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Responses to Issues of Racism: Part II

There's no order to the comments and responses that I'm writing because I tried doing them in order and that didn't work. At first I would copy and paste and then try to answer them in order but that didn't work, either.

For example, I have already addressed Stacey's comment in Part I, but I want to come back to the second part of her comment. She wrote: " bigger worry is that somewhere, even today, there may still be a teacher putting a black kid's desk in the hallway" and I responded to that already. But the insistence that some teachers have, to this day, of putting a black kid in the hallway is the easily identified racism. The one that's harder to identify looks like this.


Since my first years of teaching I have largely avoided the teacher's lounge. At first, it was because I didn't want to hear all the spewing about students that teachers do in that room. Later on, it was because I didn't want the teachers I was evaluating to have to monitor themselves when an administrator was present. I can respect the place of safety that provides them when they take issue with policies that I enforce. Outside of the teacher's lounge, however, we talk in team planning and professional development about how to get students to succeed. Sometimes, this takes a turn that I struggle with and not just as a person with my job title, but as a black woman.

It has happened at every school I have worked at thus far and that count is up to 6 now. My purpose is prefacing what I'm about to say is because I don't want anyone at my current school to read this and think I'm calling them out. I'm not. This happens everywhere.

When we are discussing groups of students or grade levels of them and the conversation turns toward the behavior problems, teachers will often assign a name to that group or level by naming one of the biggest troublemakers. Instead of saying, "My 5th hour class is full of discipline problems" they will say, "That Kevonte group is so hard to handle" or "You know how hard the Demarcus class is to deal with. Those kids don't want to learn." The using of names of kids is already in poor taste, but when I realize that the name we associate with being "bad" is the name of a black boy it is cringe inducing. When educators connect that name with not wanting to learn we are creating an acceptable language so that our discourse has the undercurrent of black boys do not want to learn and it becomes a part of the reality of our instruction. Shame on us for doing that. I challenge teachers and principals to stop doing that.


Last year I picked up the phone to take a call from a woman who I didn't know. She didn't give me her name until later but she patiently told me that she heard rumors that my school didn't treat black boys fairly and she feared that her black son would be treated poorly and not be challenged enough. She also feared that low expectations would meet him and keep him in a structural and systemic cycle that would make it impossible for him to succeed. First of all, she couldn't possibly know who she was talking to on the other end of the phone as she was just taking a chance. Finally! I thought. Something I can address! Even if you've only read my blog for a short time you will know that I am passionate about education and kids and race so she couldn't have gotten a better person (if I do say so myself) on the phone. I answered her honestly, but I sometimes wonder if someone isn't pranking me or testing me to see what I would say to a prospective parent. Since we are a school that uses a lottery system for admission, she was taking a chance because her son wasn't even chosen yet. As luck would have it, he got in our school and she wrote me a thank you note for frankly discussing race with her. (Then she invited me to lunch. Because she's nice.) (Also, she hugs me every time I see her. I like this woman.)


With the No Child Left Behind act schools are required to show improvements in different cells of our demographics. For instance, if you have a significant population of special education students you must prove that they are learning so schools are targeting groups to work with through interventions or through tutoring or through the supports they get in the regular education classroom. Looking at that data is hard work because we have to answer to kids in certain cells that aren't meeting minimum state requirements. For a school to have significant numbers in cells from year to year that change is also telling about where students are in their schooling. One time, as I looked at data from a school I noticed that there was a missing year on the NCLB reports. "Where did these black students go this year? What happened in 2002? Did you just not have enough black students to create this cell? Were they all high achieving students?" No one could answer my questions and it nagged at me for a long time. Where were those kids? It took several years worth of researching it on my own (not professional research, but it was personal to me) to find out that a great number of them ended up in alternative programs and others were in juvenile detention centers or had dropped out of school entirely. Who let this happen and why were they counseled out of school? It's a question I still ask myself even though I know the answer. No one wanted to deal with the Kevonte and Demarcus group so they figured out a new place for them so their state assessment scores didn't mess up the NCLB requirements.

