Don't make history of racism too interesting

For a film on the history of racism, four AP U.S. history students at a Lumpkin County, Georgia high school dressed up in KKK robes, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A mixed-race student saw the actors walking to the film site and was “outraged.” Catherine Ariemma, an award-winning teacher with six years’ experience,  has been suspended with pay for what the superintendent called “extremely poor judgment,” reports Greg, a social studies teacher, at Rhymes with Right.

As a teacher, I constantly hear about the need to be creative, to do more “hands-on” work and to make use of the various forms of media at our disposal to facilitate student learning.

But make sure nobody’s ever offended.

At my daughter’s high school, Palo Alto High, a ninth-grade world history teacher staged a scene from The Diary of Anne Frank every year with older students in Nazi uniforms discovering and arresting the hidden Jews. Every year, some ninth graders became very upset, despite knowing what they were going to see. Nobody thought the teacher or the actors were pro-Nazi.

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Comments

  1. Cranberry says:

    AP History seniors? What would be wrong with, say, writing papers about racism on an abstract level? Could this infantilization of the national school system have something to do with the failure of even the college-bound to frame clear sentences? (http://www.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2010/05/19/failure_to_communicate/)

    This was extremely poor judgement on the teacher’s part. The comparison to Nazi dress-up some 10 years ago misses the fact that the Ku Klux Klan still exists: http://www.adl.org/learn/ext_us/kkk/intro.asp?LEARN_Cat=Extremism&LEARN_SubCat=Extremism_in_America&xpicked=4&item=KKK. The mixed-race student’s reaction shows that he, at least, understands that racism is not a problem limited to the past. This extremist group still exists, and is actively trying to recruit new members. Would that this teacher understood this as well!

  2. Cynical says:

    It still exists, but OF COURSE nobody can be allowed to dramatize what it did to bring it home to today’s students.  That would be “insensitive”.

  3. Cranberry says:

    Say, “bloody stupid and offensive,” rather than insensitive, and I’d agree.

    Brown vs. Board of Education was decided in 1954. Most Americans living today have relatives who attended segregated schools. The student who objected could very well have relatives who were lynched–it continued into the 1960s, after all.

    Would you choose to parade students in full SS gear through a cafeteria full of concentration camp survivors and their close relatives?

    I also don’t agree that dramatizations of past atrocities by high school students will “bring it home to today’s students.” If you really want to bring it home to them, there are any number of professionally produced documentaries and stage plays which deal with these issues. The documentaries have film footage from state archives. “Nuit et Bruillard,” for example, has a much greater impact than classroom playacting. PBS produced “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.”

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Cranberry spoke thusly:

    What would be wrong with, say, writing papers about racism on an abstract level?

    I also don’t agree that dramatizations of past atrocities by high school students will “bring it home to today’s students.” If you really want to bring it home to them, there are any number of professionally produced documentaries and stage plays which deal with these issues.

    I think it’s good that your primary ground of criticism is the activity in which they were engaged, rather than the substance. To that extent, I at least think we’re talking about the right thing. But I have to disagree.

    You’re right, of course. There’s nothing wrong with papers, and there’s nothing wrong with documentaries. Excellent learning tools.

    But it ALSO seems perfectly appropriate to have senior honors students working on a film project. Hands-on fine arts experience is a good thing, even in a history class, and they bring an entirely different sort of involvement to the learning process. Kids these days are nearly paraprofessional in their ability to put together projects — WAY better than fifteen or twenty years ago. Most of that is cheap available technology, but a lot of it is attitude: the rat race is much more serious now. So I’m willing to entertain the notion that these film projects were going to be something fairly high level and worthwhile. Obviously, there are going to be worthwhile and unworthwhile projects, supervised by competent and incompetent teachers. But I don’t have the information available to make that sort of judgment from the article, so I’m willing to give the teacher the benefit of the doubt. (But then again, I’m a huge fan of teacher autonomy in the classroom — which instantly places me in the minority in almost every setting and more likely to indulge crazy ideas.)

    I’d also like to point out two facts from the article, and one fact that wasn’t in the article but which I think makes a HUGE difference:

    Article Fact One: The suspension happened on Thursday last. That would be May 20.

    Article Fact Two: The students were seniors in an AP US History Class.

