Lacey Sheridan, a retired teacher and administrator, tells an anecdote about a substitute teaching a class of 10th graders, all of whom who were black. She showed them how to write a cinquain, a five-line poem, based on their names. As an example, she used Michael Jackson, who’d just made Thriller.
I began by writing “Michael” on the board, and then asked for two words describing him. There was a sharp division in the descriptors between the boys and the girls, with the boys opting for denigrating remarks about his sexuality. After a sidebar to discuss unacceptable language, I used “gloved, mega-star” from the girls and wrote them under “Michael.” Line three became “singing, dancing, laughing” and line 4 was “curly-haired, light-skinned, graceful, lithe” and we ended on “Jackson.”
Then everyone had to write their own cinquain, including the teacher.
Without exception, every student had referenced being black in their self-descriptions. Terms such as “mocha-skinned,” “ebony,” “cafe-au-lait,” “coffee colored” and “sienna” abounded.
When Sheridan read her poem, the class was stunned. “You didn’t say anything about being white,” a girl said. The teacher had described herself as being red-haired and slender, but had said nothing about her skin color. She told students that white people don’t describe themselves as “white.”
Grumbles, remarks and a “Yeah, right,” from my friend in the back of the room. I tried to clarify by explaining that, if asked, I would describe myself as “Irish” or “Irish-American” or just plain “American,” depending on the context. Complete disbelief. Further effort. “We don’t think about being white because we’re the majority. You focus on being black first because you’re in the minority.”
. . . I asked them to read the poem about Michael Jackson that was on the board. Then I said, “I’m not asking for a show of hands, but how many of you described yourselves as heterosexual?”
. . . After a few beats, my rear-room challenger looked at me and said, “It never entered my head.” One of the girls asked, “Is that what it’s like, being white? I figured white folks thought about being white all the time.” Lots of nodding and verbal agreement from her classmates. I said, “We don’t have to think about it; we just take it for granted.”
Students were amazed.