A "Monkey" in My Classroom and Other Racial Incidents...

One of my classes today really pissed me off. I was so angry that I was silent. We were about to read a story called "A Gift to Share". Nice story about a little girl who wants to give her aunt the best gift ever but cannot decide. I thought nothing of it. So I say to my students, "Ok, turn to page 65...blah blah blah..." All of a sudden, my kids are pointing and laughing hysterically. I look up and they're pointing at the little black girl in the picture, calling her a monkey. My face quickly turned to a frown. I was so dumbstruck that I didn't know what to do next. So, I just stared at the ringleader, Brandy.

"Why do you think she's a monkey?" I asked.

"Teacher, look! This..." she poked out her lips.

Still offended, I just blinked really hard.

"Is she a monkey because she's Black?" I prodded her, unsure I'd be able to control my reaction if her answer were yes.

"NOOOO!!! NOOOOOO!!!" they all yelled.

"So, why is she a monkey??"


"If she were a Korean girl, would she be a monkey??"

"Well, no..." I think they were starting to get my point....

"So what makes HER a monkey and not the others??"

**silence** They kinda just stared down at their desks. And with that I walked right outta the classroom. When I came back, I had 5 sheets of paper. I handed them out and proceeded to write 3 sentences on the board.

" I WILL NOT CALL PEOPLE NAMES. IT IS NOT NICE AND IT HURTS THEIR FEELINGS. I AM SORRY, JOIA TEACHER." For the rest of class, they wrote it over and over again. Some of their hands started to hurt and I didn't really care. I just sat there in shocked silence while their pencils scratched the paper, feeling hurt, wondering if my students, my babies, also thought of me as a monkey. It was a question that I didn't ask because I wasn't prepared for the answer. I haven't dealt with those type of things since I was their age. Not surprisingly, it bothered me just as much now as it did back then. I know how kids are and they don't always know what they're saying. They are obviously getting it from their parents and society, I know that. But as a TEACHer, it is my job to bring a certain level of understanding. I can't single-handedly halt prejudice in the world but I can damn sure stop it in my classroom. As class ended, I told them that I was very sad and hurt by their comments. I also told them their parents would have to sign their papers. Granted, the parents don't speak English. But one girl, whose mother is an English teacher, will know exactly what it says.

So, of course, a couple of hours later, I found myself having to defend what I did in the classroom. My Korean coworkers have to do phone counseling every other week or so. Basically, they call the kids and the parents and find out how they're really feeling or whatever. So Steve asked me if there had been an "incident" in my class today and of course I said yes. I explained everything to him. He basically told me to ignore what they say because they are "just kids". And I said well I wouldn't have taken issue with the monkey comment had they called everyone a monkey. Fine. But the fact that they singled out the Black girl shows me that they only associate a monkey with a Black person. Unacceptable. He kinda understood and I could see he felt bad. It is an awkward situation, I'll agree. I won't hold it against my kids. It is not their fault. But I just wanted to make a point. So, I ask you, what would YOU have done in my situation??

But that's not the only racially-charged situation I've dealt with lately. I went out a couple of weekends ago with my buddies. My friend invited along a few other new people. A young, Canadian couple (let's call the woman Angela and the man Andy) and another Black woman in her late 20s (let's call her Tia). So, there are 6 of us altogether - me, my friend Aeja and Margot, Angela, Andy, and Tia. We're all English teachers, all hangin' out, shootin' the breeze. Tia, we quickly realized, is a woman who says a lot of ignorant things. You can't help but feel sorry for her. She's extremely socially awkward, admitted she didn't have many Black friends because she wasn't "Black enough", and also admitted that she can't do her own hair. Aeja and I were sitting down chatting with her and she just kept saying stupid things. It was like a conveyor belt of stupidity, as in - all my friends are White mostly because they love to drink and I just go out and get drunk, Black people never liked me because they said I act "too White", I wish I'd gone to a Black school (or HBCU - Historically Black College & University) so I'd be in touch with my "Blackness". I couldn't make this stuff up. Aeja (who is Black & Korean) and I are literally looking at each other in horror. Is she really saying this?? YES, she is. But it got worse...

Later, all of us are at dinner. Andy and Tia are chatting it up and all of a sudden, the conversation turns to how Tia is planning a trip to Africa. She's going to spend a year or two just traveling around. She really wants to explore, but she has a dilemma. She doesn't want to "stand out". So, she decides that she's NOT going to wear her glasses. "Africans don't wear glasses so I won't wear mine.." Aeja and I cringe. We explain that wearing glasses is really not going to make a difference. Then she starts talking about her hair and how she'll get it braided. Fine. Whatever. But she's so caught up on trying to "blend in" with Africans that she will probably miss the whole point of the trip. This was an awkward conversation to be having PERIOD. However, it was complicated by Andy putting in his two cents. He added, "Yeah...well you're gonna stand out anyway cuz your nose doesn't start out HERE..." as he put his two fingers on his cheeks.

