The week before last I had the opportunity to speak with hundreds of Louisiana school teachers who attended a session I led on the belief gap in education.
For readers who haven’t heard me talk endlessly about that concept, the belief gap is the distance between what a child is actually capable of achieving and what the adults in her life think she is capable of achieving.
I approached the topic by relaying a story from my life that I didn’t know had such importance to me until the words were coming out of my mouth.
A few years ago one of my kids’ teachers asked me an odd question as I dropped him off at his class.
“He didn’t attend preschool did he?” she asked.
I said no.
Like my other kids, he stayed home with my wife until beginning school. We’ve made sacrifices to make it possible to bypass preschool for our kids, and we’re happy we did it. We feel blessed that it was even an option. The upside, it has given us so much insight into the personalities, talents, and needs of our kids.
I had not idea that would be considered anything other than good.
“I can always tell the kids that don’t go to preschool,” she said.
“He’s lethargic a lot of mornings.”
Of everything that happened in that school year, what I remember most is that word. She was talking about my spit-your-water-out funny kid who constantly demonstrates intellectual curiosity, creativity, and a grasp of details in storytelling so acute it’s our family joke that he would be the best witness for investigators to talk to at a crime scene.
Help me unpack that exchange.
I am a black man in a hallway with a white woman who has called my son a word the dictionary says is synonymous with sluggish, inert, inactive, underactive, slow, torpid, and lifeless.
What was I supposed to do with that?
What were the appropriate words that should have come out of my mouth (words that would have allowed me to remain Christian and not incarcerated)?
As of now, I have no answer.
But, what I told the teachers in Louisiana, as I think about that brief encounter I realize that Ms. Lethargy and me were coming to that point in time from very different points of origin. Our experiences, cultures, family norms, and education were doing silent battle in the moment.
That speaks to the broken dialogue between (black) parent and (white) teacher, home and school. We cannot be the partners we need to be in filling the belief gap if we speak past each other, ignoring the pasts we bring with us to conversations.
My part of that equation is owning my luggage. What that teacher could not see is the invisible backpack I wore as I walked my son to his class. It’s a backpack full of experiential artifacts that, in truth, should make it improbable that I would even want to step foot in that school building.
My dialogue-blocking artifacts include a series of unfortunate events in my early school career. The educators who openly doubted my potential and intelligence and nominated me for lower educational tracks; the words from a teacher who told my class “you are the most ignorant bunch of negroes I’ve ever seen in my life”; the teacher who sent me to the principal’s office so often that it felt like it was the new location for that class (my crime was asking too many questions); the smothering shame I felt for falling three grade levels behind beginning in sixth grade; and the day I stood up and walked out of high school and never returned (no one noticed).
In my backpack, there is a stack of disappointments and failures. Some are self-imposed, and others are a result of bombing spectacularly in school.
When my first child was born it was as if someone unzipped that backpack and dumped out the contents on the table. Fatherhood made me sort through those items and made me confront the painful truths I’d prefer to hide, and the personal inadequacies I tucked far out of sight.
My biggest fear was that school failure – and the subsequent economic marginalization – was somehow hereditary. This baby that I loved so dearly would replicate my poor start in life and be assigned to the same low-level, monotonous, soul-stealing work I was doing.
In his early grades I zipped the backpack up again, then resolved to do what I could to change his future. I did this even as the tapes playing in my head were loud and negative and unrelenting. “This isn’t going to work,” I thought. “Something is to to go wrong,” I believed.
Regardless, I’d learn what I could, fought anything that seemed threat, and sacrificed whatever necessary to set him up to beat the system.
Being honest about those negative messages on my internal tapes is one way of admitting that the belief gap is a shared gap. Sometimes parents and community members hold so much internalized racism and oppression that we think of – and talk about – our kids worse than any outsider.
It’s important for me to acknowledge that because reading what I write and say about education it would be fair to assume I lay the belief gap solely at the feet of teachers and schools. It’s not true. Yes, we have more than enough research to show teacher expectations are far too low for our kids, but, sometimes, our own expectations are just as low.
If writing is about truth, that’s mine. If reading is about understanding I hope you’ll share yours.
Last point: On firstborn’s first day of school I took a deep breath secretly expecting to encounter some unmovable object that would derail our journey.
On the day he graduated from college I exhaled, thanked my Lord and Savior, and cried privately.
