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Supporting Black Boys to Thrive At School

Interview By Autumn Allen

Black Boys Thriving at School

Simmons College professor Daren Graves teaches teachers and works with Black boys in schools, and conducts research to determine best practices for schools educating students of color. Writer and interviewer Autumn Allen spoke to Dr. Graves. She mined his experience for ways in which parents, teachers and schools can help Black students, particularly Black boys, thrive. What follows are her broad questions and some of the many nuggets he offered in the conversation.

Why do you think so many Black boys are not doing well in schools today? What are the forces pushing them out?

There are a lot of different factors. A lot of it stems from, if we think of race and its intersectional identities as social constructs, the way we’ve constructed Black boys as anti-intellectual. This is important because unless we’re super aware and reflective of those social constructions, it creates a “common sense” for what’s going on.

An example of this is like Barack Obama, when he would get praised for being articulate or intelligent, or you hear stories of a lot of Black male intellectuals who give a basic talk or comment and people come up and say “wow, that was amazing.” And that’s because people get surprised when they see an articulate Black man because the notion is that they’re into sports, or physical characteristics. You even see it in sports. Black athletes get praised for their physicality; whites get praised for their intellectual ability.

That causes a few issues. It lowers the bar for Black men in terms of what we expect from them in schools. So we’re not pushing Black students, men in particular, to do highly rigorous intellectual work, because we either don’t think they can do it or don’t want to “set them up for failure.”

On the behavior side, equivalent actions by Black men and boys is perceived differently. So when little Henry, who’s a white kid, runs around at recess acting a fool, it’s just cute, but as soon as a little Black boy does something, looks at someone the wrong way, bumps into someone, it becomes a problem. I know a lot of Black boys and young men who are in classrooms where they feel that they engage in the same behaviors as other folks, but as soon as they talk out of turn or ask a question that’s seen as challenging the teacher, it’s seen as oppositional or combative.

Even things like dress policies. In a lot of schools, there might be a no headgear rule. Which, putting aside religious headgear, there are plenty of girls walking around with a scarf on their head or something and it’s not seen as an issue. But as soon as a Black boy comes into a classroom with something like a baseball cap on or a do-rag, it’s seen as something that’s going to get in the way of their learning, or everybody else’s learning, which I’m still trying to figure out.

So I think we have these ideas or concepts of Black men and boys that creates this “common sense” that says they’re not intellectual, and we’re surprised if they are, and they become exceptional if they are.

Then, this hyper-focus on what they’re doing with their bodies or their mouths creates a disproportionate impact on them in terms of what we call classroom management or behavior management.

So an example I use is, if I say I’m in a school where the kids that get disciplined the most are Asian girls, everyone laughs, like what’s wrong with your school, right? Because we’ve constructed Asian girls as submissive, smart, not causing a problem. Right? But if I tell you that in your school, the students most likely to be removed are Black boys, no one’s like, “What? How is that possible?” How does that come to be, that nobody questions it? It’s just like yeah, the sky is blue, the grass is green, and Black boys get in trouble. We have expectations of Black boys being troublemakers and not really caring about intellectual stuff.

And kids—all young folks—are perceptive, and it takes an exceptionally strong person to fly against the expectations that are set out for them. So that plays out in terms of academic expectations, behavioral expectations.

And the other thing that happens is that when you confront people with this stuff, when you go to schools and ask, why is it that Black boys are the most likely to be removed from class, or least likely to have high academic outcomes, teachers will focus on individual cases. In this case, he was insubordinate, in this case he threw something. It’s easy to look at individual cases, but when you look at the aggregate, what is it that’s so unique about these boys that puts them in this situation? That would hopefully help them start to think about these bigger issues about the social construction of Black mandom, if you will.

