Second Guessing My Kids of Color?

Blogger’s Note:  This post is on race in America. It’s full of ideas I’ve been wrestling with for a long while.  Like the issue, there’s nothing neat and polished and finished about my thinking.  But like the issue, I think it’s time for transparent reflection — particularly from white people in positions of authority and leadership — no matter how messy it may feel.  

Read it if you want.  And then do some reflecting of your own.  This is a conversation we have to stop avoiding.  We owe it to one another.  


I think I’m an outstanding teacher.  At least that’s what I’ve heard from parents and students time and again for 25 years.  It’s not unusual for kids to smile when they see me, anyway — and I”m not bashful about telling students that I believe in them and that I care about them.

That matters, right?

But here’s a really uncomfortable confession:  I’ve caught myself time and again over the past few weeks treating my students of color differently than I treat the white students in my school.

Simple things, really — but treating kids of color differently nonetheless.

Things like saying, “Where are you supposed to be?” to Ja’Quon when I saw him outside the bathroom, jumping immediately to the conclusion that he’s either skipping or stalling instead of simply going to the freaking bathroom.  I even used the word “caught” when describing the interaction to Ja’Quon’s teacher — implying, with little evidence, that he was in a place he wasn’t supposed to be.

Or things like chasing Cadedra and Samyria away from the water fountains when they are saying good morning to one another each day, jumping immediately to the conclusion that whatever they are doing, it’s going to end up causing some kind of social drama that I’m going to have to deal with later.

Or things like being really surprised when Ashante asks the best questions in my classes and that her parents are some of the most interested and involved parents that I’ve ever met — and then realizing that I can count the number of interactions that I’ve had with the parents of my black students on one hand.

Or assuming that Tadion was screwing around in the hallways when he showed up late to class after lunch — and then finding out that he had an upset stomach that he was dealing with.

Heck — I did it today, y’all:  De’Andre and Jonaad showed up in my room for our school’s enrichment period.  “You’d better be here to work,” I said the MOMENT they walked in the door.

“If you aren’t interested in working, you aren’t welcome here,” I said, with skepticism in my voice even though I hadn’t questioned any of the other kids who showed up to work in my room.

#sheesh

Look back over my list of examples for a minute.   There’s nothing overtly racist there, right?  

In fact, I’d bet those kinds of moments happen a thousand times a day in your schools, too — especially if your school is staffed, like most, with a whole bunch of white, middle class teacher people.

But that’s what makes them so damn insidious, y’all.

Imagine being De’Andre or Cadedra or Tadion and being doubted and second guessed at every turn by every adult in your building.  Want to say hello to a friend?  Go for it — but get ready to be hassled.  Need to use the bathroom?  Go for it — but get ready to be hassled.  Late to class because you forgot something in the cafeteria?  Yup.  You are going to get hassled for that, too.

Meanwhile, your white classmates — let’s call them Sarah and Alex and Jack — are all saying hello to friends, using the bathroom and coming to class a minute or two late without having to explain themselves.  Instead, they’re getting  friendly reminders to be more responsible next time!

Stew in that for a minute, y’all.

Does it sound like your school at all?

Be honest.  It won’t hurt.

But also imagine the impact that being doubted over and over again, day after day, year after year has on our kids of color?

#doublesheesh

And don’t forget that while being doubted at school, our kids of color are ALSO living in a world where the President of the United States defends white supremacists as “very fine people” while simultaneously calling black athletes protesting police brutality in communities of color “sons of bitches” who deserve to be fired.

Our kids of color THEN see those same athletes called “arrogant, ungrateful, anti-American degenerates”  and “crybabies” and “no good n*****s” by commentators and community leaders.

ALL. OVER. A. PEACEFUL. PROTEST.

And not just a peaceful protest about ANY old thing — a peaceful protest designed to draw attention to troubling stories like those of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and #ferguson and Freddie Gray and Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — cases where black men were literally killed in the streets.

Need MORE proof of how bad things really are?

