A teaching moment in Denison



When up to 200 students walk out of class to stage a protest, it’s about something more than one teacher’s selective use of the “N” word in trying to explain American history.

Denison High School teacher Crystal Holt was suspended briefly, then quickly reinstated, last week after having used the word in a class discussion of history. She said she was using the word in context, and complained of political correctness run amok.

Students told the Carroll Times Herald that there are deeper undercurrents. One said he was terrorized at gunpoint for speaking Spanish, for example. Latinos feel that they have a target on their backs — they literally did in El Paso. Crystal Holt is married to State Rep. Steve Holt, a Denison Republican who is cut from Rep. Steve King’s cloth. They have a President who swears he wants to deport them. They hear the slurs about brown people. Finally, there are huge generational differences on display among older white people and younger brown people who are offended and hurt by racial language they hear all the time.

The school district has hired an outside consultant to review its sensitivity to students of color. The schools will institute diversity training. Denison is trying to look at itself.

Similarly, Worthington, Minn., found itself in the national news after rejecting school bond issues five times (another try recently was successful). Much of the rhetoric against the bond issue involved spending money to educate immigrants, according to an unflattering story in The Washington Post.

Worthington in recent years has been faced with an influx of minor refugees unaccompanied by adults numbering in the hundreds. It unsettles people, and that is understandable. Perceptions get warped out of proportion in this siege mentality fed by a White House warning of a Latino invasion. White people left out of America’s prosperity in the rural Midwest believe the lie that brown people stole their destiny through welfare. They forget Ronald Reagan busted the unions, not Cesar Chavez. Those Latinos, documented or not, work for their supper and provide yours.

There weren’t many African-American students who walked out in Denison. It was mainly Latinos, where use of the word seemed to be the point where things boiled over.

We did not sense big trouble in Worthington or Denison. Worthington was held up by the Minneapolis Federal Reserve governor as a community making it work in modern rural America — a vision of the future lauded in the Minneapolis StarTribune. The town was proud. A couple years later and the attitude portrayed is largely different.

Storm Lake has done well embracing new neighbors. Public Safety Director Mark Prosser just won one of the nation’s highest honors for advocating on behalf of immigrants. The school system is a model emulated all over the state. Buena Vista University is offering full rides to first-generation Latino collegians.

Despite all that, Latino leaders here will tell you that their friends are afraid. Last summer a large number of brown people, with their Anglo friends and supporters, staged a rally in Awaysis Park against the misdirected animus aimed at immigrants. They do feel like second-class people — even those who earned their citizenship over decades of waiting and work. Latinos are demonized. They feel the “N” word, too.

That’s why it is so important that we are cognizant of what we say and how we say it. Everyone is on edge. It’s easy to cut and start the bleeding.

Crystal Holt has aligned herself over the years with right-wing, anti-immigrant spewers on social media, reported Gavin Aronson of the Iowa Informer. That is her right, and should be expected given her husband’s record and remarks. It is also the right of students to view her use of the “N” word as licentious in that context. They were saying, together, that they have had enough. The school administration determined that Holt did not have malicious intent in using the word. But you can see how misunderstandings occur in our inflamed atmosphere. While it might seem okay for old white guys like me who were steeped in redneck culture to use the word for illustrative purposes, our children teach us that it is not okay and in fact hurts people when old white folk don’t have a clue. Let’s learn something and not retreat to our defensive crouch.

Storm Lake is not experiencing the same things as Denison and Worthington because of disciplined community leadership that recognizes rural areas cannot survive, much less thrive, without immigrants. We are simply trying to play the hand we’re dealt by unsentimental markets as an isolated rural meatpacking community. It’s time to lay down arms and speak to each other. That’s what people in Denison are trying to do this week. Good for them. And good for Worthington in passing that bond issue with a healthy sense of Midwestern shame. We are better than all this. In fact, we’re all in that rural boat that’s been sinking for the past half-century. All hands, brown or white, are needed on deck.

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