    Non-Article Fact: Unless the school was ridiculously behind schedule, the AP exams were finished then. Late testing was on May 19-21, but all the “on time” testing was done by the 14th.

    If they wanted to have food fights and read “Good Night Moon” in pig latin for the rest of the semester, I’d be OK with that. Potentially interesting and educational film projects seem like a fine idea.

  5. We’re teaching kids to be pansies. There’s nothing wrong with this project.

    A kid who can’t handle seeing another student wearing a sheet for the purpose of making a film isn’t going to last long in the real world–unless cared for and supported by a victimhood industry that sees problems where none exist.

  6. Cranberry says:

    There are film projects, and then there are film projects. It would have been more interesting, and more educational, to assign the students to take oral histories of local residents who personally felt the effects of racism. We don’t like to talk about it, do we? It still exists, though.

    Also, context matters. If this is the same high school as “New Lumpkin High School” on Great Schools, it has great state test scores. It is also 90% white. It’s only 2% black, and 2% multi-racial. With such a small minority student population, minority test scores are largely not reported. I would be very surprised, though, to hear that a significant proportion of the AP student population had any African-American heritage.

    I don’t think you’d dare film students miming the KKK in a school with a significant black population. Do you? If not, why not?

    “A kid who can’t handle seeing another student wearing a sheet for the purpose of making a film isn’t going to last long in the real world–unless cared for and supported by a victimhood industry that sees problems where none exist.”

    I’d venture to say that a kid whose school permitted him to get academic credit for pretending to be a costumed KKK member in a school which is nearly all-white isn’t going to last long in the real world. I have a great deal of respect for students who are willing to choose to attend a school although they will be greatly in the minority. You don’t?

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Two views here:
    Kids are…kids. We shouldn’t expect them to have the sang-froid of adults. On the other hand, the power of the feigned offense is manifest and so…we are teaching them to be askeered of practically everything, or to pretend if there’s something to be gained. At a certain point–to be argued elsewhere–we ought to consider that kids are not adult-like in their ability to separate realities.
    The other is that the question is whether we want the kids to learn the facts of segregation, or get all emotionally wound up about it. Or both. IMO, there is too much attention paid in schools–as this matter shows–to the emotional component. It’s more fun for the teachers–no papers to correct or the same-oh lesson plans to be submitted. I’d ask if parents are presumed to want to have their kids subjected to emotionally wrenching issues while at school.

    My own view is give them the materials and let them work out what they think and feel. Not the schools’ business to make kids cry or wet their pants about something contentious.

  8. Cranberry, you make a lot of sense and you say it well.

  9. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I don’t think you’d dare film students miming the KKK in a school with a significant black population. Do you? If not, why not?

    How about an answer to this question? I’d be interested in knowing why you think that the student population makes a difference. I have some thoughts as to what you have in mind, but I’m trying to be charitable, here.

    For my own part, I don’t know if I’d do something like this in the first place. But if I were going to do it, the race of my students or the students at my school would make little difference.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    Michael Lopez.
    Recall the kerfuffle when a school sent people home on Cinco de Mayo for wearing an American-flag themed garment?
    The official explanation boiled down to the Hispanic kids (incendiary was one of the words used) might get violent.
    Which thinking, if it’s appropriate, might apply to a school mostly black with some guys wandering around pretending to be klukkers.

  11. Walter_E_Wallis says:

    I recall an excellent play group in Whiskey Gulch, EPA, who did bits in whiteface. Once the purpose of the costumes was explained, continued opposition indicate educational failure.

  12. Cranberry says:

    “The official explanation boiled down to the Hispanic kids (incendiary was one of the words used) might get violent.”
    That wasn’t my thinking, as a matter of fact.

    I was thinking, though, that the fact that no adult who approved this project in advance thought that anyone might object to students wandering around dressed as, er, klukkers, rather points to a certain lack of awareness that for some members of the school, racism is not a topic they need to read up on in the history books. In this case, “A report went to school officials, after parents of black students learned what had happened and called the district.” In a district with more than 4% black and mixed-race students, there might even have been some black students or parents whose reaction could have been predicted before the event.

    I find the quoted reactions from the local history professor and law professor to be good guides to what would have been a better approach to the topic. ‘”The best way to avoid a disruption is to ensure that everyone who could be affected knows what’s going on beforehand, Hogue said.