Oh, Andy...

Why, Andy, why?? He kinda chuckled to himself and once he realized no one was laughing, not even his WIFE, he shut the hell up. Aeja and I just looked at him. We didn't say anything....but maybe we should have opened the can of worms. I've had a few incidents like this come up. One happened at my old job. My ex-boss actually made a comment about a young Black woman's nose. She said, with absolute certainty, "there's no way a nose like that could come from a Black person..." YES. My BOSS said that in the presence of 3 other Black women. None of us said anything to her but we all felt it. How would you handle these situations? I'd like to find a tactful way to tell people they're ignorant @$$holes but the words always escape me. So, help me readers!!! What do you say when someone has obviously offended you, in front of others, and you don't wanna turn into an ABW (Angry Black Woman) but you really are an ABW???

That's all for today....I'm about to be late for work!!!


Christina said...

As of right now, all that I can say is....WOW...we should def chat tonight. Have an awesome day otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Do I need to send you back over there with some multicultural children's books? Clearly, these kids don't know any better, but I'm starting to wonder if their parents do either?

In all these situations (the kids, the ignorant associate, and the hubby), I am sad to say that this stuff has to happen. Stupidity has to rear its ugly head. However, when it does, it's in your best interest to have a dialogue. The common theme here is ignorance; they simply do not know any better. I know it feels like a burden, but in a way, you are their gateway to knowledge and enlightenment. I'd rather have these kids learn about Blacks from you, wonderful representation that you are :-), than from the media.

Now that being said...Girl you know I lack tact and diplomacy! Those little bastards (all kids are bastards and I don't care that I'm a child psychologist) would have been writing "A monkey is an animal, not a person. I will not call people names because they look different. I will learn about and embrace the many wonders of the world, despite what my ignorant parents have been teaching me."

Sorry to blog on your blog, but I'm in a chatty mood. It'll get better hun. And when are you coming home?

Brandie said...

I'm sorry that had to happen to you. It's a good thing that you showed those children that that type of behavior is NOT acceptable.

I really enjoy your blog. I'm glad that I found it because I'm looking to teach in S.K. I've contacted a recruiter and everything. Hope it works out *crosses fingers*

Andy M said...

I've done similar things in my class, but I have made them write things in Korean and English, so that they understand. My Korean isn't correct, but they get it. I've sent kids out, refused to teach for the rest of the day, because of students' narrow-minded, rude, ignorant and down right racist views at times. Some of the shit that I've had to deal with has totally blown me away at times, and then sometimes it gets spun back on me, or I get the "this is korea" excuse, which is bullshit in my opinion.

Ms. Rolling stone said...

Sorry Joia I have no idea how to deal with this myself, and I'm heading over in a month so I need to figure it out by then.

My usual knee-jerk reaction is to get into a heated, non-stop debate with typical ignorant morons.

However in an effort to not alienate my few English speaking friends in a far away land, I might need to come up with a totally new approach.

I think you were dead on with the way you dealt with the kids though... whether or not the lesson seeps through and marinates.

P.S.- I'm getting a little addicted to your blog.... keep up the great storytelling and writing.

Nathan said...

Having the same problem with my kids and the racism. I'm brown and get calls of "Africa teacher" and "monkey teacher".

I think that writing lines is a good idea and I've got to the point that I no longer care about my job (I'm currently drafting a resignation letter) because of the racism I have encountered in this country from parents and students.

Nathan said...

Having the same problem with my kids and the racism. I'm brown and get calls of "Africa teacher" and "monkey teacher".

I think that writing lines is a good idea and I've got to the point that I no longer care about my job (I'm currently drafting a resignation letter) because of the racism I have encountered in this country from parents and students.

hassie said...

"African-Americans look different than Africans thanks to centuries and centuries of evolution"...wat??
and i cant tell u that mst african americans look like africans ( this sounds rather stupid cos they are africans at the end of the day),the mixed ones stand out and its easy to know that they are mixed
For example,u look totally african, plus a lot of black people in america right now only came recently not centuries ago and most of them totally blend in,
and africans do wear sunglasses (its ridculous tht im even stating this) and its funny how this post is on ignorance ....love ur blog tho :)

Joia said...


Your point is well taken and I actually edited my blog in response to your comment. No sense compounding the ignorance that's already floating around. I do want to point out that I did not make a comment that Africans don't wear glasses - that was part of my friend's logic for "blending in" on her trip.

To say that Black Americans are easily distinguishable from Africans based off looks alone would evoke the same response as Koreans who claim they look nothing like Chinese. It's just silly. So, thanks for calling me out! And I'm glad you otherwise have enjoyed my blog. Happy holidays!! -J