A teacher in North Georgia may lose her job after asking four of her students to wear Ku Klux Klan outfits as part of a class project. The black students at her school were upset to see the costumes and complained to the administration.
Catherine Ariemma, an award-winning teacher who teaches advanced U.S. history and film education, could be either suspended or fired for the incident and has been placed on administrative leave pending the results of an investigation.
Ariemma teaches in Lumpkin County and has been there for six years. The rural county is 75 miles north of Atlanta. She told the Associated Press that she was trying to cover an important and sensitive topic, but admits that she made a mistake.
"It was poor judgment on my part in allowing them to film at school," Ariemma said. "... That was a hard lesson learned."
She said that the class has 15 students of multiple races, but no African Americans. The goal of the project was to trace the history of racism in America. Five students agreed to take on the subject as part of their class project.
"The kids brought the sheets in, they had SpongeBob party hats underneath to make it shaped like a cone," Ariemma said. "They cut out the eyes, so they could see."
Ariemma led the students through the cafeteria to another location, where the scene was to be shot. She was later approached by another teacher.
"That's when I heard there were a couple of students who were upset," she said.
One of the students described his reaction to seeing hooded students walking through the cafeteria:
"I got mad and stood up and I tried to go handle it," he told a local TV station. A black parent went to the school to complain that night.
When I read about the teacher who asked her students to dress as Klansmen, my first question was, "What was her point?" In many cases, our reactions to certain racial stimuli are quick and Pavlovian, in which we respond without asking appropriate questions. We can't quickly assume that Ariemma is a racist just because she used poor judgment.
But a deeper issue to be brought forth (which I discuss with Lola Adesioye in the audio clip below) is whether the teacher would have done the same thing with Jewish students, re-enacting the Holocaust, or with other students, re-enacting the tragedies of 9/11.
The point here is that there are some cases in which the humanity of black people is not respected in the same way as other ethnic groups. We can make jokes about slavery, act out traumatic experiences or behave as though it should simply be forgotten, while equally abhorrent tragedies among other ethnic groups are only considered for the most solemn and respectful discussions. In other words, this incident (similar to the teacher in North Carolina who told his black students to pick cotton while white students watched) reminds us that there are times when the feelings of black students are not as readily considered as the feelings of others.
The teacher should not be fired, but she should certainly be disciplined and educated on why her behavior was inconsiderate. It's okay to mistakenly hurt someone's feelings, as long as you are willing to understand why they were so negatively affected. The segment I did with Adesioye is below. Enjoy!
By Boyce Watkins, PhD