    “The answer is not necessarily to not do it,” he said, “but rather to be sure that everybody is reasonably informed about it so that people aren’t caught off guard and it doesn’t backfire.”‘

    Now, if the students and teacher involved had had to explain to their school’s black students, parents and staff why they wanted to don such controversial costumes for a class project, they might have started a discussion about current-day racism. They could have filmed the result.

    The approach they chose backfired in this case. I have to wonder if the presence of the black students (2% of the school population), and the multiracial students (again, 2% of the school population) registered with the teacher and school authorities?

    Are there any black or multi-racial students in the AP courses at this high school? If there were one, would it be o.k. to cast him as the lynching victim? After all, it’s in the name of education, and multi-media productions, so heaven forbid anyone might object to it. It might be a little hard to calm down the national firestorm, after, say, Facebook photos were circulated between teens.

  13. SuperSub says:

    Cranberry-
    “I was thinking, though, that the fact that no adult who approved this project in advance thought that anyone might object to students wandering around dressed as, er, klukkers, rather points to a certain lack of awareness that for some members of the school, racism is not a topic they need to read up on in the history books”

    The students weren’t walking from class to class dressed in their robes, they were just about to be filmed.

    “This was extremely poor judgement on the teacher’s part. The comparison to Nazi dress-up some 10 years ago misses the fact that the Ku Klux Klan still exists”

    Ummm… I’d say its safe to say that Naziism still exists also in various forms, whether it be among Neo-Nazi’s or other groups. Germany still prosecutes the use of any Nazi symbols.

    “they might have started a discussion about current-day racism. They could have filmed the result.”

    This is a History class. His…tor…y. Say it with me.

    “I’d venture to say that a kid whose school permitted him to get academic credit for pretending to be a costumed KKK member in a school which is nearly all-white isn’t going to last long in the real world. ”

    Considering the test scores that you cited yourself, I doubt this school fears for the success of many of its students. I’d venture to say that you are failing to view the issue in context…students were not “given credit for pretending to be a costumed KKK member,” they were participating in a video to criticize racism. Its hard to criticize something in a visual medium without being able to see it.

    Does the white robes create a hostile atmosphere for some students? Only if those students and parents have the same depth of understanding that the real KluKKers have. Remember, these are not elementary or middle school students… this was a high school full of students who should have been sophisticated enough to understand what was going on.
    Reading the story further, it seems that the affected student has enough troubles of his own and needs little cause, if any, to be insulted. Its not as if the senior went home crying to his parents… he had to be restrained so he would not assault the students filming their project.

  14. Cranberry says:

    “The students weren’t walking from class to class dressed in their robes, they were just about to be filmed.”

    They passed through the cafeteria on their way to being filmed.

    “Ummm… I’d say its safe to say that Naziism still exists also in various forms, whether it be among Neo-Nazi’s or other groups. Germany still prosecutes the use of any Nazi symbols.”

    Germany does not permit anyone professing to be a Nazi to hold elective office. What’s your point? It would have been much less offensive for the students to have pretended to be Nazis, as the German Nazis hadn’t spent more than a hundred years persecuting black Americans. Even in Germany, those modern day people who profess to be Nazis are sadly misguided losers with really poor taste. As an interesting side note, according to the Anti-Defamation League, modern Nazis and KKK members are cooperating (http://www.adl.org/learn/ext_us/kkk/affiliations.asp?LEARN_Cat=Extremism&LEARN_SubCat=Extremism_in_America&xpicked=4&item=kkk). I suppose there aren’t enough idiots to go around.

    “This is a History class. His…tor…y. Say it with me.”

    Which we study because it affects the present. We study the Korean War because it has meaning for the present. We study the Civil War because without a knowledge of that event, it’s really hard to understand current events.

    “Its hard to criticize something in a visual medium without being able to see it.”

    Precisely my point! How could one expect the teacher to be able to effectively lead the white students in criticizing racism, if she had no idea that others in the community might find the class approach to be questionable? If she can’t see it, how can she criticize it?

  15. Most Americans living today have relatives who attended segregated schools.

    Um, no. Never mind that your entire line of reasoning is foolish. You’re just flatly wrong.

    The 14 states in the south had segregated schools–11 confederate states and the Border states. Our new “border” states (California, Arizona) had laws on miscegnation for Asians and blacks, but either banned segregation or never had much of it. Northeastern states and the Midwest mostly banned segregation early on.

