Part One: Ball Hockey
Every January, the staff and students at my school get involved in a school ball hockey tournament. Teachers coach their teams and we even have a trophy with the names of the winning junior and intermediate team engraved on it. Each year, a theme is selected for the team naming. This year, it's countries, to coincide with the Winter Olympics. Last year, the theme was animals. Teachers will often use alliteration when selecting their names. I co-coached a ball hockey team; my name begins with an M and my colleague's name begins with a K. Our initial thought was to call our team The Monkeys. We thought it'd work with our letters and had a Davey Jones / Mickey Dolenz, fun vibe.
Thank goodness something in my brain was triggered shortly after making that decision and I asked our wonderful ball hockey coordinator to change our team name to the Mighty Kestrels. However, some of the earliest ball hockey schedules originally had the old name.
"Why did you change it?", eagle-eyed students on my team asked me.
"The name can be kind of offensive, calling someone a monkey", I tried to explain.
I didn't go into details. The students in Grades 4-6 that comprised my team just looked confused when I said that the name might be inappropriate.
Part Two: The Puppet
This is a photo from March 2017. I even wrote a blog post about this lesson. The interesting thing about this lesson was a comment that a student made a couple of weeks after we had this activity. A grade 7 student approached me and told me that I shouldn't use the monkey puppet because it was insulting to black people. (The student in question was a person of colour.) The student recommended I replace the puppet with a panda "because a panda is black, white and Asian". I apologized for my error and thanked her for being so frank and honest with me. I've not used the monkey puppet since then. (I didn't throw it out - instead, I added it to the collection of puppets I keep in my library play space.) I remember telling some of my colleagues, who were surprised with the student's reaction and some even dismissive, because I never suggested that the monkey was supposed to represent anyone. I just reiterated that I was glad the student felt comfortable and confident enough to raise the issue with me.
Part Three: The Sweatshirt
It is important to publicize and elevate other people's voices, especially those who know more than you do. TDSB educator Matthew Morris knows a lot. He is already well-known for his eloquent TED talk as well as his feature article in ETFO Voice magazine. When I saw his blog post on this issue, it nearly made me say, "Why should I write anything more about this issue? He's phrased it much more powerfully than I could!"
When I pulled up the H&M "monkey hoodie" here's how my students responded... #writing https://t.co/vVvPQ7ZdGI pic.twitter.com/HIcivJDfEP— Matthew R. Morris (@callmemrmorris) January 12, 2018
The aftermath of talking equity, @hm , and social justice with my students. #EducationEquity https://t.co/vVvPQ7ZdGI pic.twitter.com/3GnGOeVYG3— Matthew R. Morris (@callmemrmorris) January 12, 2018
However, it should be that all educators that need to talk about this, bring this up in their classes, and object to this. We have to. It's not just for media educators or for teachers who "specialize" in equity (another problematic statement). I'm not the only one to suggest that issues like this must be addressed in class.
This H&M issue MUST be brought into the classroom and used to discuss race, stereotypes, micro aggressions #HipHopEd #teachablemoment— Christopher Emdin (@chrisemdin) January 10, 2018
The ad is a great example of why context matters. I call the kids i love "monkey" all the time, and its a term of endearment. But on that shirt, on that child, next to the white savior kid, with historical context in a public discourse, the meaning totally changes. #hiphoped— nora rahimian (@norarahimian) January 10, 2018
#teachableMoment #HipHopEd #ForTheCulture #CulturallyResponsiveEducation #BringItToTheClassRoom thank u @chrisemdin pic.twitter.com/eiLx3uDfJw— Rashida B Harris (@ItsShidaB) January 13, 2018
I wasn't able to initiate the discussion about the sweatshirt this week because we were talking about another news item via social media that had racial undertones and related directly to our recent unit on fame. This was particularly relevant because many of our students (who are of Asian background or heritage) told us that they watch Logan Paul videos and in one class, over half of the students saw the video that included the body of a person that took his own life. Others saw the related videos of this online celebrity treating Japanese people disrespectfully.
I'm glad that my media AQ course introduced the idea of "classroom connections" (conversations about current events and media topics) to me. After talking at length with the Grade 6-7 and 7-8 classes about the YouTube vlogger's insensitive and insulting recent series of videos (so much so that we skipped book exchange and a math lesson - we were startled by the end-of-the-day bell in one case!), one student spoke to me afterwards and said, "You know what we should talk about next? That shirt that said 'coolest monkey in the jungle'." Both of us started to talk animatedly at each other about how this was totally what we need to address.This is something I have to talk about with my students when we return to class. Many mentioned him as an account they follow (won't say his name directly b/c I suspect fame is sought - monetized the apology video?) https://t.co/YWkPIsNaDB— Diana Maliszewski (@MzMollyTL) January 3, 2018
I searched later about explanations to help people understand why this comparison is objectionable - for some reason, people can understand why not to call someone a pig easier. I found this article (https://theconversation.com/comparing-black-people-to-monkeys-has-a-long-dark-simian-history-55102) but it is a bit long. This article, from the same website (https://theconversation.com/why-its-so-offensive-when-we-call-people-animals-76295) is a bit shorter but not necessarily engaging. To make things a bit more complex, I found a comment from the boy's mother who does not agree with the complaints (see https://www.theblaze.com/news/2018/01/11/commentary-mother-of-hm-model-has-a-perspective-shifting-response-to-racist-ad or https://ca.yahoo.com/style/get-mum-child-model-caught-racist-hoodie-controversy-defends-hm-121713255.html). I'm not sure what "not my way of thinking" means - I can understand why she might not object, and/but it *would* be a different scenario if she had posted a photo of her son wearing this vs a company advertising this photo right next to the blonde boy wearing the sweatshirt they chose for him to model. What I've recently discovered is the MTV Decoded clips. The one I've embedded below doesn't explain the particular example I wanted, but I like how accessible the message is to a wide audience.
So, what's the take away from all of this?
It is important to become aware of terms that can be offensive. Even though educators may not mean names or phrases in a derogatory manner, we must remember three media concepts: that "audiences negotiate meaning in the media", "media contain ideological and value messages" and that "media have social and political implications". If someone objects, apologize, make changes, and learn more so that these mistakes, which may stem from our own unconscious biases, do not occur again. This isn't political correctness. It's human decency.