“Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent."- Philip Atiba Goff, PhD
A few years ago I had an African American student in my fifth grade class who we'll call Derek. Derek was popular and well-liked. He had very nice parents who were involved at the school. He was a great athlete. Tall. Muscular. Derek had a deep voice and he towered over the majority of our class, and he stood eye to eye with me, his teacher.
Derek was a typical fifth grader. He wanted to come across as a great student, but he also wanted to impress his friends. You could regularly hear his deep, booming voice projecting during appropriate (and inappropriate) times in our classroom. He had a close knit group around him at all times. His little clique consisted of himself and the other two African American boys in our class, and Derek was clearly the leader of the group.
I should also say a bit about the racial climate at our school. It was clear that African American students were seen as troublemakers, while many teachers took a “boys will be boys” approach when negative behaviors surfaced from white students (I use students loosely as we all know that boys are the ones typically getting into trouble at school). At some point during that school year, I heard one of the gifted teachers referring to an African American boy in another class as a “lazy n*****”. One of my biggest regrets in my life is not telling this woman how her hateful language is perpetuating these stereotypes she’s promoting. Another conversation for another day…
Back to Derek. One day Derek was talking during my class during one of the few times students were supposed to be silent. Maybe it was silent reading? I can’t remember. What I do remember is that I could hear his booming voice from the other side of the room. I remember thinking, “Can’t you even pretend to whisper?” I gave him a warning and then a checkmark (our team’s discipline system at the time), and expected him to quit talking and move on with his day. This didn’t happen, however. He flipped out. He stood up and started yelling at me about how he wasn’t the only one talking. He went on to tell me that I only got onto the black kids and that I let the white kids do whatever they want.
Whoa. I was speechless. Not because I had witnessed a student have an emotional outburst (those are to be expected from time to time), but because I felt deeply insulted. Me? The woman who was horrified at the comment made by the gifted teacher? The woman who prided herself on believing that all students can learn and are gifted in different ways? The woman who tried to make her classroom a student-centered place where students could work on what interested them? Me, a racist?
I am not proud of what happened next. I told Derek to go out into the hallway. I tried to calmly tell him that he was talking when he shouldn’t have been and now he had to face the consequences. Derek was livid. He continued to tell me how I treated him unfairly because of the color of his skin, only it came across that he was yelling, maybe threatening me even, because of his large size and deep voice. To me, this did not feel like a typical interaction with one of my fifth graders. I felt threatened, even though I wasn’t, and I sent Derek to the office.
I wounded our relationship that day. I actually wounded my relationship with my entire class, not just with Derek. I would give anything to go back and handle this situation differently. I would have Derek sit down and write out his feelings on paper. I would engage the class in a discussion about the realities of the racial climate in our school. Perhaps we could have learned a lot that day. Instead, I shamed Derek and made it clear to the rest of the class that I was not someone to be questioned. Looking back, I don’t think I would have handled the situation with a different student the same way as I handled it with Derek. If a white boy who came up to my shoulder tried to explain to me that he hadn’t been the only one talking that day, I don’t think it would have ended with a trip to the office.
At the time though, I didn’t realize these things. I thought I was totally justified in my behavior. I received a phone call from Derek’s mom the next day. She was furious that I had sent Derek to the office for talking in class, and I tried to explain that it was his response to getting in trouble that had been the issue. She wasn’t buying it. I can only imagine now how Derek’s mother was feeling. She had sacrificed a great deal to get her son into an out of zone, “good” school. She drove over 30 minutes each way to get Derek and his sister to school on time every day. She was doing a good job.
Knowing what I know now, it strikes me that I would not even engage with Derek on the issue of race. I couldn’t even tell him that no, race never consciously played into my decision to give him a checkmark for talking. I was terrified to discuss race. In my mind, I didn’t see color, and racism was a thing of the past. I found it strange and terrifying that one of my students would even bring it up. At that time I wasn't even willing to examine my behavior objectively to see if there was a pattern of me treating Derek and other African American students differently. I had my mind made up that I was colorblind, not racist, and that there must be something wrong with Derek to make such a horrendous accusation.
This is a scary place for white teachers and parents to be. We mean well, but I think it’s time for us to wake up and realize that it is our responsibility to have these tough conversations with the young people around us. In this Washington Post article about talking to your kids about race, an African American parent brings up an excellent point. She says, “We don’t have the luxury of deciding whether or not ‘to educate’ our children; this is our lives. These are the waters in which we swim. Join us.”
I am not trying to downplay the difficulty of having these conversations. I honestly don’t know exactly what I would or should have said to Derek and the rest of my class that day, but I know that saying something would have been better than saying nothing. To me, part of being a parent or a teacher is showing kids that it’s okay to try hard things, it's okay to talk about hard things, and it’s okay to fail at both. The main thing is that we show up and try.
Teachers, let’s be aware of our biases. Just because students are more physically developed or have deeper voices or HAVE DARKER SKIN, they are still children. They deserve our love, protection, and gentle leadership. They need to be able to make mistakes and do dumb things and get the benefit of the doubt, because they are kids. Don’t make my mistake and think that you are incapable of discriminating against a student because in your mind you aren’t racist. Derek is by no means the first or the last young African American male who has been treated unfairly because of his skin color and physical size. We have such a long way to go on this issue, and I think we need to step back, breathe, and not be afraid to have difficult conversations with our students and colleagues about race and privilege. It sucks and it’s hard, but it’s time.