That closed my belief gap, but the backpack remains.
Teachers see black children as angry when they aren’t
From right to left, the story for why black children aren’t reaching their potential lives within the child. Or, their family. Their culutre. Their community.
If only they had two parents, better jobs, more time to read at home. It wouldn’t hurt if they had middle-class social benefits. Put those things together and there wouldn’t be a racialized gap in student achievement.
Ok. I won’t argue there. But lets set aside the condition of the child for a moment and consider this new study that finds teachers are less likely to accurately read the facial expression of black students. This only adds to the research I won’t stop talking about that shows black children are seen as less innocent, less capable, and older than they actually are.
When we talk about inequities in education, why don’t we talk about these things?
Eventually, we have to ask the question: “regardless of the condition of the child, aren’t their too many problems in the system that need fixing before blaming children for their own maltreatment?”
Read this from the study:
Prospective teachers are more likely to perceive Black than White elementary and middle-school students as angry, even when they’re not, according to new research published in Emotion. The findings suggest that Black children face a racialized anger bias in school.
“We know a lot about emotion and emotion expression, and we wanted to use our skills toward a question that really mattered and specifically, mattered for social justice,” said study author Shevaun D. Neupert, a professor at North Carolina State University and director of The Daily Well Being in Adulthood Lab.
For the study, 178 prospective teachers from three training programs in the Southeast were shown 72 short video clips of child actors’ facial expressions, and were asked to identify the emotion being displayed. The video clips included both Black and White students and male and female students.
“We hired child actors to display six different emotions and we had professionals who could make all six facial expressions on demand to work with the children until they were able to do so,” Neupert explained. “Then we took short video clips and we made sure that each expression was showing the desired emotion and only that emotion.”
Those emotions included happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise or disgust.
Overall, the researchers found that teachers were more accurate at identifying the facial expressions of girls than boys. The teachers’ emotional evaluations also tended to be more accurate for White girls than Black girls, while being more accurate for Black boys than for White boys.
We’re in trouble when a $4 sandwich matters more than a Black life
We know something has gone terribly wrong in our world when a $4 sandwich is worth more than a black life.
On April 23, 2009 scientists observed a gamma ray burst for 10 seconds which is “the most distant object of any kind and also the oldest known object in the universe.”
But let’s get to the important stuff. On that same day there was a near riot at Minnesota’s one Popeye’s Chicken franchise. The company had advertised an 8-piece meal for $4.99, but the local store was not honoring the deal. Cars backed up in the drive-thru, customers became angry inside the restaurant, and the police were called to stop a melee.
The great chicken riot of Minneapolis made the news.
A local reporter talking about the hubbub said “I haven’t seen people this passionate about something in a very long time.”
I made fun of this incident for years. Mostly because it conflicted with a truism I hear in community meetings all the time about how we aren’t showing up for school meetings or city planning meetings or policy debates because we’re busy working two jobs.
Marketing folks seem to generate a ton of passion in our communities when a dollar is involved. In this case chicken skirmishes have become such a mainstay that it’s created a genre of YouTube videos.
Enough to have videos titled “The Best of Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich Fights.”
The “best of,” really?
Lowbrow, but funny. I grew up on Popeye’s chicken. Loved it as a fat kid in New Orleans does. It took a long time (and some health concerns) to figure out it ain’t food as much as suicide.
Today, what was funny has turned serious. It popped up in my feed that a 28-year-old (the same age as my oldest son) was stabbed to death over a damn Popeye’s chicken sandwich.
Stabbed. To. Death.
Stories like this always make me think about how a person gets to the point in their life where they explode with anger over something trivial and then commit an act that irreversibly ruins their life and the lives of others.
What happened when that person was a teenager, a middle-schooler, or a baby?
There must be a story there. A traumatic one.
I can only imagine.
My guess is that when a child receives endless messages telling him he has little value, he comes to believe it. When he is told that his mind is immaterial, he either responds with anger because he knows it isn’t true (and that it is massive injustice to say it is), or he absorbs the critique and lives it out.
When he’s told he can’t read, he doesn’t. When he’s told he isn’t beautiful, he hates beauty. When he’s told injustice is equity and crooked is straight, as our society so often does to the people it wants to gaslight into a life of subservience, he becomes a violent truth that pays us back for our mannered delusions.
