Another post from a former blog of mine. I was reminded of this post after a discussion between myself and two commenters to this post. At this stage in my life, I often have little patience for people who tell me to just “get over it” or “stop dwelling on the past.” Guess you could call it Anti-Racism Fatigue. But I do appreciate that many other folks still work tirelessly to educate those who are willing to learn.
I often tell people that my first remembered experience of discrimination was as a subject in an exercise when I was in the third grade. That usually takes people by surprise, seeing as how I am visibly an African American type person. Surely, people think, I did not need an experiment to experience first hand the sting of prejudice and discrimination.
But it is true.
When I was in the third grade, I attended a school–Morton Elementary–in a college town. Students from the University were always coming over to our school to use us pupils for some hands-on learning of one type or another. We were used to visitors from the University. We were used to the games. They were good for a change of pace, getting us out of class and our usual routine for a bit.
On this day, my teacher asked for volunteers. I was always the first student to raise my hand to answer a question, to volunteer to take a note to the office–that kind of thing. So, along with some other kids who also volunteered, I left the room and went to another area of the school with the college kids.
Once separated from the rest of the class, we volunteers were decorated with black eyeliner pencils, given “freckles” all over our cheeks and noses. I remember vividly: At this point we were still having fun, laughing, giggling.
But soon after, that laughter would turn to anger, tears, fear.
Once we were reunited with the rest of the class, we thought we would continue on with the day as usual. It seemed that way, anyway. Miss Foster, our teacher, began our regularly scheduled lesson. At first, the difference was barely noticeable. One of us volunteers would raise our hand to answer Miss Foster’s question, but we would not be called on. Or we would be called on, but our correct answer would be discounted—often only to be praised when the same answer was given by one of the kids who had stayed behind in the classroom, one of the kids without the eyeliner-pencil drawn “freckles.”
But soon the difference was apparent. The non-freckled kids were given a special treat; we were given nothing. The non-freckled kids—many who were our friends—best friends, even—started to ignore us, refusing to play with us. Eventually, they began calling us the name: “freckled-faced freaks.”
Outside on the playground at recess, none of us FFFs were invited to join in any reindeer games. We freaks were huddled together off to the side. Some of us had, by this time, wiped off the apparently offending freckles. But it didn’t matter. We were treated the same: by our friends, by our beloved Miss Foster. I remember some of us making plans right then and there to just leave the school—take off and walk home, never come back.
…Well, eventually, all us kids were “debriefed.” We were told we had just participated in yet another “game” and the rest of the school day was back to normal.
I still have in my possession a yellowed three-page document with a staple in the upper left hand corner. The print on these pages is faded purplelish typewriter font, familiar to folks of my age as copied from a “mimeograph” machine. (Ahhhh, remember that smell of freshly mimeo-ed sheets?….) On the first page are quotes from kids in the class, entitled “HOW I FELT AS A FRECKLED-FACED FREAK.”
My quote is first. Uncharacteristically, I was brief: “I felt like kicking everyone. I felt left out. I felt like not coming to school anymore.” Beth was a little more expansive: “I felt that it is not fun to be picked on and that I would not like to be a freckled-faced freak again. I felt like screaming at Miss Foster saying ‘Miss Foster, you’re the meanest teacher I ever had in my whole life.’ I felt she was being unfair giving everybody a cookie except the freckled face freaks…”
Other (former) FFFs expressed similar feelings: feeling left out, “sad, mad, and lonely,” embarrassed, “humiliated to bits,” mixed-up.
More instructive, I think, are the comments on the next page from the non-FFFs entitled “HOW I FELT ABOUT THE FRECKLED-FACED FREAKS.” Nancy “felt like a big shot…like a big, big star” and she “did not care about them being left out.” Kathy said the freckled faced freaks “looked ugly.” She continued “I did not like the looks of them. I thought it was fun to pick on them. I’m glad it was not me.” Derrek, the only other Black kid in the class, said “I thought it was funny, but I hope they will not do it again!” A couple kids were more compassionate, saying they were sad, sorry for the FFFs, and were relieved that “it was a gag.” Others felt guilty, like Crystal who said “I felt mad at myself. I felt sorry because I did something that I knew was wrong.”
You may recognize this as a replication of the famous “Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes” exercise from the late 60’s. A Frontline site explains:
On the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in April 1968, Jane Elliott’s third graders from the small, all-white town of Riceville, Iowa, came to class confused and upset. They recently had made King their “Hero of the Month,” and they couldn’t understand why someone would kill him. So Elliott decided to teach her class a daring lesson in the meaning of discrimination. She wanted to show her pupils what discrimination feels like, and what it can do to people.
Elliott divided her class by eye color — those with blue eyes and those with brown. On the first day, the blue-eyed children were told they were smarter, nicer, neater, and better than those with brown eyes. Throughout the day, Elliott praised them and allowed them privileges such as a taking a longer recess and being first in the lunch line. In contrast, the brown-eyed children had to wear collars around their necks and their behavior and performance were criticized and ridiculed by Elliott. On the second day, the roles were reversed and the blue-eyed children were made to feel inferior while the brown eyes were designated the dominant group…
(Watch the entire program: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/divided/etc/view.html)
What to think of such simulations trying to get people to experience a walk in someone else’s pair for a spell? What to say about efforts to get people to understand–on a gut level as well as a cognitive level–complex experiences like racism and racial discrimination?
This is something I think about a lot. As a former teacher of little kids, as a (hopefully) future teacher of college students, as a researcher. As an African American woman who frequently travels in circles lacking in African Americans. And, as someone who, over 32 years ago (!!!) in Miss Foster’s 3rd grade classroom in room 202 of Morton Elementary, was a participant in such a simulation. Remember, my memory of this experience is as my first direct confrontation of discrimination–not as an encounter with academic research. The experience and the feelings and the hurt were real, despite the FFF exercise being just “a gag.”
Anyway. No answers today. Just reflections.
(I wonder what Derrek, Donna, Rini, Crystal, Miss Foster, and the rest are doing today…)