I’ve been watching the reaction to one group of teachers at Middleton Elementary School dressing up in red, white and blue (and one as the Statue of Liberty!) standing behind a cardboard “wall” that says Make America Great Again, and another group at the same school who dressed in cringeworthy stereotypical Mexican costumes. As a fellow teacher, I can’t fully express my horror and disappointment at the behavior of these elementary school teachers. I hardly know where to start.

For one thing, no teacher would do this if they thought they were going to get blasted by fellow teachers or administration, so that’s a comment on their assumptions about the predominant attitude at their school. And no teacher would do this if they thought the PTSA would flip out and call them racists. So that’s a comment on the racism implicit in the community.

Next, the Superintendent, whose name suggests he has a historic connection to the very founding of this small city, claims this is just poor judgment on the part of these teachers, that they had no malice. OK, intentions don’t mean squat. If I shoot your kid’s eye out with an air rifle because I was so ignorant that I didn’t know that I could hurt someone doesn’t excuse my behavior or restore your kid’s eye.

The likelihood that these teachers thought this was innocent fun, not an openly malicious act, speaks volumes about their racist assumptions. One of those assumptions is that it’s OK to mock an ethnic group. And yes, it would also have been offensive if the targets of the mockery were white— say, stereotypical Irish or stereotypical Italians. It would have been far less offensive, true, because of their relative position in the power structure of American society, but still offensive. And the fact that they’re surprised today that Superintendent Middleton is disappointed in them says something about how he has positioned himself in relation to these issues. I’m guessing this superintendent has not made many comments about the value of diversity and the importance of making all students, including that small group of brown kids in the back row, feel safe and valued. If he had, none of this would have happened.

I believe these teachers accurately expressed attitudes that are pervasive in their community. I wouldn’t shed a tear for these colleagues if they lost their teaching licenses, but they shouldn’t be made scapegoats for the entire community. Letting them carry all the blame is like blaming ‘”rogue cops” for a far more systemic problem. The town of Middleton needs to do some real soul-searching, but given the neatly cut out construction paper political slogan on their “wall,” it’s very likely that they’re immune to honest self-appraisal. If they haven’t revised their attitudes after two years of seeing what the racial animus that drives that slogan has done, they probably haven’t yet and never will. They’ll grow old and one day become someone’s racist grandma who says horrible things at Thanksgiving dinner.

Furthermore, since small town America voted overwhelmingly for the originator of that slogan, we can infer that these are common attitudes in communities throughout this country. And white suburban America, that means you, too. Just look at the county-by-county electoral map of your state and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.

Turning that telescope back around now, there are many other predominantly white schools in this predominantly white country that would have tolerated this behavior with nothing more than mild disapproval. But maybe they had one tech guy who, before posting the photos to the school district’s Twitter account, would say, “maybe posting this isn’t such a good idea.” For every one incident like this, there are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of similar incidents that never see the light of public scrutiny. An administrator says, “hey, guys, maybe next year, you could do something different, OK?” And that’s that. The larger community never hears about it. The difference is that Middleton was ignorant enough to tweet it out for the world to see.

So, yes, we should hold these teachers accountable for their disgusting ignorance and the ongoing racial harm they have perpetuated. But let’s not forget that they are little fish swimming in a big ocean of implicit, unacknowledged, and unexamined racism. There’s a bigger problem than a handful of idiotic teachers in Middleton, Idaho.

November 3, 2018

© Daniel Sato