Still, teachers often get resistant, or will say, “The school is all Black--if we have all Black students, how can we be racist?” Then if you take an intersectional approach—what is it about Black boys? What ties all these Black boys together, that they’re the ones who are disproportionately affected? Then people get into cultural arguments. They’ll say, Hip Hop –this pop culture they’re listening to doesn’t really value education. Or they’ll say, they don’t have role models in their community. This is a deficit lens—looking at Hip Hop through a deficit lens, looking at communities through a deficit lens: they don’t have this, they don’t have that. The cultural or economic argument is easy to fall into.

The thing about cultural arguments is that race isn’t a culture. So that can be easily debunked. What we’re finding is that kids who are Somali, Haitian, Dominican—kids who are all Black but not African American… There’s a diversity of cultures within what we call Blackness. And there’s nothing that ties all these kids who are Black together culturally—and if there is anything, it’s something imposed from the outside, rather than something inherently from the inside. Even reaching back, the continent of Africa is very diverse, so it’s even more crazy to impose that on us now. Yet kids who are Somali, kids who arrived last week, kids who’ve been here for generations—they’re all experiencing the same thing [in schools]. So what is it that’s internal to these kids, versus what is it that we’re imposing on them from the outside? So the cultural argument is easy to fall back on, because it ties back into the notion that race is something real. It is something real, but it’s not something real that’s internal. It’s not something cultural or biological. There’s nothing internal that ties these kids together. Not all Black boys listen to Hip Hop. A lot of white kids listen to Hip Hop, and they don’t have these issues.

Then there’s this concept that “these cultures don’t care about education.” That sounds pretty racist on its face; no one necessarily says that directly, but they say it in one way or another. If you know anything about the history of most oppressed, minoritized groups in this country, it’s that they value education even in the face of death, or people putting up all kinds of societal, cultural, physical roadblocks to them getting an education. So my goal is to get people to look at themselves instead of asking “what’s inherently wrong with these kids, or these communities that have single black mothers?” That’s another one. Looking at the single black mother idea – first of all, the idea that you need a man to raise a good man is a problematic version of how things work. You have plenty of men who do terrible jobs raising men. And we have plenty of evidence of strong women who have raised good men. Also, if you want to go with “where are the black men in the community,” is that a choice? Are they saying I don’t want to be a father? Let’s look at all the structural issues that are pushing Black men out of positions to be in strong economic, social, political situations to raise children?

​The notion of the single Black mother is a really decontextualized look at the Black family. If you go back to the times where African folks were enslaved, and there was a systematic break-up of families, you might see a lot of “single black moms,” right? But is that a function of Black families saying we don’t want to be a family? Or was that a function of the structure? You have the same thing now, where you have a disproportionate amount of black men who are in jail, unemployed, “unemployable.” Again, is that by choice? Or do structural things put that in place?

So it’s usually people being unreflective about history, structures, and the way that racism actually works, that creates these scenarios where we put all the blame on either the agency of the students or the culture that they come from.

I run a few young men’s groups with Black boys. When I talk to them, I’m not trying to take away the notion that people have to make decisions. It’s not like well, racism, so you can’t do anything about that. No, we talk a lot about trying to make the right decisions. Trying to figure out, if there is racism, what do we have to do? If people are hyper-focused on your behavior, what do we have to do differently to resist that in a way that’s useful?

The super hardcore Right people think that we put all the blame on racism and structures and none on the decisions people are making. But to eliminate [the racism and structures] from their analysis is crazy. And to pretend that these issues aren’t a part of the reasons why they’re making the decisions they’re making, or a part of the situations they’re in in the first place, is also disingenuous.

When you work with youth in schools, what do you observe about the ways in which they are understanding our world?

What issues are they aware of and what issues are they not aware of? Also, when you talk with them about what to do in the face of racism—I know a lot of times our parents would say, you just have to be ten times better, you have to be perfect, in order to just make it. Has the way we talk about that changed?

