A teacher in Norman, Okla., is under fire after he told students that “to be white is to be racist.” (YouTube image)

The lecture at the Norman, Okla., high school was intended to heal the racial divides, a student said.

The discussion’s premise: White people are racist.

All of them.

Following that discussion, an Oklahoma teacher is under fire and a high school is mired in the debate about how teachers should inject themselves into conversations about race in the United States.

NBC affiliate KFOR reported on the controversy last week after receiving a recording from an offended student at Norman North High School.

In the recording, the teacher shows a YouTube clip about imperialism. A man in the video uses white-out on a globe to illustrate how European influence spread across the world.

The discussion follows.

In the recording, the teacher asks: “Am I racist? And I say yeah. I don’t want to be. It’s not like I choose to be racist, but do I do things because of the way I was raised.”

“To be white is to be racist, period,” the teacher says.

The teacher has been identified by the Norman Transcript as James Coursey.

The offended student told KFOR in an interview that she felt picked on because she is white.

“Half of my family is Hispanic, so I just felt like, you know, him calling me racist just because I’m white … I mean, where’s your proof in that?” said the student, who was not named by the station. “I felt like he was encouraging people to kind of pick on people for being white.”

“You start telling someone something over and over again that’s an opinion, and they start taking it as fact,” she said.

As word of the lecture spread, some have criticized the teacher’s tactics.

“Why is it okay to demonize one race to children that you are supposed to be teaching a curriculum to?” the girl’s father asked in an interview with KFOR.

Some critics called Coursey’s comments hypocritical and racist and have called for his job, the Norman Transcript reported.

But students who support the teacher walked out of the high school in protest Tuesday. Student organizers released a statement that the school district shared with media outlets.

“What has been reported in the news doesn’t accurately portray what happened in our philosophy class, nor does it reflect what we believe in at our school,” said a student who organized the demonstration and participated in the lecture but was not identified by the district. “The information was taken out of context and we believe it is important to have serious and thoughtful discussions about institutional racism in order to change history and promote inclusivity.”

The school district has not said whether the teacher is facing disciplinary action.

But Superintendent Joe Siano said the conversation, while important, could have been handled better.

“Racism is an important topic that we discuss in our schools,” Siano said in a statement emailed to The Washington Post. “While discussing a variety of philosophical perspectives on culture, race and ethics, a teacher was attempting to convey to students in an elective philosophy course a perspective that had been shared at a university lecture he had attended.

“We regret that the discussion was poorly handled. When the district was notified of this concern it was immediately addressed. We are committed to ensuring inclusiveness in our schools.”

Scott Rogers, a former blogger for Conservative Voice, suggested the teacher went too far and told his Twitter followers the educator should be fired.

But Paul Ketchum, a liberal studies professor from the University of Oklahoma, told the Normal Transcript that research supports Coursey’s comment, even if the way he put it was problematic.

“I think it was a rookie error in teaching about race,” Ketchum told the newspaper. “You go for the big term when a less loaded term would be better to make it a teachable moment.
“That’s where this teacher’s going to face a lot of blowback, because most of the students at Norman North are white and come from white families. That’s why they might view this as an attack on them. And I get that. It’s statistically not correct, but I understand why they would react that way.

“My deepest sympathies to the teacher, because he is going to get hammered.”

Ketchum added that media coverage of Coursey’s comment “tells us just how significant race still is.”

The incident illustrates the tightrope teachers walk between engaging students in the important issues of the day and staying neutral in a room filled with impressionable youths.

Implicit bias — the belief that we all have unconscious opinions about race, gender and ethnicity that subtly affect our actions — has been discussed in police stations, school rooms and on CNN. The nation has been grappling with the issue as it debates whether officers are more likely to use deadly force against minorities and whether teachers discipline black students more severely.

For teachers, racial bias can be an engaging, relevant civics lesson as much as it is a prescient social issue, educators and experts say. But conversations about race in an educational setting are delicate.

Still, the conversations are happening in schools whether teachers are involved or not.

Over the summer, students at a private school in Florida drew scorn when they had an Instagram debate about which was a more respectful way to use a racial slur for black people. Last month in Montana, two students made national headlines when one wore a shirt that said “White Power” on the front and another’s had the word “Redneck” and a picture of the Confederate battle flag.

For Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, teacher Kathleen Melville wrote a blog post titled “Talking With Students About Ferguson and Racism” about the difficulty — and the necessity — of discussing race in U.S. high schools.

“Talking about race is not entirely new to my ninth-grade students, but it’s definitely not a comfortable topic, at least not at school. As I get to know my students at the beginning of the year, I notice how they tiptoe around the issue. One student uses the term “white people” and then immediately apologizes to me: “Sorry, Miss. No offense. I mean Caucasian.” Another student mentions the demographics of a neighborhood, saying there are a lot of white people, and someone else responds, ‘Oooh! Don’t say that! That’s racist!’ …

“This work with students does not come easily. The sanctioned curriculum avoids it and many administrators frown on it. But we need schools that give teachers wide latitude to tailor curricula to students’ needs.”

This story, originally published on Wednesday, has been updated.

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