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Sunday / June 24

Teaching Black Boys: 3 Principles for White Educators

When we speak of Black boys as a group defined by the fact that they share “categories” (they are Black and they are boys) we necessarily have to speak of the challenges that they face as a result of the way U.S. society renders those categories. There are particular conditions that are common to all Black boys:

  1. Fewer than 1.5% of all children’s books have Black boy protagonists. Black boys do not see themselves in books. As the parent of a White girl who reads voraciously, I can say that she has read thousands of books, most of which feature characters that she relates to in terms of race and/or gender. Her love of reading cannot be extricated from the fact of the books available to her.
  2. Our society talks about Black men from a deficit perspective: dropout rates, incarceration rates, absentee father rates. We rarely talk about the nearly two million Black men in the U.S. with four year college degrees, the 409,000 Black men with Masters degrees and the 71,000 Black men with PhDs. Black boys don’t see models of academic success that look like them, but it’s not because they aren’t there. It’s because they aren’t being shown to them.
  3. 85% of the teaching force in the U.S. is White. This is not an indictment. It, too, is a fact about categories that would be irrelevant, except for the ways that racial categories in the U.S. are loaded with meaning. The vast majority of White people in the U.S. grew up in racially segregated spaces, having very little exposure to Black people or Black cultural styles. When they (we) teach Black students, our lenses are necessarily clouded by many of the same stereotypes and negative messages that Black boy students have received about themselves.

What do we do about these circumstances that are so clearly connected to Black male success and failure in schools? It’s clear that one of the answers is to get more Black teachers into classrooms. But given the vast underrepresentation of Black teacher candidates in the U.S., it’s also clear that while we work to increase numbers of Black teachers in classrooms, we also have to build the racial proficiency of the teachers—the predominantly White teachers—who are already there. And while general racial proficiency is necessary for working with students of all racial groups (including White students), this task also requires getting very specific about the particular needs and challenges of children who fall into the “boy” box and the “Black” box at the same time. In our book, The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys, we suggest three overarching approaches for doing this.

First: Understand Yourself.

Black boys are not the only group that exhibits general patterns and norms based on the social identity boxes they find themselves in. White women teachers do too. Studies have shown that White people more quickly mis-identify a gun as a toy after seeing the image of a White six-year-old boy’s face, while they more quickly mis-identify a toy as a gun after seeing the image of a Black six-year-old boy’s face (Finnerty, 2017).  White people have more trouble distinguishing between Black faces than White faces.  Most people tend to see Black boys as 4.5 years older than their chronological age.  White teachers tend to anticipate failure at higher rates for students who have a “Black cultural style” of walking (Finnerty, 2017). Before any teacher learns anything about Black boys, they need to first understand themselves, their racial conditioning, and the bias that shapes the very lens they look through as they assess a Black boy student’s personality, misbehavior, reading level, and future potential.

Second: Respect the racialized context in which you are teaching.

The racialized context in which you are teaching is a context that neither you nor your Black male students can escape, no matter how much you each may want to. Respect the ways that your Black boy students’ opportunities are narrowly circumscribed by low societal expectations, stereotypes, and norms and sanctions around Black manhood. Also, respect the broad diversity and multiplicity of Black boys, their families and their experiences. Respect that Black boys are just as diverse as any other group and that they need different things, even as they usually get seen for their Black maleness first. They are sensitive, kind, loving, nerdy, athletic, clumsy, funny, shy, talkative, scared, and brave—often all at the same time. They are gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, gender queer. They are deaf, blind, differently abled, autistic, and gifted. They are atheist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist. They are raised in Black families, multiracial families, White families. They are raised by mom/dad parenting couples, by grandparents, by extended families, by lesbian moms and gay dads.  They are raised by divorced parents and widowed parents. They are raised by transgender parents who birthed them in the context of a transphobic and racist medical system. Imagine the multiplicity of experiences that Black boys have, and how almost none of it shows up in the books or TV shows that teach them about themselves and about the world.

Respect the complexity and diversity of Black boys, and support them as they grow under the oppressive weight of society’s simplistic narratives for them. In The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys, one contributor shares a strategy for how teachers can rewrite the narrative they tell about individual Black boys in their classrooms. You can start spreading positive “gossip” and tell the Black boy student a different story about himself than most people tell, perhaps different even from how he would describe himself.  Help Black boys create a new narrative for themselves individually, and spread it around the school, so that he is not limited by the one that developed organically before he even showed up, most likely heavily laden with stereotypes and assumptions (Williamson, 2017).

Third: Connect.

