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: "...my 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.
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.