Were You a Racist?

— By Paul Karrer, a retired member of the North Monterey County Federation of Teachers who taught for 37 years. Find him online here.

On the Friday before Martin Luther King Junior day, I asked my fifth-graders if they knew why we had the day off. One suggested, “To celebrated MLK’s birthday.”

To be honest, for a ten-year-old that wasn’t bad.

“No,” another piped in, “It’s cuz he fought for blacks’ rights.”

“Good and you’re 100 percent correct.” I replied. Let’s call the child who piped up with that answer Isaiah. He’s perceptive and often sees the big picture.

I thought it would be appropriate to show a short clip on both Martin Luther King, Jr.’s accomplishments, and his struggles. Not many of the kids knew he had been stabbed or that his house had been bombed. 

The same film showed the iconic footage of police dogs being set upon blacks and of high-pressure water cannons hosing protesters. Rosa Parks was mentioned and the famous bus boycott. My kids made shocked noises now and then. I also viewed a short clip about his assassination. 

I mentioned that when I was a kid my mom took me from Connecticut to Florida on a train and that once we hit the South, bathrooms clearly stated WHITE or COLORED. I honestly told them I was way too young to remember it.

Isaiah raised his hand, “Were you a racist?”

There was no malice, no wise guy intent in his question. Every child watched me with their predominantly Latino/Latina eyes. Isaiah is a brilliant, great kid. A high-level thinker. He just put the facts together and made a logical conclusion. Our teacher is Anglo. Anglos were racist. He lived then, therefore he must have been a racist.

The quick response out of my mouth was, “No, of course not.” And then I thought, This child has just dared to ask you a question from his heart. A question, if a teacher had a thin skin, might have gone the wrong way.

“Isaiah, you make me happy. You always ask good questions. You just made me re-think my answer. “Yes, Isaiah. I’m sorry to say when I think about it, my family and I were ignorant and racist sometimes. I think I’m not any more.”

One of my girls said, “That’s why you teach us huh?”

“Yes, I’d like to think so.”

Another one piped in, “And your wife is Korean.”

Wow, they’re defending ME! Man, I love these kids.

“You know what? We are having recess a couple of minutes early.”

A shout of communal joy rang out and I dismissed them. I thought my moral lesson for the day had been learned, but I was wrong. One girl hung back, waiting until all the kids left.

“Mr. Karrer, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot right?”

“Yes.”

“You ever been shot?”

Her eyes plumbed my depths, “No.”

“My dad was shot. He’s in prison now. Elissa’s dad was shot too. He’s dead you know.”

“Yes, I knew about her dad.”

She smiled, “See you after recess.” Then put her books in her backpack and left me alone in the room with much to ponder.