Referential truth doesn’t erase racism

Let’s see if I can write this quickly because I really should get back to the schoolwork that is currently making me feel a little spun in the head…

Background story: a Black student (the only one in her A/P class) was, as I understand it, transferred into a non-A/P, ‘lower’* educational classroom because her teacher found the smell of her hair product unbearable. The school believes this situation to be unacceptable and inappropriate, worthy of investigation, but not, of course, racist. Race, in fact, by their interpretation, was not a factor.

The discussion in comments on this article is interesting to me. Most of the commentors at SLOG disagree with the teacher’s actions, and several mock or raise strong doubts about the claims that race played no role in this decision. Others, however, turn the conversation into a “well-wait-a-minute” about the possible truth value of the teacher’s assertions. Even some of the ones who acknowledge the inappropriateness, and maybe even a racial undertone (it’s always a subconscious undertone), of the teacher’s action, hasten to add that sensitivities to scent really truly can have a serious impact on some people’s ability to function. Scrolling through the first 50-60 comments, this is one of the most significant themes of the conversation is about – asserting the reality of problematic scents, assessing the potential for this particular product to cause such scent-related issues for some people, and debating the likelihood that the teacher personally did or did not experience such a sensitivity to this product. As online commenters are wont to do in stories such as this one, these commenters set themselves up as the court of public opinion and establish the terms by which they would exonerate the teacher – for many, the proof of innocence would depend on documentary proof of scent sensitivities, and ideally, a pre-established arrangement within the workplace, with both administration and students, to avoid scents in the classroom.

The story, then, has become one that centres entirely on the referential truth-value of the teacher’s basic claim. Some of the commenters that do suggest there might be a racial component do so by arguing that when the teacher realized a problem, s/he selected the classroom “Other” as a target without knowing whether this student was the actual cause of the issue. But it’s 20 or 25 comments in before someone even manages to suggest that regardless of whether the teacher has this kind of problem, and regardless of whether it was, in fact, linked to this student’s hair product, these actions were unacceptable and very likely the product of deeply-held racialized assumptions and biases. I’m not going to go in to the long argument, but the basic point is that the facility with which the student was dismissed from the classroom suggests that the educator did not have her interests as primary focus and likely suspected that she didn’t really belong there in the first place. If you think otherwise, you problem solve in such a way that meets everyone’s needs. This is, as they say, not rocket science.

Because I’m starting to go into long, academic-y mode (which I should direct at my academics), I’ll just try to close quickly by noting that this is a common tactic in discussions about race – concentrate on the surface, look at the referentiality of the situation, treat it as an isolated and objectifiable, decontextualized interaction, and erase the discussion of how race (and other kinds of power imbalances) underlies and informs who does and says what. The truth value of the teacher’s scent claims actually have nothing to do with the story, but before we’re going to pay attention to the students’ interpretations of this interaction (if we ever really get to look at that), we’re going to set up solid positivistic criteria for determining whether the teacher is telling The Truth. And somehow, suddenly, yet again, we are Not Talking About Race.

*I’m generally hesitant to accept hierarchical relationships among types of education, which often differentiate between ‘academic’ and ‘applied’ or ‘trades-oriented’ and whatnot, thereby perpetuating a very specific kind of class structure that values certain kinds of skills, abilities and knowledges more than others. For the purposes of the situation at hand, however, being as I don’t fully know the context of such US educational distinctions, I’ll use the term from the article. I can’t help myself with the quotes, though.

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