Racing to Teach in Brooklyn



Court St. & Remsen St., Brooklyn, NY 11201

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights

I teach race and ethnic relations at a college to a genuinely diverse (racially, ethnically, economically) student body in Brooklyn. I am particularly fortunate because the students I teach are more than comfortable about speaking out and sharing their own experiences. I enjoy seeing the dynamics between the different groups in the class; they self-divide along friendly – even cheerful – racial and ethnic lines. The groups enjoy teasing and nudging each other, and they take almost of all of the discussions of stereotypes and racism without much offense. I love teaching this course, more than any other, but I recognize that we make progress in the class because of the students – they are more than willing to be open and honest about things that make most of us want to crawl under the table.

When we first approach the subject of race, the students always suggest that we should take a field trip to the cafeteria at the school, where there are two distinct eating areas. Out of class, a student tells me that they call one the “cracketeria” and the other the “blacketeria”. I’m confused, and ask if the “cracketeria” is where students smoke crack, but the woman tells me that is where the “crackers” eat, and the other one is where the black students eat. I have noticed this, and we talk about it, but the students say it is all self-selection and it doesn’t bother them. “We like to listen to loud music when we eat,” one African-American student tells me, “and they don’t, so we just sit in different areas.” I ask them if they feel the lack of interaction between the races in the cafeteria to be a problem, and they say it is not an issue at all because they feel that it is a choice that they freely make. “There aren’t signs that say ‘white’ and ‘colored’,” they point out, “so we just sit where we feel comfortable sitting.”

Some of the discussions are funny – when we talk about Italian-Americans, the non-Italian students say that the Italians have “crazy” accents. The Italian students acknowledge that they have particular accents, and don’t seem offended at all by this characterization. One student, rather poignantly, says that he hopes his child will grow up to be “more refined” than he is and not have such an obvious Italian accent. I try to point out that Italian-Americans who live in, say, California or Idaho, don’t have the same accent, and that perhaps it is unique to Italians who grow up in predominantly Italian neighborhoods in New York City. I tell them that I attended graduate school with many Italian-Americans, and they didn’t have the accent in question. They smirk and tell me that anyone at Yale isn’t a “real” Italian – one Italian student tells me, “Look, if you are Italian you talk like you are Italian – and if you don’t, you are a just a big phony,” and his friends all agree and high-five one another, so I don’t pursue the point. Most of the stereotypes of Italians that the students bring up are positive – big families, close-knit, and good food.

One student, however, says that Italians are often racist, and I ask if he is referring to the notorious racist crimes that took place in Bensonhurst and Howard Beach two decades ago. They don’t have any first-hand memory of these crimes, but many of the Italians in the class live in those neighborhoods, and say that times have changed and people aren’t as racist today as they might have once been. A black student who attended public school in a predominantly white neighborhood disagrees, and says that her experience as one of only a few black students in the school was horrible and unpleasant. The whites who attended her high school disagree with her, defending themselves and saying they aren’t racist and that she is imagining things, but I can also tell that they listen to her carefully and that they are considering her perspective and are not dismissing her. They try to convince her that her perceptions are wrong, but they don’t get far because she is insistent that the experience was one of humiliation. She is a well-respected student, who always makes good points, and the other students gradually come around to the idea that she might have actually found her experience in an all-white high school intimidating and less than perfect.

We talk about a crime that happened this past summer in Howard Beach involving a white man of Italian descent who fractured the skull of an African American man with a baseball bat while yelling racial epithets. The crime is widely covered in the New York media, and was classified as a hate crime. The class is interested when an Italian student tells the class the man charged with this crime is a friend that he has known for many years and that he is most definitely “not racist.” He explains to the class that his friend was angry and he only yelled the racist epithets during a heated confrontation, and that he was enraged, out of control, and didn’t know what he was saying. He also tells us the black kids weren’t innocent bystanders, as in the cases two decades ago. He says they were out looking for trouble and were going to steal a car, and there was some long-standing issue regarding a stolen necklace between the two groups, so on some level they deserved what they got. We have an excellent discussion about this – almost the entire class participates, and I’m impressed at the sophistication with which all students engage and discuss the different meanings of racism.

