Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Swine Flu

“Miss Klein – take some of this, stay clean.” A small boy runs towards me with a pump bottle of Purell in his hands, squirting some of the gel onto my palms. This happened repeatedly throughout the day. Apparently, the Swine flu has struck fear in the hearts of many of my students – a girl running through the halls offering it to people, boys sitting around washing their hands and declaring that their bacon egg and cheese sandwiches that they got at the deli in the morning would now be bacon-free. I pause to dismantle some of the more extreme assumptions that they are making about the flu (no, it does not turn you into a pig. No, you do not have to kiss pigs to get it. Etc.) but otherwise try to ignore the excitement around the looming epidemic.

But it become difficult to ignore it once it takes on the cruel, ignorant, racist tenor that only middle school students could so unselfconsciously adopt. They begin by creating new lyrics to the song 'blame it on the alcohol.'

"Blame it on the swine, got you feeling blind. Blame it on the flu, got you feeling blue. Blame it on the Me-e-e-e-e-e-exicans."

“Yo, Miss Klein – stay away from Mexicans,” one boy warns. He is sitting at a table with a group of his friends who happen to all be Dominican and Puerto Rican. Racism at my school is generall directed more towards students from Guyana and Africa than towards the Hispanic students who make up the majority of the school All of it is based in stereotypes, of course – some ridiculous enough to make even the persecuted child smile. Others are mean and ignorant. The thing is that it’s always about the perpetrator more than the victim – an effort to get a laugh from the class. There’s not a lot of quiet prejudices – rather they come through in the form of a joke, loud enough for everyone to hear, and beaten mercilessly into the ground at the first flicker of approval from the other students.

To the African students there are jokes made about spending the holidays roping giraffes, or setting lions loose on their enemies. The students from Guyana who often resemble Middle Easterners are frequently called terrorists, and accused of planting bombs around the school or the city. After a reporter in Iraq threw his shoe at George Bush, one student called out in math class – “Watch out Mr. M – O(Guyanese student) just took his shoes off!”. Other days they will warn me that a student just planted a teeny tiny bomb in my desk. The Dominicans have the reputation of being loud and confrontational, the Puerto Ricans tout their citizenship, and the Mexicans take their share of the jokes, but seem to lack a specific stereotype.

Today, kids ran around the school warning each other to stay away from Mexicans – not to talk to them, not to be near them. They loudly joked about how the flu was carried through Mexicans, and dramatically jumped away from any Mexican student who approached them. Of course, this is not everyone – just a few immature boys who think that they’re funny. But it’s enough that you look around the room and see the kids avoiding eye contact, focusing on their papers. One fiercely responded that it came from Asia, not from Mexico – which went over well since there were no Asian kids in the school to argue about it. But it’s less fun to have an absent victim, and they turned back to avoiding Mexicans soon enough. It’s all in good fun, really – they aren’t mean kids. But it’s middle school, and in-groups and out-groups couldn’t be more important, and in a diverse school, it seems almost inevitable that at times it become racial.