Consider the fact that we’ve become so desensitized to the endless cycle of violence against marginalized groups that we barely even acknowledge events that DON’T involve shootings anymore — think School Resource Officer Ben Fields tossing an African American student all around her high school classroom for being disruptive or police officer David Casebolt turning into Kung-Fu Panda to break up a pool party that had grown too large in McKinney, Texas.

And worse yet, we haven’t even really BOTHERED to consider the concerns of the #anthemprotesters.

Don’t believe me?

Go read through your social media streams right now.

I guarantee that you’ll find plenty of people raging about “rich, spoiled athletes disrespecting the flag” but few who are wrestling with “black men using their position as public figures to speak out about racial injustice in America.”  The one-sided-ness of the conversation speaks volumes about our readiness as a nation to deal with inequality.

#triplesheesh

Long story short: I used to wonder why some of the kids of color in our building were so darn belligerent when I tried to correct them.

They’d mouth off every time.  I’d write them up for being disrespectful every time.  Then,  I’d gripe to colleagues about their attitudes — convinced that I’d done nothing to deserve their back talk.  After all, they were the ones breaking the rules, right?

But when I think with an open heart about the way that I’ve caught myself treating my kids of color, it’s pretty clear that I’m the one being disrespectful.

I really do jump to negative conclusions about the actions of my black students a heck of a lot sooner than I do when I’m having the same kinds of interactions with white students.  Andy gives me attitude and “he’s just having a bad day.”  Anquan gives me attitude and “he’s just a bad kid.”

And if I think with an open heart, I’d bet that at least some of the confrontations that I am seeing out of my kids of color are nothing more than a reflection of a society where doubt and criticism and unfair consequences are the norm rather that the exception to the rule for black kids living in a biased world.

I can’t fix all of this by myself anytime soon.

But I can guarantee you that, moving forward, I’m ready to rethink every interaction that I have with a kid of color to at LEAST ensure that my own assumptions aren’t leading to a classroom where bias is the norm rather than the exception to the rule.  And I can also guarantee you that I’m going to speak out — as a white man in a position of authority — about race in America anywhere that I can.

It might make people uncomfortable, but I just don’t care.

I OWE that to my kids.

And so do you.

#simpletruth

 

*Note: All student names are pseudonyms to protect identities.

____________________

Related Radical Reads:

After __________, What’s Our Role in Promoting Peace?

#charlestonchurchshooting

#ferguson

Are YOU Standing Up for Tolerance?

 

 

21 thoughts on “Second Guessing My Kids of Color?

  1. Pingback: Education Evolutions #36 | Haas | Learning

  2. Bill Ivey

    Hi!
    I love getting in conversations with you. It’s a hard balance, for sure. I agree every step forward matters, and we always need to be supporting each other along the way. And of course I agree that part of the context is how our society generates a fear around doing what should be normal. All that does make a lot of sense.
    I guess I’m trying to reframe the concept of risk in a way that makes it easier to move past the fear. I’m preparing to take kids to the weekly Vigil for Racial Justice, as my school does every week. That’s a risk. Some parents might come down on me verbally if they’re “*All* Lives Matter” people, and we’ve been confronted by Nazis at the rally itself. But I’m white, and so less likely to be targeted by those Nazis than the kids – *children* – of colour who attend. I’m less likely to be thought of as a threat to someone’s life or property simply for walking down the street or sitting behind the wheel of my car.
    (…) (Sorry; to be continued – posting format issues!)