P said:

I was totally on Jane’s side until I read the quoted tweet and then… O.o That’s not at all what Jane said she said.

I loved this post, especially since I too grew up in a really homogeneous environment and in consequence, I’m totally awkward about race.

I gotta ask though, how is this:
“The Art of Approaching White Women”
not racist? Or if it’s not racist, I guess it’s just a generalization? Or maybe I’m just naive and presume to be more easily approached than a “tall woman with icy looking eyes”? Or maybe you have to explain what it means, what the art is so I can say, “Ah, yeah, it’s true, you do have to do that,” or some such?

The rest of the post was so awesome and I’m sorry if I’m picking at the one thing that picked at me out of all these words of sense and personal enlightenment.

Back when I was very young and didn't ever consider what my family racial makeup was or why it would matter, I considered myself to be very open and adopted a Pollyanna approach to people. It still confuses me to this day, then, when people assume I'm a white girl with a good tan. It confuses me more, however, when people immediately identify me as black and get scared of the stereotypical "angry black woman". Allow me to illustrate. A white girlfriend and I were at a cafeteria style restaurant once where you place your order, they call your name, and you pick it up. Both of our orders were messed up and neither of us realized this until we got back to our table. She went back to the counter first and marched up there indignantly (we only had an hour for lunch) and got it taken care of. I watched as the manager, a white woman, smiled at her and apologized for getting her food order wrong. When it was my turn, I did the same thing. I approached her the same way and when I got to the counter she took a step back and cowered.

"Um, excuse me. Why are you acting scared of me?"

"I thought you were going to throw your food at me or hit me." she replied.

So, a white woman requests better service and she's smiled at but when I do the same thing PEOPLE WILL THINK I AM GOING TO TURN VIOLENT AND HIT THEM?

Is it my height or my demeanor or my eyes? Or is it my color? That's just one example of many instances where my approach, equal in customer indignation, is met with fear. If I am practiced in The Art of Approaching White Women it's because I have an overabundance of experiences like this. Sadly, what I have to do is smile and be gentle so that I can get the same service as my white friends. In 2011. Is it a generalization? Certainly. I've been taught to assume that people will see me as violent. But is it racist of me to say that? No way. It is my reaction to how the world, in not-so-rosy-colored-glasses views black women and how that perpetuation of the angry black woman continues to be portrayed. But in the politics of racism, I don't think I can faulted for how I respond to how others view me and I am not in control of the fear they feel when I demand equal, not special, treatment.

It used to hurt my feelings when this happened, but I know what looks I have that get me more respect and YES, I AM GOING TO BRING UP HAIR ONCE AGAIN.

Since I've gotten into administration and had a secretary to work for me I have noticed how many of them will treat me differently based on, you guessed it, my hair. When I have straight, white-looking hair I get far more respect as a professional than when my hair is in its natural state of being curly. I change it on a weekly basis and since my secretaries are the first people to see me every day they are the first ones to comment on it. "Oh! You're curly today!" or "Look how straight you can get your hair!"

 Straight hair, glasses, and my Mr. T. Starter Kit of gold chains. Don't mock.


Curly hair (that I twisted while it was wet and pulled out for ringlet curls) and contacts and me pointing to my hair as it gets bigger and bigger with the midwest humidity. See also: crazy eyes.

One day, after wearing it curly for months at a time, my secretary saw me walk in the office with straight hair. She smiled at me and said, "I love it when you straighten your hair. No offense, but it looks much more natural for a professional to have straight hair."

We had a difficult conversation after that. I called her into my office and had to teach her some things about making insensitive comments like that. My "natural" hair? The God-given locks that I can do easily because it's how my hair is supposed to look? This is somehow my unprofessional hair? This is to say nothing of the black woman with braids or the locs. Ethnic hair isn't "unprofessional".

