Teacher Loses Job: Joked He Couldn’t Tell Black Students Apart

November 14, 2011  |  

Barry Sirmon, a South African teacher at the elite Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City, was fired last month after allegedly telling two black children: “I hope I’ll be able to tell you two apart.”

In an interview, Sirmon said he made the comment when he found out that his history class had a second black student with a very light complexion, causing him to make a sarcastic joke about “mixing him up” with the class’s one dark-skinned pupil. He also stated that his joke had been misreported by a parent and that he was mocking the stereotype—not the children.

Despite the satisfaction black parents have with Sirmon’s dismissal, other parents have complained that the firing was “political correctness run amok,” and more than 360 students have signed a petition demanding his reinstatement.

Emily Kling, 18, who organized the petition, told the Sunday Times that Sirmon was “beloved” for ridiculing prejudice and that “his humor is a powerful tool for inspiring students.”

“At the beginning of each semester Mr.  Sirmon would go around the classroom and ask each student his or her name and origin,” she said.”He would then present a commonly held stereotype about each student’s origin and name, attack the stereotype [and] disprove its worth. Many students consider Mr . Sirmon the best teacher they have ever had.”

Sirmon said he believes the fact that he’s not American has a lot to do with how his jokes are perceived. “I found in America, being a white South African, I’m automatically stigmatized as being a racist. My sense of humor is very South African. You say something so outrageous it’s just ridiculously funny, but … Americans don’t often understand that.”

Sirmon’s case is a tricky one. I think his joke comes off as extremely insensitive and inappropriate to people who don’t know him, but given his tendency to make racially-charged comments, it does seem like advising him more about American culture and the way his remarks could be received may have been a better step than firing him.

Do you think the school made the right choice or should Sirmon be reinstated?

Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.

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