How Not to Address a Student’s Feelings of Unintentional Discrimination

By Shannon Wanna, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate


Editor’s Note: We received the following letter from Shannon Wanna, a Native American and digital marketing expert, regarding her and her daughter’s experience in their Kansas public school. We were tempted to offer educators advice at the end of this piece. But the letter, edited here, speaks clearly for itself: Check your racial bias; don’t be defensive.

Before the start of the school year, I contacted the principal at my daughter’s school to make him aware of the “Teacher Tribe” T-shirts I found circulating on social media. I let him know that I found these shirts to be highly offensive and that I would be particularly offended if any educator wore them at the school. I said I know it would upset my third-grade daughter as well. As Native Americans and members of the Muscogee Creek, Seminole, Omaha, and Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribes, we deeply value our culture and traditions. Given the history of Native Americans having to restrict their cultural practices and traditions through assimilation and boarding schools, I said it is inappropriate for teachers to wear shirts with the word “Tribe” or that include images of a tipi and arrow.

The principal responded, addressing my concerns, and spoke to a few of the staff members about this. This was last I heard of it.

One Friday early in the school year, my daughter came home and told me she saw one of the teachers wearing a similar “Teacher Tribe” shirt and that it hurt her feelings. We practice open communication in our household, so I asked her what she wanted to do about these feelings. She said she wanted to talk to the teacher. I have always felt comfortable speaking with any of the staff at the school, as they have always been very open and approachable to my family. So I thought not only should they be aware of how offensive these shirts are to Native Americans, as well as other students and parents, but that they’d be receptive to hearing from my daughter. I also thought this was a powerful way for my daughter to use the leadership skills that she had learned through the Leader In Me program at her school. I am so proud of my daughter for wanting to stand up for what she believes in!

So we went back up to the school around 4:30 pm that day to have a conversation with the teacher who wore the shirt, but she had already left. My daughter still wanted to talk to someone at the school, so when we ran into her second-grade teacher from the previous year, my daughter spoke about her feelings and I provided further explanation on the matter. The teacher had no idea how offensive the shirt was and commended my daughter for being brave enough to speak up, educate and bring awareness to those around her about her culture. This made my daughter feel so much better and at ease. She planned to talk to the teacher who had actually wore the shirt on Monday. I told her we would go in early or stay after school to meet with her.

Then at 7:45 pm that Sunday, I received a phone call from the teacher in question. She said the principal gave her the OK to speak to me about this (I found out later from the principal that he did not tell her to call us). I was expecting a respectful conversation, but she came at me — and my daughter — in a very aggressive and defensive manner. We had respected and trusted the teacher so my daughter and I both felt comfortable talking to her about a sensitive topic. I felt this could be a teachable moment for my daughter and a great way to express her feelings, use her leadership skills, and speak up for what she believes in. I am so very proud of her bravery! Instead of having an open dialogue between a teacher and student and parent, we were subjected to a horrific phone call. The teacher did not enter the conversation to listen or to understand our point of view. She was very defensive. We in no way wanted to make her feel uncomfortable. My daughter simply wanted to have a conversation about the shirt and share her feelings. That was it!

After the teacher stopped interrupting, my daughter was able to express her feelings. She was visibly shook up by the teacher’s abrasive tone and interruptions, but she was able to speak her mind. The teacher stated that she was feeling attacked and her character was attacked and told my daughter that she was hurting her heart to think that she would want to hurt us. She turned the whole thing around to where she was the victim. She said we were making her out to be a racist, hurtful person.

We never said the teacher was racist to anyone. In fact, when we spoke to the other second-grade teacher on Friday, we said we know she didn’t wear the shirt to hurt our feelings. That is why we wanted to have a conversation with her — so she could better understand what the shirt means to us and our culture. The teacher turned this very teachable moment into an attack on my daughter and me. After I explained our feelings about the shirt (noting the painful history of assimilation and boarding schools, etc.) she told us she was still planning to wear the shirt. She said she didn’t find it offensive, and to her “tribe” means community. She was not listening to our point of view at all! I asked her, so you are willing to make a student and family feel offended and uncomfortable at the school. Her response was simply that we will have to agree to disagree. My daughter heard all of this and her eyes immediately welled up with tears! She cried herself to sleep that night. We both did. 

I feel the teacher spoke to my daughter in a way that no adult, especially a teacher, should speak to a child. She said she was going to speak to the whole faculty about this situation to get their take on the shirt. I feel she was threatening us and this was in retaliation for bringing up a valid concern of ours. My daughter used to think of school as a safe environment with trusted adults. And now she certainly sees teachers in a different light. I am heartbroken for my child who stood up for what she believes in, only to be completely shut down by a close-minded individual who is actively teaching children.

The whole incident also makes me feel as if my concerns are not valid.

It has been three months now and the teacher still has not apologized for her actions and has even tried to talk to my daughter at school. I have spoken with the principal and assistant superintendent several times as well as the staff counsel for the school district. I told them all what we wanted was for my daughter to feel comfortable and safe while she is at school. To help this process, we would like the teacher to not wear the shirt to school. Because of the behavior of the teacher during the phone call, I said we would also like an apology for her actions and words. Everyone from the school district (at first) said they could not deliver these to us. They each said we were just going to have to try and move on and that my daughter would probably see the shirt again so she is just going to have to deal with it.

The staff counsel for the school district stated this isn’t an objective offense but a subjective offense — a matter of competing opinions — so they can’t do anything. To Native Americans this is objective. The problem is that most non-natives, at least in this school district, see it as subjective. And given that 99% of the school district is non-native, our voice and feelings do not matter.

Since the incident, we have seen some progress from the school administration. The principal and assistant superintendent have both spoke to the teacher and advised her to not wear the shirt. They confirmed to us she will not wear the shirt to school again. The principal has addressed the school staff on the incident as well as cultural awareness. He is currently working on bringing diversity training to the school for staff development.

Some members of our school community are definitely treating us differently since the incident. People are less friendly. They don’t make eye contact. They turn around when they see us. Some have also unfriended and blocked me from social media.

We live in Kansas and my daughter attends one of the “best” and largest school districts in the state. There is no equity council, diversity committee, or student support for minority students within our school district.