Recognizing and Embracing The Other
The transcript of a conversation between
Courtney Helen Grile and Khary Jackson.
In thinking about this idea of otherness in the classroom and what we as teachings artists can do/should do to address it, I had the great fortune to spend a little bit of time on the phone with Khary Jackson, an old colleague of mine from when I was working in Minneapolis. Khary is a teaching artist that I greatly respect and looked up to in many ways when we were working together for his ability to use his great artistry in the classroom with young people in a powerful and effective way. We only had a short time to chat together, but our conversation has given me many things to think about going forward not only as a teaching artist, but now as an administrator as well.
C: I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately of how our personal experiences working with young people have been effected by the idea of otherness in the classroom.
K: Basically I feel like it’s a balance between recognizing that otherness and also recognizing whats not other about you.
C: I like that. Yeah, kind of that idea of what is the same about all of us despite all of our really wonderful differences as well. The things that make us unique. Did you ever have any issues or have to stop a class to address this topic?
K: What do you mean?
C: Well, from my personal experience, honestly, I had a student look right at me and – he wasn’t wrong, he was in high school; a tall African-American guy and he told me, “You have nothing to do with me. My life has nothing to do with theatre. You’re just some little white girl coming into my classroom trying to talk to me about something that has absolutely no relevance in my life.” It hit me really hard and after a few moments I looked at him and said, “I’m actually just offering a framework for discussing whatever you’d like to discuss in your life. You may be surprised, we may have some things in common – but I’m more here to offer this format. This theatrical format for having the dialogue rather than coming in and telling you what you need to be talking about. I think that’s where – for me – that understanding happened. I ended up working with that group of students for about a year and half and they were wonderful and amazing, but it was that moment of them thinking that I was coming in to force something on them that they didn’t want…because of how “other” I was. I didn’t work at the school, I was coming in with this other art form; there were so many things that made me “other” in addition to the color of my skin that it presented a bit of a problem for him. The student put it out there for me, but I was able to then address it and say we’re just here, you know, to talk about whatever’s important to you, but we’re going to use Image theatre and we’re going to use a little bit of Forum Theatre to do it. The content comes from you completely and I don’t censor that at all. So, in this context it helped a lot to address that head-on for me. I didn’t know if you’d had any similar experiences.
K: Not like that. There’s been some racial differences in groups I’ve been in and something might come up between a black kid and a white kid or whatever – either you choose to address it right then or maybe you wait until later in private or whatever seems the most appropriate. Passing it along to their teacher or what have you. I think a lot about systems. As a teaching artists, being aware of what systems are in place at the school that are more permanent than you are as the visitor. If you notice something significant happen and you think it might continue down the line; letting their teacher or principal or counselor know so that they can keep an eye out on that.
C: Do you think this topic, in your experience, should be a topic that we go into schools and communities to discuss? To actually say we’re going to be talking about this idea of differences and otherness and diversity and what that means – or do you think it just kind of organically manifests itself during class times.
K: Either or. It depends on the situation. What did the school bring you in there for? For example, if they brought us in there to talk about Global Warming, that’s probably not the best time to bring an entirely different subject, even though it’s important. That would be a case where if it came up in the class from a student – maybe take a moment to address it and move on or try to find a way to connect it to the topic you came there for. That’s probably what I would go for…because I think it can be tempting to try and tackle every problem that comes up in front of you when that may not actually be what they need from you right then. Maybe a kid says I don’t need to listen to you, you’re an entirely different culture, what you’re doing has nothing to do with me and you’re like, “I’m just here to teach you about global warming and I hope that we can set our differences aside and talk about that for a bit and if we have time after class we can talk about it a little more and that can be great. I think it’s easy to get derailed if we’re not purposeful in how we address things like that.
C: That’s true. You know, there’s this idea of how do we find common grounds with our students to reach whatever the social or artistic or educational goal that we have is and is there a need to address the idea of otherness from the start or to let it manifest organically. I’ve always let it manifest organically. I treat my students with respect as fellow human beings and I want them to show me that same respect and until a line is crossed or that doesn’t happen then I move forward with the assumption that we’re all human beings, we’re all here together – we’re all in this room together certainly and that much we have in common and we’re working on this (whatever the topic is) thing together. That is what propels me forward. If something happens, then taking the time then or later on in the class to address it.
K: Again, it comes back to what you’re actually there to do. From a professional standpoint – if we’re working in the paradigm where you’re a teaching artist that’s coming to bring a service to a school, then that’s the number one thing that you’re there for as a professional if you want to continue with them in the future. That’s my baseline for that kind of thing. If there is an appropriate way to incorporate additional topics; for example, I go in to talk about one thing but then a student says something really homophobic or something like that and that triggers my own emotions, I need to decide the best way to address that quickly without being derailed from what I’m there to do. If nothing else I might simply reinforce the importance of respect in a safe space in that time we have together in the room and that might be all I say about it. If I go into a ten minute discussion about homophobia, then I lose ten minutes out of maybe forty-five that I had to talk about this other thing that I was brought there to do. I feel like teaching artists should definitely deal with those questions on their own. All teachings artists should be prepared for anything like that. Knowing what your hot buttons are, what are things that someone can say to get you upset and off your game and in advance, know how you want to address that or move forward from that.
C: Definitely a great idea to be sure to have that sort of preparation.
K: Every time I go somewhere, into whatever school or classroom – I’m always aware of what my identity is in that space. No matter where I go, I’m going to be a black male in that space. Yes, we’re all human but I’m a black male human and these students might be Chinese humans, Mexican humans, or what have you, but that identity is still going to be there. That’s part of the work of living in this time and in this country now. A lot of people desire to be “colorblind” or not see color, not see race and that doesn’t work either. It’s about seeing it and respecting that. So yes, I’m a black male in this room and that’s totally fine. You’re a classroom full of white children and that’s totally fine. We’re here to talk about global warming and move forward. Mentally that’s what I always did.
C: It’s interesting that you say that, because I always thing about my position as a young, white female going into the various spaces that I enter, regardless of whether the students were predominantly Caucasian, Asian, African-American, etc. Being aware of those factors, the things that I innately embody by being alive and breathing, that it effects my students in different ways. It’s good to know I’m not the only one thinking about that when I walk into a room. Especially a room of kids and the idea is that we will get through to them and work with them and be able to have a really productive and constructive time together. Knowing all those different factors that come into play, but also not wanting to act on – preemptively, what students or teachers assumptions might be about you because you are a young white female – or a black male.