This story, well reported by KVOA News
, is disturbing on a number of levels. Let's start with the facts.
During a class lesson, Spanish teacher Kristen Maurer at Vail's Empire High School used a picture of Obama, distorted to mimic the crassest of racist stereotypes. The picture shows Obama with gigantic lips, exaggeratedly big ears and crossed eyes, the kind of portrayal found on the worst emails, websites and posters from Obama haters who want to add a racist flavor to their rants. (I won't put the image in this post. You can see it in the news report
.) It was part of a lesson where Maurer showed a series of pictures and asked students to describe in Spanish the emotions portrayed in the pictures. Among the other photos was one of Oprah Winfrey with a startled expression on her face and her head pulled into her neck in a way that created double chins. According to the student who complained about the use of the images, Maurer said Winfrey looked terrible and counted her neck rolls in Spanish. The other two photos shown in the article are of Jennifer Aniston with a big nose and Ronald McDonald.
One more detail. The class laughed loudly when the picture of Obama came on the screen.
The teacher was obviously going for shock value and laughs to spice up to her lesson and get her students involved. Racist stereotypes, as well as mockery of someone's looks, can elicit laughs, in a picture or a well told racist, sexist or homophobic joke. Her use of the racist exaggeration of Obama's face and her mockery of Winfrey's looks, inappropriate anywhere, are wildly inappropriate coming from a teacher in a classroom setting. I have no idea if Maurer is especially racist or if she dislikes Obama, frequents websites and receives emails from the hate groups that spread these distorted pictures. If the images express her personal attitudes, then the racist stereotype she depicted is dipped in venom. If not, she's clueless, unaware of her own latent racism and oblivious to the terrible message she's sending when she legitimizes portrayals like this in her classroom. It's OK to trot out racist portrayals in public, she's telling her students, especially when they're used in fun. As a teacher, she's giving students license to accept these kinds of portrayals, even embrace them. When the students get to college, Maurer's lesson will help them feel comfortable attending a come-in-blackface-and-wig frat party where fried chicken and watermelon are served because, "Hey, it's all in fun, and besides, I really like hip hop music. When I was in high school, my Spanish teacher showed us this picture of Obama with big lips, it was hysterical!" She's also telling them that ugly woman jokes and fat woman jokes are just fine.
There's more to the story. Maurer has used the same images for the past few years, apparently without complaint. In past years, not a single student felt this was worth objecting to, or if any students told their parents, it went no further than that. In Vail's mainly white, affluent enclave, the picture didn't warrant a complaint to school officials. (I would hate to think the images were reported and nothing was done, though that's always possible.) However, this year a black student was in the classroom. He told the reporter, "I was disgusted, embarrassed. I felt degraded as an African American male. Kind of felt humiliated." He told his parents what happened and they complained to the teacher. It speaks volumes about the racist underpinnings of our society that other students would consider this kind of depiction acceptable as a part of their education. I'm not blaming the students, by the way. First, Ms. Maurer is popular with her students, according to the report. I'm guessing she's a talented teacher. Even if they thought the photos were somewhat inappropriate, they wouldn't want to get her in trouble. Second, they're kids. They're a product of their environment. I would have been proud of any white kid who objected formally, but this kind of thing isn't unacceptable enough in our society to elicit a response. By way of contrast, if the teacher used a full frontal photo of a naked man, would it have gone unreported? That, I think, would offend some kids enough that the administration would have heard about it. But Obama with photoshopped big lips and ears? That didn't rise to the level of a complaint.
The incident was reported to Superintendent Calvin Baker who did what he could to downplay it. In his interview on the news report, you can see how tense he is and sense his anger over the situation, but his words were cautious. He said it was a mistake, that Ms. Maurer won't use those images again. He said, dodging personal responsibility by using "We" rather than "I": "We also apologize for using that picture. We take responsibility for it." Ms. Maurer sent an apology letter. And that's the end of it, according to Baker. Using the passive voice favored by politicians when they screw up, he said, "Changes are being made, improvements are being made."
Baker is a competent, savvy administrator, and he used the time-honored tradition of defending a teacher against a complaint as much as he can, then doing most of the corrective work behind the scenes. In many circumstances, sticking by a teacher is a good strategy. In this case, Baker was wrong ethically and educationally. He threw away an important teachable moment by ducking the controversy. His actions told every student and teacher at the school that you probably shouldn't indulge in racist stereotypes or mockery, but it's really not all that bad. If you do, try not to do it again, but don't worry about it too much.
At the very least, Baker should have given Maurer a one week, unpaid suspension — at the very least. He should have issued a statement saying, "Ms. Maurer is a good teacher and we will welcome her back, but she made a serious mistake, and she must face consequences for it. We will not tolerate the use of racial stereotypes or racist language in our district, from teachers or from students. I want everyone to understand this: anyone who indulges in this kind of ugly behavior should expect serious consequences." The fact that students saw these pictures for years and did nothing should have given Baker pause and led to some training for staff members and the inclusion of relevant educational material in class curricula.
As a thought experiment, let's take this teacher and this lesson and move them to a high school in Ferguson, Missouri. Imagine what would have happened if Ms. Maurer showed the pictures in a predominantly black classroom in the racially sensitized community. Students might have reacted in immediate outrage. If not, they certainly would have told teachers, administrators and parents afterward. Parents and community members, angered by the blatantly racist lesson, would demand the teacher be fired immediately. At the very least, she would be placed on paid leave as the school district decided what to do. National news reports would carry the story, and many commentators would tie the teacher's lesson to the institutional racism in the government, the police and the schools. Many of us would shake our heads and ask, "How could that teacher be so stupid? Wasn't it obvious to her how inappropriate it was to use that image of Obama in class? Hasn't she learned anything?" My question is, if the image is inappropriate in a school with a majority black population because of its blatant racist undertones, how is it any less racist, any less worthy of serious condemnation in a mainly white, suburban community in Southern Arizona?