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Today I did my lesson on MLK Jr., racism and prejudice again with a different group. The lesson started with a 5 minute biography channel summary of his life. Then we talked a bit about Gandhi and his life and influence on MLK. Then we moved to some discussion… I knew that this was a touchy subject so I chose my questions carefully, being as objective as possible. I figured that even some people don’t know the difference between racism and prejudice so I started by asking them to discuss the definitions of the two words with their partners. Then talk about the differences. The last question was, “what are some possible causes of racism.”

I was talking with some students and when I turn around I see two pairs have formed a group of four and Rocio, the classroom teacher, is playing mediator; two students were going back and forth, heatedly, about immigrants not paying taxes or something along those lines… not what I asked about. I guess the positive is they were talking in English.

Then we start discussing as a group and I could feel a lot of tension in the room so I stopped the discussion and talked a bit about it being an educational environment and how we should be able to discuss various topics openly without being hostile, one guy puts his hand up and asks why is it not OKto say the word “nigger”. someone asked what he said so i had to say it out loud, in front of the class, which was one of the most awkward moments I have had in a while. Then they asked how you spell it so I had to force my hand to write it across the board.

I tried to express the connotation of that word; it carries so much weight I doubt I conveyed the severity of its use? I told them it was one of two words in the English language you should never say and tried to duck their question of what the other was, half planting the opportunity to teach them anyway. The teacher even joined them in asking me to tell them I figured no harm could be done since I had permission.  I took joy in the liberty that Rocio had just granted me… when else can I stand in front of a class and curse and write a curse word across the chalkboard?  They really laughed because they can’t differentiate the second word from how they say a shortened form of “I am not able to.”

This broke the tension but it quickly returned when the same guy asked me why it’s not OK to say racist jokes… because they are racist !!! I’m not sure if this guy was just trying to flame up the discussion or if he was being sincere but it’s not the first time he has been this way with me and the students really have a short fuse with him.

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