Dear Teachers Who Teach My Black Child:
As a former high school teacher, I recognize that teaching is a choice made with the heart. The majority of teachers — who have each chosen to work in a profession where they are miserably underpaid, overworked, and under-valued do it because they want to help children. Their intentions are good. But while a teacher arrives at school with a vast understanding of their particular subject; sometimes they are lacking in knowledge about students who are of a different race or background than they are. In other words, they lack the cultural competency to work with some of their students and this lack of knowledge can have damaging and lasting effects.
Now some may wonder why this sort of “training” isn’t necessary for Black teachers who teach White children. Black people learn about White people starting at birth. The level to which we understand your culture, history, social norms and the like is strongly linked to our success in America. On the other hand, White people have no reason to get to know our culture and usually base their information about Black people on pop culture and the “one Black friend they had in high school.” The game show Jeopardy proves this point regularly. Contestants who have easily answered questions on topics ranging from East European 16th century artists to Fashion of the 1950s, often fail to answer even one question correctly that is about African Americans.
Black parents don’t just worry about curriculum and lunch room shenanigans when we send our children to school every weekday morning. We don’t just worry about elementary school teaching, middle school pranks and high school politics. We honestly worry about you, as their teachers. We know your heart is in the right place. We just want to make sure that your head is too.
If you are open to listening, here a few things that I think most parents of Black children would love for you to hear and understand.
- Nigger is more than a “bad word.”
When a kid calls a Black child a “nigger” it is not the same as if they had called them “dummy” or “asshole” — It is more than an insult. This is not a “sticks and stones may break my bones situation.” “Nigger” carries the weight of 300 years of slavery, 5 million dead Africans, cotton fields and whips, hangings, rapes and torture. It was the word used to belittle and control our ancestors for 300 years. When a Black person hears it (from a non-Black person) we are immediately taken back, pushed down. We immediately feel as if we can not escape our history. Do not treat an incident when one child calls another “nigger” the same as if he or she had been called stupid. To do so would be comparable to treating someone who carved a swatstika on a desk the same way you treated a person who drew a sad face. There is a reason that the world treats hate crimes differently than other crimes. Calling a child a “nigger” is an assault.
- Some of the assignments that you give to our kids are culturally insensitive or need to be handled with sensitivity.
Some assignments sound great on paper. You have the task of determining if the assignment is inclusive and appropriate for all of your students.
Both my kids have been assigned multiple times an ancestry project that requires them to trace their family roots back to their country/countries of origin and then bring in artifacts, foods, family photos, etc. to present to the class. Due to the legacy of slavery, the majority of Black children do not know from what African or Caribbean country their people were stolen. They had to watch kids come in with bagpipes, family crests, and papers that illustrated their ancestors trip from England on the Mayflower.
If you are going to do projects such as this, do it aware of different circumstances and address those circumstances.
Think about your lessons lifting all of your students. If you are going to cover slavery, don’t teach my kids that they were slaves. Let them know that they come from a people who were enslaved. So many children feel such shame because of the way many lessons are taught.
- No child wants to be the representative for an entire race. Don’t ask them to be.
Please don’t call on my child every time there is a discussion about race. If the child has something to add or feels comfortable adding something—they will. How would you feel if you were the only or one of two White people in a classroom of 25, and every time there was a question about race, slavery, etc. you were called on?
- Continuously “check” your unconscious bias.
You have biases. Own it. We all do. It doesn’t mean that you are racist. It actually means you are human. You are a better human – and will be a better teacher – if you are aware and frequently “check” yourself. Check how you think about others: males, females, Black people, poor people.
My son goes to a school where the majority of the students are wealthy (not just rich, but multi-generational, have buildings named after them, wealthy). We clearly don’t fit the mold. Recently, on his report card, he earned a C- in English. Needless to say, my husband and I were very upset with him, but also with the teacher. We pay for private school, like most parents, for the individualized attention (class sizes are 15 instead of 30, allowing teachers to work with your kid’s strengths and weaknesses). Why hadn’t the teacher let us know that our son wasn’t performing well? I honestly believe that she unconsciously thought that a C- was acceptable for my son and his family. I don’t think that she thought it would cause the same alarm as the governor’s kid getting a C-.
- Similarly, don’t criminalize our kids.
Just as studies have proven that African American offenders receive stiffer sentences that White offenders for the exact same crime, studies have shown that when misbehavior occurs in schools, Black students are disciplined more harshly than their White peers. Research shows that African American students, and especially African American boys, are disciplined more often and receive more out-of-school suspensions and expulsions than White students. Overall, Black students were three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their White peers (Lewin, 2012). In many instances, Black children, as young as kindergarten age, will receive notes home or other discipline whereas White students will simply receive counseling or a recommendation of ADHD testing. No studies have shown that African American students misbehave with greater frequency than White kids. Please be sure you are meting out discipline equitably to our kids.
Be fair. Sometimes being fair may take extra effort. You may need to sort through your biases, take a moment to consider each situation and each child individually. Who you tell our children they are – is most likely exactly who they will be.
- Learn how to pronounce his or her name correctly and don’t act as if it is difficult, odd or an inconvenience.
If you and we can say Rob Gronkowski , Chloe Sevigny, Martin Scorcese or Matthew Dellavedova you can pronounce Temeka. And if you can’t, smile and say, “I really want to say your name properly. Is it —.”
- Understand that we love our kids equally and that our expectations for them are high. We expect your expectations to be high, as well.
Black parents, just like any parent, regardless of what they have or have not accomplished themselves have high expectations and big dreams for their children. We want you to expect exceptional things from them and want incredible things for them.