Our children know when the world has pushed them into an unjust corner. They are smart even when the tests they take in school doubt it.
Even as those of us in education activism harp on the idea that our kids aren’t learning, the truth is they are learning every day, but they are learning from our absenteeism and negligence and dedication to mass-consumerism rather than our values and love.
It doesn’t let us of the hook. Chicken fights, social absurdities, and moral laxity are explainable by our history and social conditions, and by our lack of access to the precursors to healthy development (such as home resources, healthcare, and education), but we are not the revolutionaries we think we are if we aren’t calling out and defeating the self-destructive behaviors endemic to our communities.
Every child is born with unsurpassable worth afforded to them by a mighty God. We fall short of our faith if we allow friends, families, or the broader society to rob our kids of that worth.
If they’re ever in a Popeye’s Chicken injuring others over a heart-attack, hypertension, and diabetes inducing sandwich, the trail of their tears leads back to us.
How are the children?
ACT NOW: What does this blog post mean? I could just be me making sense of the needless suffering in our world. It may not be profound. Yet, if forced to think of an action to take that would make this post more than a meaningless buffet of words, I’d ask you to…
…commit to a course of action today that changes our culture of neglect of children. Affirm every child you come into contact with by telling them “you are so amazing, I know you are going to do great things in life” – or something like that.
Or, as always, pray (here).
A short note about Kamala Harris’s integration opportunism
No one should discount the possibility that a little black girl or boy might succeed in life without bathing in whiteness.
Earlier this summer Kamala Harris and Joe Biden had a terse exchange about integration and public school busing.
An article in The Atlantic described it this way:
“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day,” Harris told the former vice president, her voice quaking. “That little girl was me.” It was the defining line of the debate, inspiring the creation of a T-shirt Harris’s campaign is now selling for $29.99. The point Harris was highlighting was clear: When busing would have mattered most as a method of desegregating schools, in the 1970s, Biden didn’t enthusiastically support it.”
We love a good come-up story, especially when it invokes the morally superior virtues that define a beloved community.
I can almost feel the warmth of Harris’ torch for the power of white acceptance, and the disdain for Biden’s blue dog resistance.
And, I could tell you a very different story (that won’t sell T-shirts) about a little black boy who was once bussed three hours a day, away from neighborhood friends and familiar surroundings, to a white school in the hills where moneyed white students and their teachers dislike school busses and students invading “their” school.
That little boy was me.
I turned out ok. Even grew up to have children, who are multiracial like Harris, proving I ardently support integration.
But, I am here to constantly challenge the incessant and dangerous romantization of simple integration stories. While most people called the Harris/Biden tussle in favor of Harris, I still call her rehearsed passion play phony baloney.
Which is why I appreciate this Washington Post article that goes a long way to add context to the oversimplified “I was bussed therefore I am” claptrap that intoxicates the best of audiences.
Especially this part…
Kamala Harris wanted to go to a black school. That’s what black folks called Howard University in the early 1980s when Harris was a teenager considering her future.
Harris, she would say later, was seeking an experience wholly different from what she had long known. She’d attended majority-white schools her entire life — from elementary school in Berkeley, Calif., to high school in Montreal. Her parents’ professional lives and their personal story were bound up in majority-white institutions. Her father, an economist from Jamaica, was teaching at Stanford University. Her mother, a cancer researcher from India, had done her graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley, where the couple had met and fallen in love. And Harris’s younger sister would eventually enroll at Stanford.
Harris wanted to be surrounded by black students, black culture and black traditions at the crown jewel of historically black colleges and universities.
In this we see something curious, but not uncommon, which is how sending children of color off to majority white schools can cause dissonance in the face of microagressions and culture stripping.
Maybe Harris wouldn’t admit that, but she wouldn’t be the first to see an HBCU as cultural finishing school for proper black people.
Indeed, the stories of black integrationists who are celebrated by white media are often punctuated by the fact that they only discovered their blackness in college and now they overemphasize it as the false currency they use in minstrel fashion to Afrocentricize white progressive ideals.
I name no names. I just admit what I’ve seen.
No one should discount the possibility that a little black girl or boy might succeed in life without bathing in whiteness.
Maybe a bus saved Harris, the daughter of privileged middle-class professionals.
Or, maybe, it’s just a good story to gather votes from an electorate that loves simplicity.
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