about a guy called Prospero who is stranded on an island with his daughter, and a native called Caliban who Prospero treats as a slave. I walk in, and I see phones are out, taking photos of a boy being face painted – black. They are going to reenact scenes from Shakespeare’s play. The boy is playing Caliban, the half-monster, the slave. The students have decided to represent Caliban as a “black person.’’ They literally paint the boy’s face black.
I, as the teacher, always try to get the kids to showcase their creativity and critical thinking instead of just answering multiple choice questions to a test they don’t feel is important. The enthusiasm I hear makes me feel like real learning is happening.
I tried to give the play context and meaning to the student’s lives in the weeks prior. We learned how Shakespeare owned a part of a company in Virginia during the early parts of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Enslaved people ‘’ungratefully’’ revolted and destroyed part of a ship destroying the trade of that company for that day. This ‘’monstrosity’’ motivated Shakespeare’s character choice in The Tempest. We watch how the characters were represented through the years which lead into the method and purpose of Black face. At the end of the unit the students had the opportunity to reenact the play with their own character representations.
As I watch what seemed to be shoe polish being smeared onto the student’s face I have a mixture of fear and anger. If these pictures go viral I can only imagine tomorrow’s Headline ‘’Teacher makes Blackface Project in Class.’’ I’ll be fired by tomorrow.
But… that didn’t happen.
Images of Black face characters like Sambo, Uncle Tom, and Jezebel run through my head. After slavery was abolished, newly freed enslaved people were considered by many still not of equal status. Black Characters (played by white actors in Black Face) were created to symbolize typical less-than human ‘neighbors.’ The audience (who was also white), absorbed these images as funny but also real depictions of their new ‘neighbors.’ This same audience also ignored the incredible suffering of their ‘neighbors’ through segregation, discrimination and lynching.
I am mad. I try not show this to the students.
My middle-class white American upbringing had sensitized me to these images all throughout school. It was common to watch and read stories of racial discrimination in school and it seemed universal to me that no matter where you live you accept people who are different than you. And although the American middle class continues to struggle over arguments concerning police violence in black communities, hate groups, and racial wealth gaps there at least exists a discussion which is constructive in many ways.
What kind of place am I living that thinks this is ok? South Tyrol. A beautiful, progressive region that cares about their people. They have great universal healthcare, family friendly neighborhoods, and student-centered schools. However, here I am witnessing not just a white boy trying to be a black man like Othello. He was representing a monster as a black man. But he is just a kid who probably doesn’t understand his actions, which is common with adolescents.
I manage to keep calm by sticking to the group’s project objectives. I ask ‘’So…Did you think through your costume decisions? Do you have reasons for your representation like the other groups?’’
The student answers ‘’Yes. We wanted to dress as the original play we saw last week’’
‘’So… you wanted to represent a monster as a Black man?’’
‘’Dai professor it’s just for fun, In fact we always dress like this for Fasching?’’ (Fasching is like the American Halloween but in February)
I tread softly as I don’t want to reveal the real monster in my belly and then discourage these students from being creative. So at the end, I use the instance as a powerful learning opportunity by relating back to the content we studied in class. I explain that once white actors put black face on themselves in theatre, they connect skin color as part of an inherent character trait like hyper-sexual man, promiscuous jungle women, or a monster. However, my critique falls on deaf ears and students cry in humiliation.
Later in the next week I am later visited by the mother. She marches in upset,
‘’You criticized my son’s project’’
I answer, ‘’as part of the curriculum and criteria of the….’’
She interrupts, ‘’Blackface is not racist it is just fun and innocent. They are kids.’’
She continues without letting me speak…’’Our family is not racist… We love Libyans.’’ At this point I realize we live in completely different realms and she storms out and I can hear ‘’we love Libyans’’ echoing through the halls.
Later on that week, I am called into the director’s office. She tells me how she has received complaints from parents about how I teach. She further advises me to steer away from topics like race.
I say, ‘’Director the students were putting Blackface on themselves!’’
‘’Mr. Garratt our school isn’t racist we don’t identify between races.’’ This phrase was becoming familiar.
I began realizing that there was a profound cultural disconnect between what I took to be obviously racist and what they thought was normal.
Later that year, the director told me I would not be invited back next year and that I spoke too much about race.
Nick Garratt and John Austin Byrnes are both English teachers who live and teach English in Bolzano. Nick Garratt has also taught in social sciences for the past nine years. He is involved in youth sports as a coach and has participated in Team work between asylum seekers and South Tyroleans.
This story originally appeared in Italian translation in La Macchina Sognante n. 16.