It was one comment from one person, but the damage that this way of thinking does to young girls who are constantly trying to look like they fit in with white hair styles betrayed to me what she really thought. I'm no less professional because of my hair, but if my secretary thought that (and felt comfortable enough to say it to me) then what about the parents of my students? I pray to God that they don't see me as less accomplished or proficient or respected in my job just because of the natural way in which I wear my hair.

And yes. I totally DID just make that all about hair.

There will be a Part III. It seems I cannot avoid it as I have lots more comments/questions to answer.

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Reader Comments (34)

Every time your face pops up in one of my feeds I think, "Kelly is so pretty. I wish I had hair like hers." For real. I can't believe someone was stupid enough to say that curly hair isn't professional.

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

Yours is the best dialogue about this on the 'net. Love you for that.

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBOSSY

To me, that sounds a lot like "I know a lot of white women, and that's what they're like".
I am a tall white woman, and I would often flippantly say similar things about "the art of approaching short men". However I wouldn't joke about it when discussing feminism or equality, because I don't truly think all short men are intimidated by me and it's honestly just as likely to be a tall man or woman who finds my 6'3 confidence confronting.
I am really enjoying reading about this and the comments too, but I think it's only fair to aknowledge that we all make unfair generalisations at times and strive to overcome the instinct. Not defend them.

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMaddy

Also- Your hair is glorious and perfectly professional. My mum spends about an hour trying to get hers to look that way every day and I can't imagine her assistant commenting on when she leaves it straight(er).

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMaddy

Firstly, I have to thank you for the honest and open dialogue you've sparked about this discussion. I've been eagerly, albeit silently, following along and can not wait until your third installment.

Ah, the hair. I figured it was going to come up sooner or later because it really is that relevant to the issue.

My sisters and I have very curly hair. I mean, very. I remember growing up people telling us we were lucky to have "good hair" because it at least resembled biracial or mixed hair.

My youngest sister was a 5th grader last year and admittedly has the most stubborn set of curls of all us, so she just looks like she has this atomic bomb of curls on her head. One day she wore her hair straight and the response was overwhelming. I mean, everyone from her previous teachers to classmates commented on how great it looked. I remember her telling me that one of her teachers said it looked so much better that way to her.

Honestly, I didn't think all that much about that specific comment from her teacher, but then it started to bother me when my sister started to be embarrassed about her crazy curls. I really wish I had a similar hard conversation with her as you did with your secretary because you've relayed the exact problem with such comments.

Again, thank you for this series.

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteramira

*really wish I had the conversation with her teacher

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteramira

This will be interesting. Here is a black woman telling what it's like being a black woman, I wonder how many will actually stop to listen rather than wonder if you're sure you know what you're experiencing and if you're sure it's racism.

Being a good ally? Means listening instead of explaining how much of a non-racist you are.

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGrypo

To be fair, I don't personally see the hair issue as a racial one, because women of practically all ethnicities have curly hair and they're universally told it's 'messy' or 'unprofessional'. Your secretary might have made the same comment were you a pale Irish ginger. I'm a curly-haired Arab and as a teenager my father wouldn't let me out of the house with curly hair till I 'brushed' it, because in his mind curls were the result of lack-of-brushing and messiness rather than genes. I'm not sure where this attitude to curls comes from, but I'm going to blame it square on the beauty industry and their emphasis on selective beauty traits. How does a society turn on itself and decide its women's hair is unacceptable? We always want the opposite of what we have, I guess. We're dark and curly-haired so we all buy skin lighteners and hair straighteners, whereas many European women can think of nothing better than frizzing out their hair frying themselves to a crisp in the sun. It's an attitude that we ourselves have to stop buying into. We have to own our curls, learn how to manage them instead of fight them, and stand up for ourselves when people challenge our 'professionalism'. Strangers often stop me to say how wonderful they think my curls look, but when I go to interviews, I play it safe and straighten my hair. Is that self-defeating? I don't know. I just want to get the job, but if I get it, I make sure to show up on the first day with curly hair :)

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMay

Also, I think for every curly-haired woman who gets 'oh that looks better" comments when she straightens her hair, there's a wispy-haired one getting the exact same attitude when she curls hers.

