The persistence of bigotry in society is widely acknowledged, and there are plenty of examples of people who are just plain hateful. There’s a robust literature that tries to explain the roots of prejudice, and a lively debate about what constitutes an appropriate response to its expression.
But how should we react to behavior that isn’t motivated by animus, but is just stupid and/or insensitive? What do we do with the clueless?
There are a couple of videos that have been going around the internet that address this issue. One compiles embarrassingly dumb remarks white girls say to black girls, and there’s another doing the same with “shit” gentile girls ask Jewish ones. (As someone who was a Jewish girl, I can attest to the accuracy of the latter one; I still remember a high school “friend” who asked me in all seriousness whether Jews had tails.) These videos are being shared for their comic value, and maybe that’s all we can do–laugh.
But an article shared by a colleague yesterday points to some of the less laughable consequences of clueless behaviors.
In Norcross, Georgia, a third-grade math assignment used slavery as a basis for story problems–as in “If Frederick received two beatings each day, how many beatings did he get in a week?” According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, one of the math teachers decided to use a social studies lesson on Frederick Douglass as a basis for a series of story problems that were–to be kind–incredibly inappropriate. Inexplicably, his worksheet was then reviewed and used by three other teachers.
Here’s a math story problem: if one third-grade teacher has no common sense and three of his colleagues don’t notice, how many third-grade teachers are clueless?
Parents in this racially-diverse school district were understandably outraged, and the school is “investigating” the incident. But this is one of those times when people of good will are really at a loss to suggest appropriate action. Some parents are calling for the teachers to be fired, but in the absence of intentional animus, that is probably an over-reaction. (Of course, if this incident is an indication of pedagogical competence, perhaps not…)
There are things we can do to combat bigotry and racism. Combatting well-meaning ignorance is a lot harder.