The students that I work with - kids and young adults ranging from 5 years to 18 years of age - very clearly understand that there are certain behaviors and language that I will not tolerate or accept in my presence. Of course the vast majority know that they're not going to get away with any profanity, but other words including "gay" or "retard", racial slurs and derogatory actions (such as making an "L" on their forehead to call someone a loser, mocking another student's speech, calling attention to a part of another student's body, and yes even pulling ones eyes back to "look" Asian) are not necessarily universally known as utterly unacceptable until I call attention to it and we have a discussion as to why I will not accept it in our collective learning environment.
After the incident, we'll stop what we're doing and I'll do my best to facilitate a discussion around the action or language and explain why it is hurtful to all of us. Sometimes we'll do an experiential activity (age appropriate of course) that hopefully drives home the point of impact v. intent and why we need to be aware and responsible of the impact that we're having on one another.
At the end of the day what I ultimately tell my students is this: Now that you are aware of how I feel about this particular behavior or language and the impact that it can have on me and other people, if you CHOOSE to engage in this behavior or use this language again, I will assume that you are making a conscious choice to hurt me and others in this space and that is not okay. You have the information now. It is your choice from now on to use that information for good, not harm. I will do my very best to protect this space for everyone who enters and I expect you to do the same.
The kids get it. They really do. Of course I cannot control what is said and done beyond the classroom, but in my presence they have respected our space and I appreciate and respect them for that.
I think we as adults can take some cues from these students. Are there people in our lives who are telling us that certain things we say or do are hurtful or offensive? Are we showing them that we are listening? Or do we choose to dismiss their feelings and continue to make the deliberate choice to keep on hurting or offending them?
There is a woman in my social circle who has struggled greatly with infertility. Let's say that I thought it was cute and funny to call her Infertile Myrtle every time I saw her. And let's say that she told me that doesn't like it because it's hurtful and offensive and that she's even explicitly asked me to stop calling her that name. But let's say that I really like calling her that because I think it's an endearing term and because rhyming is just too fun and well, don't I have a right to my feelings, too? Well, of course I do. But I need to decide - is it more important that I not intentionally harm or offend this woman or to do what I want to do simply because I think I have a right to do it?
It seems like a no-brainer, but how many people do we know in the workplace, in our communities and even in our own families who would say that people like this woman need to just "lighten up" and "get a sense of humor, already." Gee whiz, I mean, it's not society's fault that she's unable to conceive - why should others have to censor their language just to accommodate her? And besides, my cousin's sister-in-law's aunt's half-sibling said it doesn't bother her, so clearly it's not all that bad. It's just a nickname - why does everyone have to be so PC all the time anyway?
But is it just a nickname? Is it just a costume? Is it just a simple gesture? Is it just an innocent punch line?
When we have been told in no uncertain terms that a particular behavior or certain language is hurtful and offensive and when we refuse to acknowledge how our actions are impacting others by purposely choosing to repeat a behavior that we know is hurting a fellow human being, just exactly what does that mean?
I think my students would be able to answer that and I wish more adults were willing to do the same.