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMay

Good point about curly hair in general, May. However, the "selective beauty traits" touted as "good" or "beautiful" or "better" are based on white, European traits. This only perpetuates the connection between curly hair being "bad" or "messy" or "unprofessional" because it is not a common trait in white people. As a very pale white woman with incredibly huge, incredibly curly dark hair, I can attest to the fact that until about 10-15 years ago, I could not find a beauty product to "tame" my curls unless I went to "the black aisle" for relaxer and such. Even now, there are 20 products for flat, straight hair for every one for curly hair. (Let's not even get into hair dye or make up!)

People constantly commented about my curls and asked about my heritage, but with a negative tone, as if being black or Jewish was a terrible thing that might be hidden in my past. I LOVE my hair as an adult but had a very hard time as a child since all the popular styles were straight and flowy (Dorothy Hamill, Farah Faucett). I spent puberty crying my eyes out that I had ugly, bad hair. I cannot imagine how the beauty standards in our society have affected girls (and boys) of color. It's heart-wrenching to think that even today, in 2011, these narrow-minded views are still perpetuated. Curly hair is NOT unprofessional. A bad attitude, "judginess", and maybe torn, wrinkled clothes are unprofessional.

*I apologize for any rambling. It's early for me and my brain isn't yet fully-functional. This has been a fantastic topic, Kelly. I caught up on it at bedtime last night and stayed up far too late reading each installment and all of the comments. I look forward to the continued discussion and future posts. Thank you for being so eloquent about such a hot-button topic.

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTara

I can't think about hair when I'm still back there thinking about the lost boys. How easy it is to disappear them. Why being black and male is such a problem. I think little boys often have a harder time in school because they tend to mature more slowly and they have a harder time sitting still, but then those problems get multiplied when unconscious racism is projected onto them. You have a normal, popular, squirrely, can't sit still, can't stop talking little boy and suddenly he's being seen as a troublemaker, a ringleader...he gets shunted aside and not taught and punished...and a few years later he is in juvenile hall, then in prison.

It makes my guts hurt.

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSuebob

You're breaking my heart here. Just two responses.

1. In Kindergarten, my son and another boy were the best at math. We are white; he is black. I thought, awesome, another *boy* who is smart and his teacher knows it and is challenging both these kids and they can be smart together and maybe friends. I'm really hoping for some friends for my son and it seems like when they are little is the best time for these relationships across races to happen without stress. I have to say I cared more that this kid was smart, but his being non-white was also a bonus.

In second grade they were together again. My son still struggles to make friends. The other boy is still smart, but now he's often in trouble and his homework isn't always done. I know this because I volunteer in the classroom. I worry about why that is happening - are his teachers treating him badly? Is it just his own doing? His parents? I have no idea, but this particular kid got under my skin somehow and I want him to succeed and I fear he is not. I worry that his race might be partly why, though there may be more to the story.

2. I've got crazy curly hair. I also struggled with the damned Farrah Fawcett thing. My hair has not always looked great, but I am way too lazy to deal with straightening it. Still, I never thought people might perceive me as unprofessional because of my hair. Maybe they don't think that, because I'm white, or maybe they do actually think that. Either way, it makes me sad. It's just hair, people.

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

I completely disagree. I like your hair better curly! It's nice that we live in an age where we can do just about anything to our hair in the name of beauty, but I don't know. It kills me that my niece gets up two hours before school everyday just so she can spend that time straightening her beautiful curls so she can look like all the other girls in her class.

