Every two weeks, students in my class work on learning how to spell a list of twenty French words. Every morning when they arrive in class they have to write them out. The English equivalents of these words, as well as pictures prompts, are posted on a bulletin board in the classroom. Ever since it was pointed out to me that all the images on my bulletin boards were of White people (See E is for Erasure), I have been trying to include people of colour in my displays.
Take the word ‘le roi’ or ‘the king’, as an example. A quick Google search of ‘king’ will get a wide assortment of images ranging from playing cards to Elvis. Adding ‘on a throne’ narrows the field to images of royalty, predominantly White. Adding ‘African’ does the trick. Now I have a selection of images of Black kings. But it’s not so easy choosing the right king. For starters, the aim of this exercise is to work on identifying and spelling the sound ‘oi’ in words like ‘le roi’. It is not to delve deeply into what it means to be a king. Therefore, I am looking for easily identifiable images, images that shout ‘King!’.
Ultimately, though, what I’m really afraid of when I am choosing kings, is subjecting these images to ridicule. I am afraid that I will choose an image that will provoke racist commentary by my students that I will be forced to address during a vocabulary lesson. So I try to choose the image carefully, avoiding images that will challenge my students’ understanding of the world in drastic ways.
Well… That sounds brutal!
That sounds exactly like the actions of a ‘white moderate’, who Martin Luther King (1963) cautioned is THE GREATEST “stumbling block” in the path to freedom. Am I, at my core, a White moderate? Someone who “is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice” (p. 9.)?
Yes, it can!
17. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.18. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race. (McIntosh, 1989)
As for the king, in the end I decide to use this image of King Bansah, or Togbe Ngoryifia Céphas Kosi Bansah, traditional ruler of the Gbi Traditional Area of Hohoe, Ghana. I overhear no ridicule or racist commentary. However, I will address racism and Blackness directly and at length in our unit on Black History in February. For more on this, see upcoming chapter C is for Colour-Blindness.
All this to say that teaching in anti-racist and anti-oppressive ways is not straight-forward even with something as seemingly benign as spelling. It is messy, complex and unsettling. There is no clear, right answer, in fact there are lots of wrong answers. The trick, it seems, is to find the least wrong one.