Teacher Fired for Controversial Racial Assignment

Questions asking how comfortable students are around Blacks, Muslims, gays and other groups sparked a debate on how to teach about racism in schools — if at all.

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A Florida middle school teacher has been fired after giving her middle school students an assignment asking how they would feel around certain racial, religious and other groups of people.

The assignment titled “How Comfortable Am I?” was part of a Leader in Me class at Fox Chapel Middle School. WTSP identified the assigning teacher as Daryl Cox.

Questions ask students to rate 1 to 4 how comfortable they are in certain situations, with 1 being “Not Comfortable at All” and 4 being “Completely Comfortable.”

Scenarios listed include:

A group of young Black men are walking toward you on the street.

A fellow RA is paraplegic.

Your new suitemates are Mexican.

Your women studies instructor is a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf and full length robe.

The young man sitting next to you on the airplane is Arab.

A friend invites you to go to a gay bar.

A homeless man approaches you and asks for change.

Your family buys a home in a predominantly Black neighborhood.

Teacher Fired for Controversial Racial AssignmentTeacher Fired for Controversial Racial Assignment

The Hernando County School District in a statement said, in part, “In no way, did this assignment meet the standards of appropriate instructional material.”

One student, Tori Drews, said she found the whole assignment inappropriate.

“I thought some of them were racist. I thought some of them were sexist. I thought it was completely intolerable,” she told ABC News affiliate WFTS.

“There were children that were saying, ‘This is wrong. Why are we doing this? Does this have a reason?’ And she was going, ‘Yeah, this is kind of wrong. Maybe I should take it back,’” Drews recalled.

The teacher was reportedly just hired in January and still on a probation period.

“I believe that it was very wrong what she did,” Drews said. “That she didn’t ask anybody before she gave it out, but I think that maybe she should have been put on a break and had like another training on something like that.”

Drews’ mom, Jennifer Block, said the firing “was probably best.”

“How comfortable are you if you see a group of Black men walking to you on the street? That’s completely inappropriate,” she said. “In no world, whatsoever, is that okay to question a child on.”

One parent of a seventh grader said that kids should not be thinking about these kinds of issues.

“They’re kids. Let kids be kids. Why are they asking kids these questions?” she questioned.

“They have social media. You figure they learn everything nowadays anyways. I just don’t think it’s something that needs to be brought in school.”

“Specifically the question that was on the post about the gays in the bar, I think that you’re asking kids to try to understand a situation that they may not be fully understanding of,” another parent said.

“I just think that sometimes kids are just too young to start that at this age, and in school,” the same parent added. “It should be something that should be at home.”

But not every parent thought the assignment was such a bad thing.

“It’d be weird talking about something like that with your kid,” said Rick Hunter, whose daughter saw the assignment from a friend.

“I think the school could do it a lot better than we could, be a lot more comfortable than we could,” Hunter said.

How, If At All, Do Parents Discuss Race With Their Children?

While some Hernando County parents said they would rather be the ones to discuss racial issues with their children, research suggests that many parents are not willing or comfortable enough to have this conversation.

A 2007 study by Birgitte Vittrup Simpson, Ph.D., called “Exploring the Influences of Educational Television and Parent-Child Discussions On Improving Children’s Racial Attitudes,” analyzed the impacts of parents discussing race with their children, as well as observed parents’ willingness to do so in the first place.

According to Simpson’s findings, “It appeared that parents were equally reluctant to talk about race even when specifically instructed to do so. Close to half of parents in the two discussion groups admitted that they only briefly mentioned some of the topics. Only 10% of the parents reported having more in-depth discussions with their children.”

The study began with 99 white families with children aged between five and seven. Incidentally, some families withdrew before the study began. Two of these families said they did not want to have the required conversations with their children.

Parents were asked if they ever discussed race with their children before. Sixty-five percent of mothers and 42 percent of fathers reported that they did. But further questioning suggested otherwise:

“The follow-up question, asking them to specify what they discussed, was coded based on whether they made explicit references to the topic of race, such as using racial labels to describe people (e.g., Black/African-American; Chinese/Asian; Hispanic/Mexican-American), discussing racial issues such as stereotypes or discrimination, or referring to differences in appearance based on race. Coding revealed that only 33% of mothers and 20% of fathers had explicit discussions about the concept of race. Most commonly these parents mentioned issues such as discrimination, stereotypes, and skin color.”

Most of the parents said they give their children generic insight about race, such as simply saying everyone is equal.