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCindy

I'm white with curly hair. I've taken to wearing it curly now, but I used to straighten it a lot in years past (or cut it really short). On the days I'd go to work with straight hair, I'd get similar comments about how "professional" and "pulled together" I look. Curly hair isn't professional? Ugh. I've become more comfortable with owning the curls and letting them be what they want to be.

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterErika

Hair. It is impossible to have a conversation about race without talking about hair. I work really hard to make sure my kids love their curly hair. My son's curls are much looser and softer than my daughter (whose hair type is a 4a). I work to look for other women who have natural hair and make sure that she loves her hair and so far she does. She loves to wear Macy Gray hair (free hair) and also loves having it braided.

It is sad that we are such a racial society that we have a hard time accepting people for who they are. I think it's the same thing with Names. We gave our Ethiopian born children American names because I had to be honest and think that people will stereotype them based on their name and it isn't fair. Just because someone's name is Hojawaka doesn't make them any less intelligent, responsible, kind, etc than someone named Noah.

Ugh!!! Frustrating.

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterThe Dalai Mama (Dawn)

OK, I sort of love it when it gets to all be about hair, because I learn new ways to handle my hair from you, thus you are my favorite resource for hair stuff.
I never thought that implied ethnicity with my curly hair was part of the issue that everyone seems to have with it, but when I really think about it, I think Tara is right. I'm ghostly pale with big black curly hair too, and I had the exact same issues with it being considered unprofessional and questions about where it came from. My hair has nothing to do with my ability to do my job. Trust me, I've tried to control it, it won't be tamed. I save my energy for things like making sure I know what I'm doing and ironing. Still, when the Midwestern humidity gets a hold of it and I can't keep it from frizzing, I get the looks.

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmelia Sprout

I too appreciate your honest comments on all this (boy, is "this" a small word for all ... this!). Firstly, I always say "hair is like boobs ... everyone wants the opposite of what they have!" But secondly, and more seriously, I have such sorrow for a world where millions of beautiful women with beautiful hair have to torture and burn and struggle every day to make their hair look more like the hair of the race with the power in society. It's awful.

Lately ... I'm clearly getting older! ... I feel like I"m noticing more that I'm getting marginalized for being the homely fat woman (and age doesn't help!). I was on the verge of heatstroke at a concert recently and the security guard refused to bring me a cup of water. One of my friends then asked him to bring a drink for our third friend, who is younger, slim, and pretty. He did, and she slipped it to me. Maybe I'm just a jerk when I'm on the verge of heatstroke and my friend was more gracious, but jeez. I was on the verge of tears asking for a drink.

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteroccula

No more brushing all this under the carpet. I love you!

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLos Angelista

I'm loving this discussion. Thank you for having it and giving examples. When you first mentioned 'The art of approaching White women,' I knew exactly what you meant.

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKellygirl

Your posts really make me think. How many times might I have witnessed more subtle examples of racism and didn't even notice? I was surprised by the reaction you got when you addressed your botched food order as well as the comment about your "unprofessional" curly hair (which is gorgeous, by the way).

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStacey

Arrrrgh. The hair. I have naturally very curly hair, too, and have always gotten insensitive comments about it. I have frequently had people - coworkers, usually - say that it looks "so much better," or more professional, when I straighten it.

While I am mostly Caucasian, I think that the social bias is probably rooted in racism... It's amazing to see how curly haired women vs. straight haired women are portrayed differently on television. The curly haired woman is usually irresponsible, frazzled, late, frumpy, etc. Did I say "arrrgh" yet?

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSarah E.

I will get the "love your curly hair" comment out of the way first.

Addressing the "how is that not racist?" comment--what I've learned is that "racism" can only be perpetrated by the power structure (white in this country) against people of another color (non-white in this country). Power structure is the operative term here. Bigotry can exist between any two races/ethnicities. Not that I took your original post as bigoted.

