"I don't like that the article you gave us draws a link between racism and sexism" he said very matter-of-factly. "If women are good enough to get a job they'll get it. If not, then men will. Sexism doesn't exist anymore. I shared the article with my parents and they agree," he informed me and then he sunk in his seat, held up his fully annotated article, and glared at the floor.
Then I told him that both he and his parents were absolutely allowed to believe that McIntosh was "making a big deal out of nothing and pointing out problems that didn't exist."
A few girls sat up tall in their seat and burned my eyes with their's.
"But there is a lot of evidence that does suggest men and women have not been treated equally," I continued. "Things are certainly better, but the moderators in the Democratic primary debates never asked the male candidates if they preferred pearls or diamonds. And as far as I've heard, in the Republican debates, male candidates have never referred to their opposing party colleagues as "prince" Joe instead of Speaker Schmo. Those are somewhat trivial examples, but the point is that we certainly still have some reason to think about gender. As we begin To Kill a Mockingbird, I want you to keep race and gender and socioeconomic status on the tip of your mind."
I swallowed again; he wasn't listening.
"Opinions are what make our country what it is. We just have to respect the fact that other people don't always share the same beliefs. We can disagree with each other, but we need to respectful."
I focused on each syllable as it escaped my lips, attempting to cover the rage boiling in my gut, attempting to be open and accepting and respectful of his beliefs too. I thanked him for speaking up. I granted him the same air time that I granted everyone else. I asked him follow up questions; I attempted to get him to think deeper just like I pushed everyone else.
Then, a brave female in the back raised her hand. "I like that the article talks about both sexism and racism. I still see many examples of both," she said. Then she went on to talk about her experience in a more urban, more diverse school district. She referenced lyrics to rap songs. She confidently asserted that she found many truths housed in the 1988 article by Peggy McIntosh called "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack."
Others shared their opinions, none quite as strong as the first two. I offered a few anecdotal accounts from my own life, I quoted shared stories from previous classes, and I explained that the existence of laws did not always equate to equality.
After discussing "flesh" colored band aids, stereotypes on TV, and a black man who was pulled over for simply driving in a primarily white suburb, the bell rang.
I asked the first young man who spoke up to stay after class. I explained that a lot of people have different theories and beliefs about the "isms." I also told him that even if he disagreed with the article, it was good that he read it; it sparked discussion and it made him think.
"Racism still exists," he said. "I agree with most of the statements about that. I just don't believe males and females are treated differently."
"You are entitled to that belief," I told him. "I just want wanted to get you thinking."
"Okay, thank you, Mrs. M" he said, and then he walked out of the room.
I sat and stared at the floor. Piles of planning plagued me, and emails decorated my inbox. I couldn't tend to either. I wanted to give him example after example of why sexism is still worth talking about. I wanted to explain that the battle for equality has not been reached. I wanted to assign him research, case studies, interviews with women who could provide a different vantage point.
But I didn't do any of that.
I questioned him, but ultimately, I gave him the courtesy I suggested he needed to give to the other side. And then I let him walk out of the room. I let him go...and I had to. We live in America after all. We are free. And as long as we are not hateful, we can believe anything we choose to believe.
When enough time passed--when I replayed the discussion enough times in my head--I pulled up my email, I retrieved my calendar, and I tweaked my plans. Then, sick to my stomach, I walked out of the room and headed off to boot camp.
Teaching is so hard sometimes.