Of course, the black students don’t buy the story that the perpetrator was just angry and didn’t harbor any actual racist feelings, and of course the friends of the perpetrator (and the friends of the friend of the perpetrator) make efforts to prove that the crime was awful but didn’t have anything to do with racism. However, what was most important about the discussion was that the students were mature and focused, and no one got offended even though both sides felt strongly about the issue. What most pleased me was that the white students were defending the perpetrator on the grounds that he is not a racist, and the other students recognized this and appreciated that no one was arguing that racism was acceptable. They all recognized that the media presentation of the story was problematic, and that the case was actually a complex one; it was not as simple as a crazed racist who set out that day determined to beat and severely injure an innocent black man. We also talk about the problem of hate crime legislation, and most students recognize that classifying the incident as a hate crime and thus enhancing the penalty isn’t going to have much impact on decreasing racism and hate in New York City or anywhere else. They all nod when I point out that even if the black kids were out looking to steal a car, the proper response would be to call the police rather than to beat them up while yelling “nigger”. They laugh when I say that if I saw a bunch of kids out looking for “trouble,” the last thing I would do is to would be to take a baseball bat, crack someone’s head open, and start calling them names – even if they had hassled me the day before. When we look at things this way, even the friends of the perpetrator acknowledge that perhaps there are other, more constructive ways to resolve disputes. They also recognize that while calling names might not break any bones (although in this case, they were calling names while breaking bones), it is not the right thing to do – and, yes, it might suggest that the perpetrator did actually harbor some racist feelings.

One way the students learn about the extent of neighborhood segregation is to learn about the racial and ethnic distribution of their own census tracts. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, New York City is the third most segregated city in the United States (following Detroit and Milwaukee). When we look at our census tracts, we see that usually about eighty percent of the population is one race or ethnicity – and we are usually the same race and ethnicity as that eighty percent. Many students live in tracts with only a few whites or blacks, and, most surprisingly, more than a few whites in the class live in census tracts with zero black residents – despite living in Brooklyn, a borough that is almost 40% black. This exercise demonstrates that residential segregation is alive and well in New York City, a place without a history of Jim Crow and with a reputation as a racially integrated and socially progressive city.

The best part, though, about teaching race is when you do see the students’ consciousness shift. The black students are most willing to discuss stereotypes, and talk openly about stereotypes they like (sexual prowess, good athletes) and those they don’t (lazy, criminals), with equal amusement and energy. What often concerns me, however, is how they resist challenging the stereotypes – instead, they joke about them and flaunt them. “Yes, we are lazy!” one woman says, and tells me that she, along with most of her black friends, doesn’t like to work. I’m glad when an Irish student says, “I’m lazy too, and I’m not black!” Another student says, “We are all lazy – that’s why we are here and not at Harvard!” A black woman from the Caribbean tells the class that African-Americans are indeed lazy, while blacks from the Caribbean are hard working. She tells us that her mother came here illegally, had no opportunities, yet found a way to work and earn money and eventually become a citizen, without ever receiving welfare or any government aid. I notice now that the blacks from the Caribbean view themselves as very different from African-Americans, and I see that the African-Americans don’t bother to respond or defend themselves. I wonder if they don’t say anything because they are so used to hearing these sorts of arguments. I mention the thesis about the black underclass, and how black joblessness is not the result of black laziness but by the historical shift in the past few decades to a service economy from a manufacturing one, which disproportionately hurt African-American male employment prospects, which in turn created an underclass. We also discuss the role of micro-level and institutional white racism, and about how this is perhaps more closely linked to the economic realities of racial minorities than individual laziness. The students listen, but tell me I like to give excuses for everybody. “Why do you question things so much?” they ask me, “everything is good – we are happy! Why do you worry so much?” I tell them I’m not worrying, but that if we want to freely express stereotypes in the class we also have to try to understand why they exist and where they come from. The students like to insist that everyone just hates everyone else, so it isn’t worth exploring too much – and they all bond when they tell me that I’m naïve and idealistic. They are, however, interested in the readings and discussion about the social and structural reasons for unemployment and poverty, and I notice that after they understand these arguments they don’t joke as much about how minorities are lazy.

The white students often express hostility towards affirmative action programs, and claim that they have limited job opportunities because of quotas for racial and ethnic minorities. A few black students protest, and one white student says, “Look, you people get everything. My parents are poor and they have to take out loans to pay for my college and you people get scholarships and don’t have to pay anything.” A quiet black woman, who hasn’t ever said anything, asks him not to refer to blacks as “you people.” The student apologizes, and the black woman says, with great exasperation, “my parents don’t have much money either, and I have to pay full tuition – I don’t qualify for financial aid, and I also have to take out loans to pay for school. I’d love to find some school that would give me a scholarship just because I’m black – but, unfortunately, I can’t find one, so I’m here!” The black and Latino students applaud, and the white student asks her if it is true that she doesn’t have a scholarship.