August 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenn @ Juggling Life

My preschooler was watching Sesame Street when this segment came on. I immediately thought of this post. I'm so happy to see a children's program display this clip. Looks like a deliberate effort to show that black girls should love their hair just the way it is, as they should, and nothing is wrong with it just because it's not straight or light colored.

Anyway, here's the clip:

I love this clip so much. Wish there were more things like this targeted to little girls.

August 26, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteramira

All hair is ethnic hair:

I heard about you from someone on twitter: glad to see you discussing these issues, they really don't get discussed enough.

August 26, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermyblackfriendsays

I disagree. Yes, there are many wispy-haired women who do lust for curly hair. But if you look at tv, movies, ads, magazines, it is quite clear that straight, glossy hair is very much considered the "norm" and the preferred style. I am a white woman with curly hair. I'm always searching for tips to help make curly hair a bit less unruly, and it's so difficult. Every magazine article on hair will have 5 times as much info on beautiful straight hair, then their "tips" for curly hair are to basically blow dry and then use a curling iron to curl it. Almost nothing on how to work with your naturally curly hair. Curls come in and out of fashion, but the reigning style "queen" is straight.

August 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarcy

The "lunch counter" thing happened to me yesterday, and it has happened to me several times. Believe it or not, the perpetrator in yesterday's incident was Hindu and not Caucasian. Either way, it made me really sad.

August 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobin

This is such a great series of posts, Kelly. I CANNOT BELIEVE YOUR SECRETARY SAID THAT ABOUT YOUR HAIR. Had to get that out.

August 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKathryn (@kat1124)

So totally agree with this!

August 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLydia

Suebob--it is the teachers' faults when someone goes to prison or is a troublemaker? Have you taught in a classroom? This is so insulting to the teachers and counselors I know who work hour after hour as advocates for ALL students. Are you seriously not mentioning the family situation?

August 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

Sue, as the mom of a white boy who I've seen through school, and a biracial boy who's in 1st grade, I will observe that often it's just because they're boys. I have no doubt that black boys fare worse in school, but I think boys fare worse period. I cannot tell you how many times it was suggested to me during my older son's elementary school years that he was hyperactive, needed medication, how often he was not liked by a teacher for behavior issues that were simple immaturity, etc. And I strongly feel it was because he was a boy. Some people just should not be teachers, and especially not teachers of boys.

August 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKathryn (@kat1124)

Hair seems like a trite and girly topic in the surface, but it does change how a person is perceived.

When you mentioned being taken for a white girl with a tan, I didn't really get it, until the picture of you with straight hair. Even though I know you (online anyway) and know your racial identity, that picture set off the "white office woman" subroutines in my brain so much that it no longer looked like you.

The two pictures called out a conscious awareness of how I personally categorize the people I see.

I'm going to be unpacking this for awhile I think...

August 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterV's Herbie

I haven't read the rest of the comments, but I HATE that straight hair is equated with professionalism, and it happens with white girls too. I am an Italian Lithuanian, whose natural hair texture is similar to your ringlets, but frizzier. My mother used to burn my head with those lye relaxers they make for little girls, and around 12 I decided I wouldn't let her anymore. That isn't to say I don't straighten it or dye it, but man, I like the options.

I just hate the attitude that white Northern European is the gold standard by which we must live. That isn't to say that it isn't worst for a black woman in terms of hair, since hair is such a loaded topic (See: Good Hair - zomg), but man talk about the intersection of racism and sexism. But seriously, the curly hair thing drives me bonkers! (Do you read What Tami Said? I love this blog...but really, when Rebeka Brooks, working for Madoff at the height of this scandal has to worry about her hair c'mon! What the ever loving f---.

August 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChristine

I don't know if your daughter likes playing with dolls, but I saw this and thought it was awesome:

August 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChristine

Amen! I am "lazy" and only straighten my hair occasionally. Half the time I do I get pissed by the end of the day by people gushing about it or asking if I plan to do that permanently. Pet peeve!

August 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNora

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