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Talking about Ferguson to Japanese 4th graders

**Disclaimer: I did not start this discussion! Believe me, I tried and failed to stop these children.

**Disclaimer 2: Most of the questions and statements are translated sentences from myself and the JET, Japanese English Teacher, who worked with me.

At the beginning of class for every lesson I tell my elementary school students how I am feeling or what I’ve been doing lately. This is never a deep discussion by any means. Theses talks start out very whimsical:

“I’m excited about Halloween.”

“I’m sad because it’s rainy outside.”

“I went to Fujikyu Highland last weekend.”

“American lost to Germany in Fifa Today.”

It may seem lame to some but it can be one of the most engaging parts of the lesson. Students use both English and Japanese to ask questions and speak their minds on the topic. It’s a segment that can also set the tone for the duration of the lesson – for both the teachers and students.

This morning I had already read blogs from both sides of the Ferguson situation, had disputes with people I deemed, ‘in denial,’ and talked my own self in circles over these awful injustices. Needless to say, I was disappointed with the outcome this past Monday – Tuesday, Japanese time. An emotion not for the workplace and definitely not something to talk about with people who can’t really relate.

With that said, Thursday’s lesson with 4th graders was not going to kick itself off with, “I’m sad. They shot another black person in America.” Not even, “I’m angry because American police don’t handle situations like Japanese police do.”

Nope, today was, “I’m excited. Today is Thanksgiving Day in America.”

The kids looked confused; I knew they would. It was a lead in for talking about Thanksgiving Day. That was my intention. In hindsight, I assume they understood the words, ‘today,’ ‘in,’ and ‘America’then filled in the blacks with what they had heard recently about the States.

Five of them shouted,「デモ」,’demo’ AKA ‘protest.’ That set off a chain of the more informed students telling the less informed ones about Ferguson. Phrases like 「黒人の男性が白人の警察官に銃で撃たれた」(“A black man was shot by a white cop.”), 「差別」(“discrimination”) and 「なぜ?」(“Why?”) were the phrases I could pick up the most.

As a teacher, I really didn’t think talking about controversial topics that I would have a strong opinion on to students was a good idea. Especially when it just happened…I kept pushing Thanksgiving. The more I pushed Thanksgiving the more they kept asking about Ferguson.

Question: “Was the Thanksgiving holiday on that day[Aug. 24th]? That’s sad.”

Answer: “No, no. It was two days ago. Thanksgiving is today.” I made mad attempts to make the most vague and friendly-sounding response to the student’s question. You know, those “Nothing for you to worry about” answers.  “The timing is bad but people are trying not to be sad by celebrating.” Not even that answer sated them. By then, three more hand shot up asking why Kokujin, black people, were still being discriminated against in 2014. Thank god for the JET who helped translate their questions and my answers. She was willing to do so and she asked the students if they wanted to ask questions about Ferguson instead of Thanksgiving. There was a collective 「やった!」, “Yes!”

Meanwhile, the questions I’m asking myself is, “How do they know about this?” and ” Why do they want to know about this?”

Question 1: ‘Didn’t Lincoln end discrimination against black people?’

Answer: I informed the student he helped end slavery. The students collectively recalled a previous lesson where they had been taught about American slavery. I went on to tell them about the Civil Right Act of 1964 which outlawed discrimination towards any and all persons. They were shocked it was passed in the 20th century and asked what couldn’t black people do?

My Answer: “They couldn’t vote. They couldn’t marry another white person. They couldn’t eat in the same restaurant as a white person. Black children couldn’t go to the same school as a white person.” I stopped there but another student asked about transportation. “They could ride together but blacks had to sit in the back and whites could sit up front. This is one of the things Martin Luther King fought for.”

Cue in LIGHT BULBS! They knew Dr. King had written his famous speech but didn’t know why he had written it. Most of them will learn once they go to high school. Dr. King’s speech is on the English education curriculum in many schools. It’s also programmed in almost every advanced electronic Japanese-English dictionary.

Question 3: ‘But America voted for Obama?’

Answer: ‘A candidate needs over 50% to win an election just like in Japan. Over 50% were please about Obama being president, less than 50% were not. Of those people there are people who don’t like that he is president for various reasons.’

Question 3 Follow Up: ‘Even for being a kokujin?’

My answer was, yes. That got me the Japanese 「え~~~~~!?」 (”EH!!”). A surprised expression of disbelief.

Question 4: Why can’t some hakujin, white people, treat kokujin like humans?

Answer: I didn’t have an answer for the student’s question but I praised her for asking it and encourage the students to try and respect others no matter who it is.

Question 5: When you lived in America, what was scary to you?

My Answer: To me the police can be scary sometimes but driving in the states is pretty scary too.

As an American living here, I am asked a lot about American politics and racism. I make attempts to stay impartial as I can when explaining about these injustices. It’s very difficult and tiring. I hope my answers to these students were unbiased. Keeping my answers as G-rated as I possibly could, the JET felt they were appropriate.

I’ve got to say, we were both blown back by their questions. Adults sometimes assume these incidents–especially incidents that happened halfway across the world–aren’t of interest to children. “It’s not their problem.” I always tell myself. I said that when Trayvon Martin happened. Police brutality and injustice against African-Americans may not be their problem but it was an amazing feeling to witness their curiosity on the subject. It was even more amazing they were 4th graders.

I know this post isn’t the best as far as good blogging goes. I really wanted to get document this moment as quick as I could. Share your thoughts if you like. Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving!

 

 

 

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