In “The Trouble with Black Boys” (2008), New York University Education Professor Pedro Noguera writes that, “In too many cases, educators do not question the assumptions that they hold, and as a result, those who are charged with teaching, advising, and mentoring Black males too often inadvertently adopt attitudes and postures unsupportive and even hostile toward the boys they serve.”
I thought about this line after reading a letter to the editor earlier this week in the Star Tribune, published in response to a powerful and controversial August 28 opinion piece.
In his letter, George Larson, an educator with Minneapolis Public Schools, writes, “Those who choose to teach in urban school districts face many challenges. The last thing on their minds, as each day they enter the classroom, is the color of the skin of the students sitting in the chairs in front of them.”
And therein lies the problem. We can’t combat racism by alleging that we don’t see race. Having the color of one’s skin be “the last thing on your mind” is a privilege only afforded to whites.
Trust me: students of color do notice race. If they’re in gifted or honors courses, they often notice that they’re one of the few students of color in the class. They notice the race of their teachers, who, in Minneapolis Public Schools—and across Minnesota—are overwhelmingly white. They notice that students of color are disciplined and suspended at rates that are alarmingly higher than their white peers.
As a white student at Minneapolis South High School in the early 2000s, I, too, saw race when lunch was dismissed: as I headed upstairs for AP and magnet courses with mostly white peers, my teammates on the basketball team—almost all of whom were black—stayed on the first floor, shuffling into equally segregated lower-level classes.
I don’t believe that most white teachers knowingly lower expectations for black students or other students of color. But I know from my own experience as a teacher that helping a student live up to his or her potential requires that teachers affirm that student’s identity. For students of color, race is often a critical component of their identity—and affirmation of race is critical if students are going to trust and learn from their teachers and would-be mentors.
In “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria” (2003), Spelman College President Beverly Tatum writes that for students of color, “To agree to learn from a stranger who does not respect your identity causes a major loss of self.” This often causes that student to shut down or act out.
Tatum introduces the concept of prejudice as smog in the air. “Sometimes it is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in,” she writes.
Minneapolis Public Schools teachers are not necessarily at fault for the low expectations that black students often face. Every day teachers are breathing in air that’s polluted with prejudice. But, as Tatum writes, “To say it is not your fault does not relieve you of responsibility…you may not have polluted the air, but we all have a collective responsibility for cleaning it up.”
One of the first things we can do to clean up the air is acknowledge each student’s identity, including their race. This is particularly true for white teachers working with students of color.
By recognizing race—instead of pretending not to see it—teachers can consciously combat the biases they may hold and help students overcome the prejudices of a school system where, as Nogeura writes, “the normalization of failure on the part of Black males is pervasive.” As evidence, he points out that for the past several years in the United States, there have been more black males between the ages of 18 and 24 in prison than college.
Only by affirming students’ racial identities will teachers be able to build relationships with those students, helping them to believe in themselves, work hard and persist, and set and achieve goals. In doing so, teachers will also become more empowered to recognize the role they can play in furthering equity through education—and be less inclined to accept the status quo.
After all, sometimes our most dangerous biases and prejudices are the ones we’re not aware of.