    1. Bill Ivey

      (…) So, in that context, am I wiling to take that risk? Hell yeah. Am I willing to wear nail polish and/or skirts to school so I can be a visible role model to kids whose gender expression ranges outside the norm? Again, yes, absolutely.
      Because the alternative is that those same kids look at me and wonder if, when push comes to shove, their lives matter to me as much as the kids of privilege.
      As I say, it’s a fine line. We do need to support each other. Blogs like yours provide a great way to stimulate conversations, talk through the ins and outs of how best to do this work, support ourselves and push on to the next steps. So yes, let’s acknowledge the fear and risk, and absolutely acknowledge the risk is greater some places than others (as I do mention in my blog). But let’s also keep those fears and risks in context.
      What do you think?
      Take care, Bill

    2. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Bill,

      It’s definitely an interesting conversation, that’s for sure. I’m really thinking a lot about context and risk taking right now, too. For example, I wouldn’t even think about taking kids to a Vigil for Racial Justice in my context. Not only would I get verbally beat down, I’d probably get canned! And there would be very few people who would accept a male teacher wearing a skirt or painting their nails in my neck of the woods. You might be able to take those risks in Chapel Hill — but even in a place like Raleigh, which is relatively progressive compared to the rest of the state, that would be pushing the envelope a heck of a lot further than people were willing to go.

      Did you see this bit on the Florida elementary teacher who was reassigned — and called a distraction — because she asked students to use gender neutral pronouns in her classroom:

      http://www.newsweek.com/florida-teacher-gender-neutral-transferred-672441

      That’s the kind of thing that would happen here, too.

      All that to say that maybe the idea of “risk” is different depending on context. Work in a progressive private school in the North East and you can go a heck of a lot further than if you work in a state that has aimed to reaffirm “traditional Christian values” at every single turn.

      Thanks for pushing the conversation forward…..It’s an important one.
      Bill

  3. alimcollins

    Really important post. Some folks may say we this is just another white teacher talking about the same things Black folks have been saying all along. Unfortunately, when I speak up on this as a Black parent/educator, the folks that want to avoid conversations like this aren’t listening. I’ve already been painted as an angry Black mom. What I’ve seen over time is that when my white husband or friend brings observations like these up, somehow they are harder to marginalize.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      This is what I was thinking when I wrote this post, Ali.

      I’m not looking for anyone’s accolades. I just realize that by sharing my own feelings and experiences, others who look like me might be willing to open themselves to these ideas, too.

      It takes away the dismissive excuses and inaction of “the majority” when members of the majority are speaking up, too.

      Bill

  4. Bill Ivey

    One of our alums gave a Convocation speech this year on the need to identify and root out white supremacy and patriarchy at work, and I’ve been holding conversations with colleagues to ensure we don’t just pat ourselves on the back for good intentions and actually work out how my school can best go about this. One of my colleagues and I came up with four possibly helpful focuses for school-wide conversations moving forward: intersectionality, moving beyond the binary, visibility, and how to call each other in/out. We didn’t mention implicit bias, but probably should have. Intentionally moving forward, at any rate, needs to be a given or those of us with different kinds of privilege are in essence saying our comfort counts more than our kids’ lives. With that in mind, here are a couple of my own pieces:

    On being imperfectly human in one’s equity work:
    http://blog.sbschool.org/intersections-all-i-got

    On the risks of focusing on courage in equity work:
    http://blog.sbschool.org/intersections-enough-with-the-bravery-thing

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      So Bill,

      I checked out your posts just now and a quick reaction to the courage post: I get that there are inherent risks in focusing on courage instead of equity. And I agree that if we all lived as decent human beings towards one another, courage wouldn’t be necessary at all. Courage in the equity conversation is only necessary because we’ve forgotten to be kind to begin with.

      But I also wonder if there is a risk of downplaying the moments when people do show courage — particularly when those same people go against the majority. The fact of the matter is that there are tons of people who are willing but afraid to move in a more positive direction. What are they afraid of? The thoughts of the people who look like them.

      Should they be afraid? Nope. Because we are talking about being afraid of showing kindness and human decency to others. There’s nothing there to be afraid of.

      But their fear is real, too. And if we can be positive about the steps they are willing to take, maybe it takes away the power of that fear and begins to normalize their actions.

      Change only starts when ordinary people start to act in extra-ordinary (out of the norm) ways. Not when a small handful of leaders or risk takers do it. When the average Joe start to move. Often, those moves really are risks in and of themselves.