Connect with students and their families. Connect Black boys’ success or failure to what happens in the classroom. Connect the dots between a school system that was designed around the needs and concerns of White middle class learners, that was not designed with a vision of Black Excellence in mind. Learn about the concept of “undermatch,” in which college applicants are accepted to and attend colleges that are beneath their skill level (usually because of misleading advisement from school counselors or teachers or financial reasons) and how undermatched students tend to underperform at those colleges due to a lack of challenge (Smith, 2017). Learn about books and lessons that will help support positive racial identity development among Black boys (M. Michael, 2017). Learn about the transformative importance of study and travel abroad, as well as the reasons that many Black boys do not take advantage of these opportunities (Crushshon, 2017).

Recognize the dismal 3rd grade reading rates of Black boys compared to their counterparts of other races and genders, but don’t stop there. Recognize that those reading rates are a product of a complex system, a dynamic in which Black boys play only a small role, even as they reap most of the negative consequences that it yields. Black male success and failure in school is necessarily inextricable from the fact that they are going to school in a system that was not built for them. If we want to change outcomes for Black boys, we need new approaches that acknowledge systemic inequities and that work for the majority of Black boys. White educators, who make up 85% of the teaching force, can and must be part of this change.

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Written by

Ali Michael is the co-founder and director of the Race Institute for K–12 Educators and teaches in the mid-career doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Eddie Moore Jr. is the founder/program director for the White Privilege Conference and owner of America & MOORE, LLC. Marguerite Penick-Parks currently serves as Chair of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. Together they are the editors of The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys (October 2017, Corwin). All of the references in this piece are chapters from The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys (October 2017, Corwin).

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  • Yes, stereotyping is very common in many ways by society. Given so many failures of of black males and the successes of black females, it would appear black males are not as valuable. However, we need to look way beyond the just the black male to see that black males are only on a lower general continuum of failure among male students. We need to get the white teachers, administrators, parents, etc. to understand the black male crisis is but one segment of the general male crisis. Then we can begin getting support for the minority students also. Even in nice, middle class environments those male students are falling behind their female peers collectively also. So we need to use this to show the need to help all students. Then we will have much more support for helping black males change and improve. I hope my learning theory (much more on this) will help.
    The belief boys should be strong allows aggressive treatment from infancy to create anger and fear so they will be tough. There is less kind verbal interaction and less mental/emotional support for fear of coddling. This treatment creates high layers of average stress for boys. These layers remain in the mind taking away real mental energy from academics so they will have to work harder to receive the same mental reward. This harsh treatment creates emotional distance/distrust of others. It creates lags in communication girls are given daily. The high average stress creates activity for stress relief not genetics. The high average stress creates higher muscle tension which hurts handwriting more pressure tighter grip hurting motivation. The total effect with our false genetic models in place including less care creates more failure and feelings of hopelessness. To make it tougher for boys is granting love honor feelings of self-worth only on condition of achievement. This was designed to keep Male esteem low and be willing to give their lives in war for tidbits of love honor from society. Males not achieving are given ridicule and discipline to make them try harder. Support is not given for fear of coddling. Many boys falling behind in school turn their attention to sports and video games for small measures of love honor not received in school. The belief boys should be strong and false belief in genetics create denial of the harsh treatment which is creating the low academics low esteem and other problems boys are facing. This is not about more feelings or openness from boys; it is about society allowing aggressive treatment from infancy through adulthood so boys feel much wariness toward parents teachers others who freely use aggressive treatment for any sign of weakness. This is condoned by society. This problem is affecting all male children and adults but the lower the socioeconomic bracket and more time in lower areas the more amplified the treatment given male children by parents teachers peers.
    As girls we are given much more mental emotional social physical support and care by parents teachers and peers. We enjoy a kind of reverse catharsis of much continuous care while the boys receive the opposite more hurtful treatment to make them strong. This is now killing off boys in the information age while providing girls with all of the good things. As girls we are treated much better and so enjoy more hope and support from society. Since we as girls are given by differential treatment much more continual positive – mental social/emotional support verbal interaction and care from an early age onward this creates the opposite outcome for girls when compared with boys. We receive love and honor simply for being girls. This creates all of the good things. We have lower average stress for ease of learning. We enjoy much more freedom of expression from much protection by society that makes us look more unstable at times but we can also use that same freedom of expression to give verbal silent abuse and hollow kindness/patronization to our Male peers with impunity knowing we are protected. We enjoy much lower muscle tension for ease in handwriting and motivation to write. We enjoy much more positive trust/communication from parents teachers peers and support for perceived weaknesses. We are reaping a bonanza in the information age. Now with girls and women taking over many areas of society we enjoy even more lavishing of love and honor from society while boys and men are now failing more so and are now given more ridicule and abuse by society. Mind you this is now coming from many girls and women using our still protected freedoms of expression and more so with now false feelings of superiority.

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