A number of black and Latino students said they too don’t have any scholarships, and also point out that they have to take out loans to afford tuition. A number of the white students look genuinely surprised, and admit that they had just always assumed that affirmative action meant that students of color got all the scholarships. A woman of color rolls her eyes and tells them they are insane, and the whole class finally lets out a collective laugh at the now-obvious absurdity of that assumption. One African-American man says, “Yeah, I don’t have a scholarship either,” and his friend swats him and said, “that’s because you’re stupid – not because you’re black!” I think everyone was actually pleased at this discussion, and I noticed that in the next class there was much more mingling and discussion across groups both before and after class.

When we talk about Latino immigration, one Dominican student tells me that all Dominicans are drug dealers. I tell him that I know plenty of Dominicans, because I live in a predominantly Dominican neighborhood, and that most of them are hard-working parents with children in school with my own children, and I resent that they are characterizing them as drug dealers. Another Dominican student tells me that it isn’t that all Dominicans are drug dealers, but all Dominicans have “at least one” drug dealer in their family – “they just lie to you, and pretend not to be drug dealers, because you aren’t Dominican!” I explain about patterns of immigration, and the successive stereotyping of Irish, Italian, Jewish and Chinese immigrants as criminals, and the social forces behind crime among newly arrived immigrant groups….They laugh at me, “You’re so naïve!” and dismiss my concerns, and tell me not to trust Dominicans – they themselves are Dominican, so they know better than me. I ask one Dominican student if she has a drug dealer in her own family, and she says, “No, not my family, but I’m the exception.”

My students are always curious about my racial and ethnic background, especially in this course. I find it difficult, on a psychological and emotional level, to discuss my own identity with my students. I know this is hypocritical, because the class is so much fun and so interesting just because the students are so willing to discuss their own identities and experiences. When we get to the part of the course on Jewish Americans, they ask me if I’m Jewish, although I’ve already responded to this question affirmatively at least a few times earlier in the semester. They ask me about my religion repeatedly because most of them live in Brooklyn neighborhoods surrounded by ultra-orthodox Jewish communities, and they seem skeptical that I too am Jewish. I try to explain the differences between fundamentalist and secular Jews, but it is clear that my students’ stereotypes of Jews derive entirely from their observations of the orthodox communities. A few students try to find out if I’m half-Jewish, because they tell me occasionally that I don’t “look” Jewish, but I assure them that my parents, grand-parents, great-grandparents, and any and all ancestors that I know about are most certainly Jewish. Frankly, I’m surprised at their genuine interest in my Jewishness, because most were born and raised in New York City, a place where coming across Jews isn’t exactly a remarkable event.

However, there are no Jews in the class, and not even any WASPS – the students are predominantly a mix of white ethnics (Italians and Irish), African-Americans, Latinos, and Caribbeans. They are very open about how they really dislike the large communities of orthodox Jews that live in Brooklyn. They are extremely honest about this with me, in spite of their knowing that I’m Jewish. “They stare at us!” a number of students insist, and almost all nod their heads in agreement. I tell them, honestly, that I have never noticed this, and instead have always felt that orthodox Jews make an effort to avoid looking at me. The students argue with me, and tell me that they do stare at them and that this is one reason why they don’t like them. “They look down on us!” they say, and tell me I’m clueless and that they stare at them because they think they are superior to them. I ask the class to raise their hands if they think that orthodox Jews don’t stare at them, and only one or two (out of about 35) hands go up. The students are not hostile or angry, and they seem to enjoy expressing their feelings about a group that they see all around them but with which they have virtually no personal contact. I ask them what makes them think that the religious Jews feel superior to them, and they just tell me that they can “feel it” and they “can just tell”. I argue that the stares are out of curiosity and perhaps even envy, because the students are not so firmly limited in behavior, dress, and lifestyle as the Hasidim. A student shakes his head, and insists again that they think they are much better than everyone else and, “Because they are Jewish they think they are better!” he says.