    You do realize we fought a war to end slavery, right? That kind of suggests a whole bunch of people were against it.

  16. Oops–finger fumble. 11 Confederate states, 4 border states, which is 15, the number I meant to type. And as I started to correct it, I remembered West Virginia, which loathed slavery but also didn’t much like blacks, which I forgot to throw in the first time. So 16.

    But stop deluding yourself that all Americans in school before the 1950s went to segregated schools. Many of them went to schools in states that banned segregation.

  17. Cranberry says:

    Most Americans living today have _relatives_ who attended segregated schools.

    Six degrees of separation. A highly mobile national workforce. The average mortgage lasts (until the crash) around 5 years. Americans marry, divorce, and remarry more frequently than in the past. Many Americans have moved south, and west, in the last 5 decades. Also, schools in many states may have banned segregation, but many schools might not have had any black students.

  18. Richard Nieporent says:

    This reminds me of the incident that occurred a while ago at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis where a student employee was found guilty of ‘Racial Harassment’ for reading the book Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan during his work breaks. Some of his fellow employees saw the picture of the Klan members on the cover and were offended. So of course the university did the politically correct thing and disciplined the employee for reading the book. Thank goodness FIRE stepped in and got the University to rescind the punishment

    http://www.thefire.org/case/760.html

    It is outrageous that the school system has suspended the teacher for doing her job. Just because some hotheaded student and some ignorant parents object is no reason for them to cave in. Have they stopped teaching Huckleberry Finn because the language offends some of the parents?

  19. Feigned outrage today over students pretending to be racists for a school film is better than indifference to real racism back in the day. But then real racism backed up with violence took real courage to confront. Today, “outrage” is cheap and safe.

  20. Cranberry, you continue to impress me.

    MThreads, there is feigned outrage, true, and then there is outrage we think could be feigned simply because we can’t walk around in those people’s shoes.

    Years ago, when the pro-Nazi group marched through Skokie, Illinois, I thought the old Jews who objected just didn’t appreciate the First Amendment. (Hey, you old immigrants, learn about what your new country is all about!)

    But that was years ago. And I think I’m not only older but wiser now.

    Both Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and Of Mice and Men have been taken off the shelves at my school. I learn toward thinking that’s just a result of political correctness. Yet, it’s easy to say from the armchair that others are overreacting. So easy that I have my doubts. I was wrong about Skokie.

  21. Richard Nieporent says:

    Years ago, when the pro-Nazi group marched through Skokie, Illinois, I thought the old Jews who objected just didn’t appreciate the First Amendment. (Hey, you old immigrants, learn about what your new country is all about!)
    But that was years ago. And I think I’m not only older but wiser now.

    Robert it is funny but I had the exact opposite reaction to the Skokie march than you do. At the time I was against allowing it to take place because I felt it was intended to deliberately offend the Holocaust survivors living there. However an older and wiser Jewish friend of mine argued that our First Amendment rights are too important to be held hostage by neo-Nazis and other despicable and pathetic groups. Afterwards I came to understand that he was exactly right. We cannot allow the fact that some group is offended to take away out right of free speech. There will always be some group that will be offended by something. If we allow these groups to dictate what it is we can and cannot say then we will have to eliminate everything that offends any group. At that time we will be left without any free speech rights.

    Both Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and Of Mice and Men have been taken off the shelves at my school. I learn toward thinking that’s just a result of political correctness. Yet, it’s easy to say from the armchair that others are overreacting. So easy that I have my doubts.

    Why stop there. Why don’t we just remove or bowdlerize any book that offends any group. The Merchant of Venice? That is offensive to Jews. Remove it! The Constitution? That is offensive to Blacks. Remove it! Not surprisingly every piece of literature is a product of its times. Since we are so much more enlightened today, clearly we should remove every book that exhibits the prejudices of its day. If nothing else it will make literature the easier field to major in.

    I was wrong about Skokie.

    No you weren’t.

  22. I think this is a fairly useless project for an AP class. On the other hand, when my son was in Kindergarten, he got to play King Herod in the Christmas pageant, and greatly enjoyed it. “Find the baby, and KILL HIM!”.

    But are we all supposed to be protected from the mere sight of offensive things?