The remaining parents in the study, 35 percent of mothers and 58 percent of fathers, admitted they had not had discussions around race with their children. The majority of these parents (49 percent) said the topic “hasn’t come up.” Nineteen percent said the issue is “not relevant/important,” 17 percent do not want their child to start noticing differences if race is brought to their attention, and 9 percent said they simply treat everyone equally and “let [their] child observe.” Only 6 percent said they “don’t know how to talk about race in a positive way.”

In an op-ed for The New York Times, Jennifer Harvey, a professor of religion at Duke University, said that the approach most parents are taking is ineffective, especially in today’s charged political and racial climate.

“Meanwhile, studies have long shown that generic messages about equality aren’t effective in countering such racial socialization. Right now, then, it’s even more urgent that parents who rely on messages like ‘we’re all equal’ or ‘we’re all the same underneath our skin’ in the hope of teaching our children the values of inclusion, equality and difference significantly up our game. And let’s be frank, it’s parents of white children, like myself, who tend to rely on these sincere, but ineffective, strategies.”

“White children are exposed to racism daily,” Harvey continues. “If we parents don’t point it out, show how it works and teach why it is false, over time our children are more likely to accept racist messages at face value.”

For the parents who may not know the best approach, Harvey says that “however we talk about it, we need to talk about racism now more than ever.”

Read more news @ DiversityInc.com

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17 comments


  • The parents and school system needed to reverse the situation on the teacher before they fired her and posted her answers for the students to see who had the problem with other the persons. It’s not the children but we as adults as usual.

  • It’s obvious from the questions that the survey was intended for college students, so perhaps it was age-inappropriate for Middle School students. I’m guessing the main complaint would be that the questions might suggest that they SHOULD be uncomfortable around those different from themselves. However, unconscious bias is a huge problem, and one that needs to be addressed in our society somehow. I do not believe that the teacher should be fired, though, just counseled to be cautious about introducing controversial materials to her students.

  • Michael J. "Orange Mike" Lowrey

    Seems to me like the teacher was well-intentioned, but clueless. Topics as fraught with concerns as these should be approached with instructional materials that have been vetted and scrutinized by all sorts of experts AND by panels of parents and students.

  • It appears that the questionnaire came from a prepared diversity training. To some it may appear to be age inappropriate for middle school children, but given the rise in bullying based solely on some of the characteristics listed and how younger children speak out about their sexual orientation/identity, etc., the definition of “age appropriate” has changed.

    Confronting one’s unconscious biases/prejudices is never comfortable, but is necessary if a better society is to be created.

  • How many parents are like those in this article–not comfortable discussing such things with their children? How many have hateful attitudes towards others who are not like themselves? If a teacher introduces equality and compassion to students, where is the problem? For me, yes, I am uncomfortable when a group of Black (or white, Hispanic, ANY group) of men approach me on the street. I’m an introvert and have trouble with any group, whether kids or adults, men or women. That’s the problem with this quiz. It doesn’t allow for any explanation of the answers. So, maybe a discussion of the topic would be better than starting with a quiz.

  • Talking about issues of bias around race, gender, disability, etc. – is a good thing! That survey though… is clearly inappropriate. It’s obviously written for college students, for one thing. And the issue of having kids express their discomfort… might not be the best choice. A white person doing this might also not be ideal, though it’s possible she is Muslim or gay or disabled, which might make it less of a problem. Clearly she needs a little education herself though. I wish she’d found Teaching Tolerance, for instance. They have a lot of lesson plans available there, for middle school and other age groups, that might get at what she was (apparently) trying to do:
    http://www.tolerance.org/activity/controversial-issues
    http://www.tolerance.org/lesson/using-photographs-teach-social-justice-exposing-racism
    http://www.tolerance.org/lesson/editorial-cartoon-intolerance
    http://www.tolerance.org/lesson/america-numbers

  • Except for the Christian question, the implication from this assignment seems to that the only groups that make us uncomfortable are blacks, especially black males, gay and transgendered people, anyone of color, Muslims, and disabled people. Apparently ablebodied, heterosexual white men and women don’t make anyone comfortable.

    Really?

    This was totally from a white-centric POV and I hate using terms like, “-centric”.

    It needs some editing…

    How about: You’re driving through a predominately white neighborhood, where you happen to live and you’re black, a police car pulls up behind you, lights flashing.

    Or, you’re a middle-aged black female stopped at a red light and a car with a bunch of rowdy, drunken white boys pulls up next you.