I’m glad he says this, because we begin discussing how the ultra-religious and fundamentalists across all religions often have a sense of superiority, because they believe that they are saved and all others are headed towards damnation. In fact, I point out, in order for any individual to maintain extreme religious faith, one has to be utterly devoted because of the extreme demands and pressures of the dominant secular context. The students seem relieved to recognize that part of a strong religious faith is utter conviction, and somewhat pleased – though still suspicious – to think that religious Jews share something in common with other religious groups. I don’t mind this discussion, because I know they don’t hate Jews but are instead baffled by the insulated orthodox Jewish communities that surround their neighborhoods yet with whom they have virtually no personal interaction.

We also talk about other stereotypes of Jews, and so they tell me that they are cheap (“except with themselves!” one student helpfully explains – “they buy themselves fancy clothes and big houses – but they don’t spend money on anyone else”). I ask them how they know that they are cheap, and a few students say that it is because they don’t tip, and because they are rich. It is clear that this is a boring stereotype that they are willing to repeat but of which they aren’t particularly convinced, and I tell them the origins of this stereotype (money-lenders, etc.) and they also seem interested to think that it might not be true. They also tell me that they try to buy houses from people who don’t want to move (a few students claim that Orthodox Jews knocked on the doors of their homes and offered them cash for their houses). The students have many questions about the Orthodox, but they mostly have to do with the way they dress and their appearance and customs.

A few semesters ago, I had a Hasidic friend come and talk to a class because the students were similarly curious, but when he came in the students froze and said almost nothing for the first hour. Eventually, they opened up and asked him questions, but they were much more shy and inhibited than they had been with me. I found it strange that they were so open about their feelings about Jews with me, yet so fearful and overwhelmed by an openly religious Jew. My friend was equally intimidated by the students, and after the class he confessed that he was sweating profusely and was incredibly uncomfortable. I asked him why, and he said that talking to a large group of non-Jews freaked him out tremendously. He said that he had hoped to convince them of the open-mindedness and friendliness of religious Jews, and of their sophistication and willingness to mingle with outsiders, but once there he realized that he did view them with a mixture of fear and mistrust. “I don’t know,” he told me, “but they could be anti-Semites – I mean, you never really know, with a whole group of goyim”. My friend, like my students, was born and raised in Brooklyn, yet had only been educated in religious settings and had interacted exclusively with other religious Jews.

He was partially interested in me because he hoped to convince me to become religious, and I think he convinced himself that his interactions with me were a form of missionary work. I recognized that his response to the students was not much different from their fears and suspicion of him, and I was disappointed that his visit did not fully resolve the Jewish question. I had hoped that the students would see that he was just a person without any sense of moral superiority, just like them, but they didn’t and he wasn’t.

I’m continually surprised and in awe of my students’ willingness to confront things that make me uneasy. I strongly admire this quality, though, and I am always grateful that our class isn’t limited to discussions based only on our text. I went to an extremely progressive and liberal school, where mainly white students from privileged backgrounds were incensed about racism and discrimination, and where we read and quoted radical thinkers and critical race theorists. No student in any class would ever say “Jews do this” or “Blacks do this” or “Latinos do this” – rather, we would carefully talk about how the persistence of racial and ethnic disparities in the United States were caused by a combination of socio-economic structural realities and often outright white racism. We were all willing to discuss our own racism, but we also smugly felt that by discussing it we were recognizing it and thus conquering it. There was no chance that anyone would voice a racist or discriminatory stereotype, even in careful terms so that it could be deconstructed. Discussions would center about how stereotypes – held, of course, by others, much unlike our liberated, open-minded, critically thinking and sophisticated selves – were false, and we would spend all of our time abstractly explaining their falsehood and inaccuracy. The truth was that those classes were boring, and I see in retrospect that teaching race and ethnic relations to a class with no diversity is an entirely different – and much less interesting – experience. I understand that education isn’t supposed to be an extended encounter session, but teaching race and ethnicity to a class of students who actually know something about racial and ethnic realities does make a difference. Moreover, the truth is that even though I’ve always affirmed the concept of integration and the need for diversity, it was impossible for me to comprehend or accept its necessity until I learned first-hand how it has a profound and substantial educational benefit.

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§ One Response to “Racing to Teach in Brooklyn”

  • The race card is confusing for many youths of color and while Caucasian children aren’t benefited as much, this is where there is a play on words. This advantage that minorities have for filling quotas confuses many individuals but the way our society is formed, minorities are being compensated for years or discrimination and torture by earlier generations. However, if colleges favor one race over the other, isn’t that discrimination? Those living in the New York City area have the diversity and architecture to be thankful for. Sites like Townhouse Therapy offer great renovated townhouses and brownstones that would impress just about anyone.

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