NYC Prep School Fires History Teacher for Mysterious Racial Joke

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The New York Times again visits the opaque world of New York City's private prep schools today in an investigation of the controversial firing of Barry Sirmon, a ninth-grade history teacher at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. Since his dismissal last month, around 350 of the school's 1,690 students have signed a petition to have Sirmon reinstated, although the Times was unable to nail down exactly what his offending remarks were. They did note that he's "known — and loved by many — for an off-color sense of humor that defies political correctness." Here's the rumor mill:


Several parents interviewed offered varying accounts of the controversial comments by Mr. Sirmon, who was at the school for 11 years. According to one version, he told two black students that he hoped he would be able to tell them apart. In another, he questioned whether a light-skinned black student was really black.

The situation is made more interesting by the fact that Sirmon is South African and was raised during apartheid. As a young man in the South African Army, Sirmon was sent to modern-day Namibia to put down a black independence movement, but said he refused his orders and eventually fled to the United States.

He declined to repeat the comments that got him fired, but insisted "they were not racist or anti-Semitic." Rather, "It was an attempt to show how lame and stupid these 'isms' are, racism and anti-Semitism," he said. "The claims were horrible; what they claim, I dispute vehemently."

"Jokes I've made in the past, light-hearted, were misinterpreted," he admitted. But Sirmon blames the misunderstandings on his sarcasm, typical of Brits and South Africans. Indeed, in an anonymous RateMyTeachers.com post from last year, in which Sirmon received a 5/5 for easiness and 1/5 for clarity, one student wrote, "You can tell he is always bored because of how sarcastic he is." Another said, "He is really dry, sarcastic, and arrogant. But that's why we love him."

Dismissal at Fieldston School Prompts Outcry [NYT]