    Or, you walk into a job interview for job that you are over qualified for and you happen to be Muslim and there’s a middle-aged white male interviewer.

    Or this, you are an American of Mexican descent in your forties, you walk into an upscale restaurant, a white waiter walks over to you and asks you for proof of citizenship.

    How about this, you are a group of black males on an elevator, the door opens and a white woman is standing there with a look of sheer terror while clutching her purse.

    Or, you are an Asian man on a plane, sitting in a seat you paid good money for, waiting for the plane to take off, suddenly a group of cops grabs you and drags you and your bloodied face off the plane in front of everyone. It goes viral.

    You are a black caregiver with an Autistic client, a cop shows up and although you comply and lay on the ground with you’re hands high in the air explaining who you and your client are, and the cop is behind cover, he shoots you anyway.

    You are a black executive, Halle Berry, Ophra Winfrey, while waiting for the valet a partron drives up and hands you his car keys, asked by a white guest at the event you are attending while dressed to the nines to serve her, told by a store clerk you don’t need to see a purse you can’t afford anyway.

    You are the first black president. While speaking before Congress, “You lie!” rings out.

    Your mother is black, your father is white, they move to an all white neighborhood and now you will have to attend a school where you’re the only student of color.

    You’re black and your asssigned roommate is white.

    You are a woman of color, excited about her new job, you arrive ready to work only to find out you have a white female boss.

    Or maybe, you are shopping in an upscale department store. Unfortunately, for you, you weren’t born white. Security is tailing you.

    You are a young black male, you go to the store for skittles; you are playing with a toy plastic gun; sitting on the stoop of your apartment building, suddenly shots ring out, you’re hit, and are murdered.

    You are driving while black/brown obeying traffic laws, suddenly a cop car pulls up behind you, while reaching for your ID as you were asked, shots ring out and pierce your heart, head, lungs, kidneys, liver making you dead.

    You are mentally ill living on the streets; having a psychotic break; talking to yourself. Someone calls the cops. They are pointing guns at you, yelling, making you confused. You can’t understand what they want you do to. You start to run because you’re afraid.

    You are a young, white attractive female, you enter a traditionally predominately white all-male profession.

    You are Mexican, black, gay, transgendered, disabled, female, born elsewhere, Muslim, and, trump, a narcissistic racist, mysogynist who thinks all Mexicans are rapists, all black people live in total dispair, all women should have their nether regions grabbed but only if they are deemed 8s and above, poor people should just go away already, sick people should go and die, all Muslims are terrorists, all gay and transgendered people want nothing more than to lurk in bathrooms and prey on innocent children, and only billionaires are worthy, and is elected president of the United States.

    Your teacher is white. You are not. She/he gives out stupid, tone deaf, insensitive assignments. You’re just a powerless kid.

    How do you feel?

    Should I continue?

  • Alfreda G Gaither

    Conceptually, the assignment and potential discussion was a good idea. However, the questions the teacher used were not appropriate for middle school aged students. She should have drafted her own questions or tailored those questions to fit her students’ backgrounds and experience. Firing the teacher was too harsh.

    • I think you like many of those who have commented underestimate the intelligence and knowledge that many of these kids have. I have a grandson in the 6th grade who is half black in a school that is 95% white.
      He is very capable of discussing issues concerning bias or sex.
      How terrible would it be if after those questions were answered an intelligent discussion took place that helped these kids understand that their discomforts were unwarranted and here’s why you shouldn’t feel that way.

  • As I read the questions I thought ‘ how many white peoples, male and female, have made me uncomfortable or felt unsafe?’ But there was no such question on this exam. It almost by default made it seem as if folk of color, transgender , gays and Muslim were bad just because they’re the only ones listed. Then I read the comments and see I wasn’t alone. Waiting for someone else to educate your child about sex or race is risky. There’s a presumption that the child isn’t watching what you do vs what you say. Another question is what preparation for discussion did this teacher have or plan to have with the kids before or after the exam.

  • The firing of this teacher who was clearly trying to begin a conversation that this country is trying to sweep under the rug. That assignment just put into words, the unearthed feelings that many Americans have. The teacher was clearly trying to address the fear, discomfort and pain around racism. The truth of the matter is that adults are uncomfortable with this subject, and the earlier you address racist stereotypes with children the sooner change will come. The only way through racism is through the pain and discomfort–this is why we continue to have problem. Avoidance is the American MO.

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