Yes. Theresa Perry, a scholar, teacher and community activist, makes a really interesting point about how in a lot of ways the segregated schools of our past actually did a better job of educating our youth than the desegregated schools. And part of that is an identity focus. So back, before the “post-racial era,” – past making these laws where you can’t discriminate. It’s funny when I give these talks these days. I used to talk about interpersonal racism as a thing that’s not “pc” and no one really does it anymore. These days it’s kind of crazy. But the notion that we’ve gone past that because we have laws that don’t allow discrimination and supposedly there’s a social stigma associated with being interpersonally racist, so there’s this idea that we’ve eclipsed racism. So before then, there was explicit messaging around what people believed about you. So Black schools were saying, no one thinks you can do this, everybody thinks you’re not smart enough or intellectual enough.

School [pre Civil Rights integration] was a place for creating a counter-narrative. Central to doing a Black school was centralizing this counter-narrative about Black intellectualism. That was at the heart of this. That we are doing this to affirm our humanity, to achieve freedom, to blow up this notion that we can’t do this. So that was explicit, and that was the jumping off point for learning how to read, etcetera.

Perry argues that then in desegregated schools and moving into this “post-racial” society, a lot of the explicit messaging has gone away. But the reality is that the notion of black intellectual inferiority hasn’t gone away. So now it becomes confusing. It’s less of a leap when people are telling you, people think that you’re Black and you can’t do it, and you’re trying to fight it against it explicitly. In a world where people are saying race doesn’t matter, but you run into these situations where you feel that it does, but everyone’s telling you it doesn’t, that’s confusing, from an identity perspective for the child. So if schools aren’t being explicit about it, or worse, they’re complicit in creating that confusion around narrative, then you see a lot of the kids blaming themselves. In the work I do in schools, the students are the ones who are most likely to push against the notion that there are these big structural and cultural issues that are driving the issue. They talk about who’s trying hard enough, who’s making the right decisions. Not focusing on the fact that your school’s crumbling, or you don’t have enough books, or the school’s overcrowded, or nobody believes you can do this.

So for the students, and sometimes for the parents, it becomes confusing when you pretend as if there is an equal playing field. And I think it’s happening less now. With the police violence, there’s become a renewed focus on The Talk, and trying to make more explicit some of these issues. But schools don’t have that Talk with kids. They say you’re just here to learn your ABCs and 123s to pass this test. And then it becomes confusing. So, again, you have to have an exceptionally strong community, family, to keeping pounding this message away to offset work that’s not happening in schools in that regard.

So the work I’m doing is about how schools are building critical consciousness, building strong racial identities for students of color.

There’s a lot of research now, over the past 20-25 years, about how students of color who have strong racial identities do better academically and socially. A strong racial identity basically means having a sense of identity that recognizes what anti-blackness is, names it, and gives them both a sense of not being overly Pollyannish about their prospects, but also not overly pessimistic.

Theresa Perry does a lot of work about this too. And some people say well, if you just focus on racism, won’t they get apathetic and not want to try? Only focusing on the negative can lead to apathy. But we’re researching giving students tools to analyze, navigate and challenge that landscape. That helps. We’re talking about giving people tools, organizing tools, how to comport oneself in classrooms and in job interviews. Then it doesn’t lead to apathy and hopelessness. But you have to do that explicitly and intentionally. If not, racism is too powerful a force – even if everyone is doing nothing, it will reproduce itself. It requires actively breaking it down, naming it, reflecting on it, giving people tools to analyze it and challenge it. So that part’s not happening enough in schools, especially in average public schools. And again, this problem does happen in schools with Black principals and Black teachers. It’s not like just having Black principals and teachers is going to change things. It changes when you’re explicit about this.

