“Sweet Jesus, White People Dumb as Shit!”
Most teachers know that the most scrumptious, hilarious, and, often most meaningful moments aren’t anticipated. Sometimes humor, energy, and meaning emerge together and inadvertently from a student’s background, from her set of cultural expectations which can often be just so different from, well, in LaTisha’s case, mine.
And sometimes, what is genuinely funny could seem on first blush crude or even racist, unless one takes into account divergent cultural histories. This was such a moment and it may not be one for those who cherish what I’ll call Cultural Symmetry, the unstated demand that majorities often make, that minorities express themselves as if they have lived lives as majorities do. Majorities often do demand that and when we do we miss, or dismiss, some of life’s most pungently endearing and important moments.
I’m pleased my students and I didn’t miss this one.
Before I retired I taught at a school for kids struggling with dyslexia. Most of the students were intelligent and, when they got this shot at our school, seen by them and their parents as their last good chance, they were determined to make something excellent of it.
LaTisha was a junior, just under five feet and skinny, a tall stick of fire-eyes dynamite. She was “destined” to be a defense attorney. I was impressed by her sense of purpose. LaTisha was also, on occasion, defiant, so I had her sit about sixteen inches across a narrow trapezoid table from me. It didn’t stop LaTisha from voicing her often unfiltered ideas and feelings, even if sotto voce, and I’m (mostly) glad it didn’t.
As you likely know, one way of helping dyslexic kids absorb literature is to choose excellent novels and plays that have translated to film because the more senses access plots, themes, dialogue, the better. Film can palpably enhance reading. That’s likely true for most kids, dyslexic or no. Mine loved, for instance, Roman Polanski’s remarkably bloody Macbeth and Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet, for example, as prelims for reading and for acting out scenes. With language-challenged children, voices and bodies in motion help a lot.
From jump, LaTisha could not take seriously the hero and heroine in the 1930’s film classic, The Most Dangerous Game, based on the 1924 Richard Connell short story. In the film Joel Macrae and Fay Wray…you may remember this classic story: a hero stranded on a private Atlantic isle owned by an exiled, pre-revolutionary Russian baron, a mad big-game hunter who, grown bored of bagging boar, tiger, lion, wildebeest, panther…now arranges mishaps at sea and hunts those who make it to shore.
Toward the middle of the film there’s the obligatory goose-bumpy scene when hero and damsel, realizing there’s a reason the baron had warned them not to go down, twisty-staircase-down to the dungeon-like basement.
You just know this isn’t a good idea.
But, of course, hero and damsel don’t know it’s a Very Bad Idea: all sorts of heads, animal and human, are mounted on the dungeon walls. And yet they creep on. Most (white) audiences see them as bold and brave.
Precisely as they get mid-way creepy-creepy-down, LaTisha, shaking her head, under her breath:
“Sweet Jesus! White People Dumb as Shit!”
I began laughing so hard I nearly fell to the floor.
My class, of course, demanded to know what LaTisha had whispered. Still laughing, I stepped to the DVD player, stopped the film, and invited LaTisha to let the class in on it. She looked at me askance very briefly as if to ask, Is This Some Teacher Trick?, saw my face, shrugged, and repeated aloud her matter-of-fact assessment of White People Heroes and Damsels born to a world so very, very safe and predictable compared to hers, compared to her parents’, compared to her grandparents’…that they, White people, would actually creep down that foreboding and so obviously bad-bad-very-bad-idea creepy, windy staircase.
And, so totally unplanned, one of the very best cross-cultural discussions I ever witnessed ensued — LaTisha, and every Black child in that room, certified White people as, yes, in-context crazy, or dumb-as-shit, for not knowing what they said Black people, by dint of such a very different, utterly asymmetrical cultural history, just knew:
No one with an ounce of sense steps down those stairs.
Now, extrapolate this lesson to most facets of life and you have a partial yet salient understanding of LaTisha’s world view and the fact that a White kid saying the same about Black people would not, simply would not, have been an equivalence.
And it would not have been funny because the demand for Cultural Symmetry is a wish only majorities cherish and, even if silently, foist upon minorities if only in semi-conscious fantasy. But that’s all it is: the demand for cultural symmetry does not reflect any shared legitimate or meaningful historical or current reality at all.
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