This year our school started its first ever debate team. The theme is immigration, a topic to which many students have a personal connection. Oftentimes during practice, our conversations include talking about race, discrimination, and other inequalities.
At one of the debates, a student said to me, “This might sound a bit racist but…” I responded, “Well, when you start that way, it probably will be, but let me hear what you have to say.”
He continued, “Until I met you, Mr. Woods, I didn’t know black people could be civilized. You always see them hanging out, not doing much and that’s just not you.”
Being a person of color, I’m unfortunately used to comments such as these, but the word “civilized” struck a chord. I responded by saying, “You cut me pretty deep with the word civilized, but I’m glad I’m able to challenge your ideas of what a black person can be, and I’m honored that you felt comfortable sharing that with me.”
The rest of the day, all I could think about was what this student told me. I was upset. Even though I’m the only African American staff member on my campus, I’ve never felt isolated from the community—now I did. I was angry that no one else on my campus could understand what it feels like to be complimented on their civility.
After I let my emotions pass, I began to think about how insightful this experience turned out to be. He told me that he thought one way but through our interactions, he now thinks differently—and that is pretty powerful.
Nowadays, we are so quick to condemn, and giving this country’s history it’s not unwarranted. But had I done that with this student, what actually happened would have been lost. Discrimination, racism, sexism, and all other forms of oppression should undoubtedly be met with condemnation—but not before taking the time to listen and reflect. What on the surface made me upset was actually someone recognizing my humanity, and the humanity of others.
Kenneth Woods is transportation and program coordinator in the Corporate Work Study Department at Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School. He is always seeking to share his experience and learn from others.