Education Action Group reports on the disturbing story of a 13 year old girl in New York who has been pulled out of the Rochester City School District by her mother.
Jada William’s mother felt she had little choice after her ‘A’ student daughter started receiving failing grades following the fallout from a controversial racial essay she wrote. Jada, who is African-American, was studying the autobiography of former slave Frederick Douglass. As this book was part of a district-wide reading initiative it was clearly considered suitable subject matter for discussion by the district, which would also presumably be aware that a 13 year old might lack some technical adroitness in dealing with sensitive material.
In her essay Williams argued that a parallel existed between the way slave masters used illiteracy and ignorance to maintain oppression and the current situation in her illiteracy-ridden school district. The charges of illiteracy in Rochester are completely justified as 75% of the district’s students cannot read at the appropriate grade-level. An analysis by the New York Times last year identified the district to be among the lowest performing in the state.
Nor is the contention that passive racism still exists a new one; President George W. Bush spoke about the “soft bigotry of low expectations”. What appears to have gained Jada the wrath of her former teachers is the use of racially charged language within the essay:
“Most white teachers that I have come into contact with, over the last several years of my life, (have) failed to instruct us even today,” Williams wrote in her essay. “The teachers are not as vocal about us not learning … but their actions speak volumes.”
Ms. Williams reports that her teachers told her they were offended by her choice of language and felt that she was mocking them.
“When the white teachers began to pass out pamphlets and packets, they expect us the black students to read the directions, complete it and hand it in for a grade,” Williams continued. “The reality of this is that most of my peers cannot read and or comprehend the material that has been provided.
“So, I feel like not much has changed, just different people, different era, the same old discrimination still resides in the hearts of the white man,” she concluded.
One would assume that insensitivities of language would have been anticipated and provided an obvious jumping-off point for a class discussion on the importance of careful consideration in the choice of words one used in sensitive discussions. This does not appear to have taken place. Nor was her report used as a learning opportunity by the teachers to improve standards.
Williams explains the reason for her choice of language:
“I basically used the terminology that was used in the book.”
Jada is currently being taught at home, but misses school. She claims that all she wants to do is be able to learn.
“I feel misunderstood because grownups are making it a racial issue when it’s a learning issue,” Jada Williams said. “I also feel hurt because I’m not in school right now. They’re taking from me the one thing I do love and I feel confused. …”
“I thought I lived in a country of freedom of speech.”