      Any of this make sense?

      And if not, push back. In this conversation, I’m just an ordinary guy trying to understand something I don’t know all that much about.

      Bill

  5. kheywood34

    I’m not going to offer congratulations or thanks for posting this because that just centers the conversation back on us white people. “Oh wow, what an upstanding guy he is for being so open minded.” Instead, I’m just going to say I agree and posts like these are very needed. It is up to those of us in positions of power and privilege to dismantle the underlying systems of oppression in this country. And the first step is making a whole lot of people uncomfortable. It’s only through the discomfort that we learn and grow. And as an added point, this is work we have to take on ourselves. We cannot expect people of color to do the teaching. There is so much out there to educate ourselves. One of the first steps I have started to take is expanding the types of people that I follow and read. Looking at my Twitter, blog, Facebook, etc it’s a big sea of white. We can’t learn if we stay in our corner of society.

    1. alimcollins

      I like this and want to offer an antidote. Support Black and Brown leadership and affinity groups. My daughters attended a school that had mostly Chinese and white students. Teachers never got motivated enough to actually have conversations about implicit bias in their school. One of the excuses they always offered was, “We just don’t have any Black teachers, and I don’t feel comfortable talking about racism when I don’t feel I have any experience.” Fair enough, I don’t want teachers talking about race with kids when they haven’t had time to reflect on their own bias. Nonetheless, that meant, we just didn’t do anything.

      What changed things? Black parents started an affinity group. Parents collectively shared what they liked about the school and asked for more books featuring black authors. They also said they wanted to see their culture celebrated with an assembly during Black History Month. The principal invited parents in to read books featuring during Black History Month. Just having more black adults in the school, made our school more welcoming to Black families and reinforced to our community that Black culture is valuable and worth celebrating. Black folks have expertise to share.

    2. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Yup. I’m with you, Katie.

      I’m not looking for anyone’s congratulations.

      My blog is a place of reflection for me. I challenge myself here. My writing is designed to push me to different places and spaces and ideas.

      Along the way, I hope it nudges others to think, too. If this post makes even one white colleague uncomfortable, that’s a win I think. The truth is when you are in “the majority,” you can stagnate and downplay the challenges of people of color. Sometimes it takes a nudge from someone who looks like you to move forward.

      I’m willing to provide those nudges.

      Rock on,
      Bill

  6. vgpratt

    Bill, it takes courage to stand up and admit that, in thinking about it, you’ve realized you treat black students differently than white ones. I appreciate that. I appreciate your “open heart” and your courage to challenge us to look more closely at our own behavior, biases, and thought processes.

    Thank you!

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Thanks, VG….

      What’s always interesting to me when I write a post like this is how few people share it or read it or comment on it.

      I can write a post about the hottest new #edtech tool and get 1,000 page views a day for a week. But write a post about kids of color and I’ll maybe break 100 views a day for a week.

      I think the conversation really makes people uncomfortable — and that’s troubling to me.

      We live in a world where race is an issue and we work with kids who are wrestling with that reality. When are we going to talk about it openly?

      Anyway…my hope is to model that it is OK to speak openly about it.
      Bill

      1. nyamagata

        Great read. Awareness of our issues is the required first step before we can choose to act differently. I am a teacher in San Diego where the vast majority of my students are brown or black. Many are very frightened in the current political and social climate. My daughter recently moved to North Carolina to attend university. I am hopeful that you are among a growing group of people there promoting your open minded perspective.

        1. Bill Ferriter Post author

          Hey Nya,

          Sadly, North Carolina is hardly a progressive place. There are strong pockets of progressive people, but sometimes it feels like we are pushing against windmills to drive change. We have state policies that further inequality for people of color, for Hispanics, and for the LBGTQ community. It’s super sad, to be honest.

          But change is always possible as long as individuals are willing to act — and we have individuals willing to act. So that’s cool in and of itself.

          Rock on,
          Bill

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