What is Racism? I Simply Don’t Understand


August Wilson Side Door Mural On The Iroquois ...

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I was all excited to teach my theatre appreciation class. I had chosen a play for the class to read as an example of how a playwright will use his/her own experiences as well as historical and social contexts to write a play. I chose the Tony Award-nominated Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by August Wilson. I gave them some background on August Wilson, his inspirations for the play, and some historical facts about the time period. I thought that was all good.

We re reading it out loud, and we come to the n-word. I apologized in advance, acknowledging the word, but reminding them of the historical context. A black student (the class is only 6 people, two blacks, one Hispanic) stopped our reading and said, “I’m uncomfortable reading this. You could have chosen a different play knowing there were black students in the class.” (Note, the older black woman was not in class today). I was shocked. I apologized and stopped the reading, asking them to read it at home. I explained my reasons behind the choice, but it didn’t matter.

I didn’t say this to him, but I kept thinking, “You are objecting to a play by a prominent black playwright about the black experience because it contains the n-word?”

Am I supposed to pick plays only written by dead white men then? I can’t do that.

Was my choice a racist choice? I did choose the play with those students in mind, because I believe that its important to see that plays aren’t just written by white men. I always chose culturally diverse plays. Is that choice racist because I am choosing things outside my own culture? If that is true, then should I only choose plays written by white, Jewish women? It’s possible to do that, but my options become very limited.

Please help me understand.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Nathan
    Sep 20, 2010 @ 21:12:48


  2. sparksinshadow
    Apr 13, 2011 @ 01:06:36

    Hi, Lisa! I’ve been reading your blog for quite a while tonight. I clicked a link in your more recent post on the “Juxtoposition of J’s” in your life, and it got me interested in looking through some of your past posts. When I got to this one, I became very interested in the dynamic of this class, and the experience you begin to describe here. (You’ve mentioned other issues involving race in some more recent blog posts.)

    I’m curious about why this man/young adult (?) felt the way he did, but as a black woman I’m even more curious about why he was upset. You left out a lot of information. I know that you may not have time to answer this (or the inclination to discuss this past event) but if you do, I have some questions:

    Was this man an angry person who was being somehow forced to take your class?

    What was his face telling you as he voiced his concerns?

    Had any previous conversations in class, brought out concerns he might be having in his personal life about race? Had he displayed any signs of low self esteem in prior sessions of the class?

    I absolutely don’t think that you are racist, but some people’s communication styles can make that more difficult to perceive. I think it’s a good idea for anyone to find one of the free personality tests online (from a reputable organization) to see how others may view your communication style. A year ago, I took the personality test on eharmony.com. I was amazed that it was free, as it seemed to be the only thing helpful on that site. It explained why some people see me as a wishy washy decision-maker when I’m really not — but anyway, I can see this as being a useful tool for a teacher to have, especially when leading a somewhat difficult class.

    I’m sorry for the long comment, but this subject interests me a great deal.


    • Lisa
      Apr 13, 2011 @ 05:57:46

      Wow. What interesting questions. I’ll try my best to answer them (although i may write another blog post–as this has been a really strange year for me dealing with issues like these). I think the whole situation upset me so much because he didn’t show any anger, at being in the class or any concerns about issues in his life, or any signs of low self esteem. I’m usually pretty intuitive when it comes to that and read my students well. And I’m open and honest when we are going to discuss sensitive issues of any type in class. I learned my lesson from that experience, and (although I decided to use the same play this semester) I discussed the use of the word before they read the play. (This semester’s class was roughly 50% African American, a few Asians, a few Hispanic international students, and the rest Caucasian). Other issues came up this semester, but some of that is in other posts and some will require a long post. You’ve given me food for thought, and I will explore this further.

      I might check out that personality, although I have done some in the past.


  3. Trackback: In Defense of Letters « Woman Wielding Words

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