  23. Cynical says:

    “This is a History class. His…tor…y. Say it with me.”

    Which we study because it affects the present. We study the Korean War because it has meaning for the present. We study the Civil War because without a knowledge of that event, it’s really hard to understand current events.

    So of course this means it’s wrong for AP History students to make a video about historical racism re-enacting such events in costume, because we can’t expect anyone with a connection to a victim (however tenuous) to exercise self-control instead of other-censorship.

    Cranberry, do we ask too much when we expect blacks, Mexicans and others to exercise moral agency?  Are they just Pavlovian stimulus-response boxes with no responsibility for anything they do?  (Sarcasm off; you are infantilizing them in the name of “sensitivity”.)

  24. Cranberry says:

    Cynical, you are putting an argument into my mouth which I didn’t make. I am not arguing that the costume was ill-thought out because it might provoke a violent reaction in others. I am arguing that it is ill-thought out because it is the uniform of a currently active white-supremacist group which openly calls for violence against others. As the history professor and law professor pointed out in the article, there are certainly ways to approach these issues in the academic environment. It must be approached with extreme caution, however, because it has such negative connotations. If you use it without getting “buy-in” from the community about its educational value, you risk others deciding that you’re drawn to its shock value (at best).

    In the picture accompanying the article, I see neatly-dressed churchgoers attending a meeting about the issue. They don’t look violent to me. They do look concerned. I would be concerned, if I had heard a rumor that students at our local high school were allowed to dress up in KKK robes. Without knowing the context, people can jump to wild conclusions. Note that the caption under the article states, “Many there said the incident was part of an ongoing racial issue in Lumpkin County.” I have no idea what that’s about.

    “So of course this means it’s wrong for AP History students to make a video about historical racism re-enacting such events in costume,…”

    If you ask… I’m not a fan of video projects. In my opinion, it can easily be a waste of time. The AP History exams are finished, but there’s still enough history to go around. Rather than making a video project reenacting past incidents of racism, I would much rather see students researching past debates on the topic, and debating each other. There are entire departments of university researchers who devote their academic lives to this issue. Many of those students may face a college’s academic demands in the near future. Being able to find college journals, to decipher what’s inside them, and form arguments pro and con, would seem to me a more useful skill for the college bound than pretending to be Hitler or reenacting the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre for the cameras. Less costume, more content.

  25. SuperSub says:

    Cranberry and Robert –

    First off, Robert, thank you for reminding me why Cranberry’s arbitrary dismissal of Nazis is wrong. Nazis are not nearly as harmless as you portray Cranberry, and I’d say the psychological harm done to a Holocaust survivor is a little more serious than the damage done to a minority who dealt with discrimination.

    Germany doesn’t simply outlaw self-proclaimed Nazis from holding office, they prevent the use of any Nazi symbols in any non-educational or non-art setting.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neo-Nazism#Legal_issues
    Not only do they go after symbol use, but the domestic intelligence service investigates any groups that are believed to have Neo-Nazi associations.

    Quite frankly, if its ok for a student to dress as an individual who systematically tortured others in just about every conceivable way possible a mere 60 years ago, I think it should be ok for a student to dress as someone who belonged to a limited violent movement that never gained any sort of widespread political legitimacy. The Nazis almost ruled the world and decimated every Jew, Gypsy, homosexual, and other undesireable in existance. The KluKKers aspired to drive minorities from their counties or states.

    Minorities might have to suffer lower economic standing due to generations of prejudice, but the Jewish community suffers from a large part of their community being wiped off the face of the Earth. Not once, not twice, but multiple times.

    Whether or not the costumed students went by the cafeteria (the teacher thought it would be empty) does not change the fact that they were heading to the filming site and not freely wandering from class to class as some have portrayed it.

    Regarding your repeated ‘racism is alive and well’ argument, I agree. It is alive in well in just about every ethnic group. It will never go away. Sexism, ageism, and all other -isms, they are here to stay. Bullies will beat up “nerds” a hundred years from now just as they have done for just about all human history.

    Children need to be taught what real racism and intolerance are and how to deal with them, otherwise they are just as likely to commit the mistakes themselves. This is purely anecdotal, but I have taught many students who have felt that “cracker” and other terms (including “nigga” when uttered by fellow minorities) were harmless but would either faint or be enraged at the thought of a white person saying “nigger.”