Tolerance in the Classroom - McLovin's Dilemma
Student: Mr. Horlacher, why does McLovin* get mad every time we call him Chinese?
Teacher: McLovin is American, and his family is from Vietnam.
Student: Yeah, but why does he care? It’s all the same part of the world.
Teacher: You wouldn’t understand because you’re Mexican.
Student: I’m not Mexican! I’m Salvadoran!
Teacher: Whatever. It’s all the same part of the world.
*McLovin is the pseudonym chosen by the student in question
The preceding is a near-exact retelling of a conversation I once had in my classroom. The eye-widening look of realization in the student’s face after my little zinger was priceless. I knew he was Salvadoran because we had a prior conversation about Salvadoran food - specifically pupusas (oh yeah!). The lesson that the student served to me on a platter was at least as impactful as tolerance lessons that I have crafted carefully.
I think the student was brave for asking a question out loud that most students wouldn’t dare, but I know that I must take advantage of such opportunities for just that reason. At the time, I let the meaning sink in while continuing with what we were doing - but let’s now pretend that the student is here to continue the conversation relating to McLovin.
I’m fine with being Hispanic, though. Why does he hate being Asian so much?
McLovin doesn’t hate his ethnicity; he hates that all you see is his ethnicity. McLovin is reminded of his Asian heritage constantly because his facial appearance stands out in a school that is 75% Hispanic. It can get exhausting being reminded of your heritage as if nothing else matters. He wasn’t able to explain it to you, but he tried explaining it to me:
*Dude, my life sucks because I’m Asian. I mean, I love where I'm from, but being Asian is hard. My four best friends don't even call me human because of it. I know they’re playing, but when there’s a problem - they blame it on the Asian. When I'm mad, they don't care - because I’m Asian. It would be different if I lived somewhere where Asian is a common race, but I don't. It makes school hard as well because everyone wants to cheat off the Asian, and I’m not the smartest kid. So when I fail, they fail, and blame it on me. Science class was really hard at the end of the year because we started talking about sex and such, and being Asian you should know what people say. School does get hard because I’m Asian, but you know, I just have to karate kick them in the face.** *This entire part is McLovin's actual response to me when asked how being Asian affects his school relationships. **He has an excellent sense of irony!
He knows we’re just joking, though. He jokes too, and he’s always laughing with us.
What else can he possibly do? If he cries, you won’t have any respect for him. He would be known as the Asian crybaby, and you wouldn’t be friends with him. If he fights you for every Asian reference, then he will probably get suspended and eventually expelled from school...and you wouldn’t be friends with him. It would also mean every kid would know exactly what to do to get McLovin to fight so that they could leer at him like a monkey in a zoo. He laughs because it’s the only option he has to deal with people who unintentionally treat him as an inferior.
We don’t just mess with him because he’s Asian. Sometimes we mess with him because he has such an anger problem. It’s like, he sometimes doesn’t know how to just chill.
I’d be willing to bet that there are some times when he just can’t take it anymore. What happens when you suppress anger and frustration? If you’re anything like me, you know that it eventually explodes much worse than if you would have handled it in the first place. So McLovin sometimes blows up, and you all laugh at him and assume that Asians have anger problems. It’s like kicking a pit bull until it finally bites you, and you say, “See? Pit bulls are violent!”
So what are we supposed to do? Are we just supposed to ignore that he’s Asian? Are we just supposed to stop joking forever?
I don’t know. Why did you get upset when I said you were Mexican?
That’s different! White teachers always assume that I’m Mexican because they’re too stupid to know that many different countries speak Spanish. It’s frustrating to have to correct them all the time.
How are we supposed to know?
You could ask! You could talk to me and find out where my family came from and how it’s different than Mexico! You could stop assuming that all Spanish speakers are the same! Most of the Spanish speaking kids around here were born here! I hate that white people judge us all the same just because we speak another language. Anyway, I’m me and they’re them. I’m more than the language I speak or the food that I eat. Oh...I see what you did there, Mr. Horlacher.
So are you going to “stop joking forever” or do you think there are other possibilities?
I think maybe I’ll go talk to him right now. I wonder if Vietnam food has anything like pupusas?
Hey, it’s a beginning!