It’s also about high expectations. Not just talking about identity. That’s a myth of culturally responsive teaching—that we just need to make it relatable to what they know. You still need skills. Perry would say that if you really understood black education throughout history, part of that legacy is high expectations. It’s not just changing “Sandy” to “Laquecia” in the word problem. You see this in Hip Hop education too. You see books of ABCs and 123s with Hip Hop figures in it, as if that’s going to do anything. It’s helping kids realize that they are mathematicians, they come from a long line of them. Christopher Emden talks about this in his work on Hip Hop ed and STEM education – trying to get kids to realize it’s not a huge leap: they are scientists. If you take a tag or a piece of graffiti that you’ve done on an 8x11 paper and moving it to a 12x30 foot wall, that’s math. That’s moving things to scale. Making beats is math. Both thinking historically – instead of saying we’re trying to make this bridge because this isn’t really you, but we’re going to help you feel better by putting it in your context to help you understand it. No, helping them realize they ARE intellectuals. And then holding them to high standards. Chris Emden does these Hip Hop Genius rap battles. In those battles, it’s not just enough to have this great flow and throw some science words in there. The main criteria for judging is, does what you’re saying make sense scientifically? You have to know what you’re talking about.

So it’s a combination of being explicit about what you’re doing this for – that we come from a legacy of doing this at all costs. Learning to read, back in the times of enslavement, it meant learning to read if someone was going to kill or maim you. In the 60s and 70s it meant going to a newly desegregated school with a police escort to school so you wouldn’t get mobbed by white families who weren’t having it. We have a long history of doing this at all costs. So that’s part of it, along with the high expectations and behavioral expectations.

Some people are going a little far with the behavior expectations. We’re seeing that with the “no excuses” schools. Part of what underpins their notion of behavioral expectations is that unless we have these super strict rules…it’s almost like an anthropological thing, this notion that we have to tame these kids, that without these rules, these kids don’t know how to control themselves. The example that I use is, have you ever been to a black church? It lasts for 3 hours in a lot of cases, and you’ll see kids holding it together because there’s a community expectation that you can’t act a fool. So, in Black church, the behavioral expectations are through the roof, and you get kids that can sit silently for 3 hours and do what they’re supposed to do. But if your expectation is built on this assumption that without these uniforms and without these rules, they’re savages and don’t know how to control themselves, that’s operating from the wrong place. So you can have high expectations, but you have to assume that they already have it in them, not that they don’t.

That’s where some of the work around grit that we see in schools is a problem. Yes, everybody needs grit. But if the assumption is that they don’t have it, that they don’t have resilience, and that we’re here to deposit it in their head, as opposed to realizing that for a lot of kids, the act of getting to school or going home, or living, is an act of resilience and grit and determination that we can build upon. As opposed to we have to give it to them. It’s a different project. So these no excuses rules assuming that they don’t have this stuff is paternalistic.

How does gender figure into the experiences of the Black boys you work with at school?

Some of this is also about gender. It cuts across race in that we do a bad job socializing boys and men. We do a lot of work in our boys’ groups around helping boys express a full palate of emotions. We raise boys and men to feel comfortable expressing two emotions: anger or ecstatic happiness. It’s not that boys don’t feel shame, or guilt, or confusion, or sadness, or loneliness, or other things. But we don’t name it and reinforce it enough. So I think what gets some boys in trouble is their lack of ability to sit with and name or express emotions besides anger or ecstatic happiness. So a lot of kids talking about a negative experience, if you ask how did that make you feel, they’ll say I was mad. That’s just the word they’re using. But I’ll say, well, I would feel pretty confused, or scared, or guilty, or a sense of shame, or accomplishment…a lot of different words. On the positive side, love. I’m not saying boys aren’t feeling them– they’re feeling them, but we don’t reinforce. There’s a lot of gender research that we don’t socialize boys. Part of patriarchy is dissociation from your inner world, to be stoic in the face of things that we’re facing. That leads to a lot of destructive behaviors, or self-destructive behaviors. I don’t think that’s exclusive to Black boys, I think that’s a boy problem and we see that with all the violence we’re seeing in our society, especially with shooters, and white male shooters especially. But I do see boys getting into situations. I tell the students all the time, if you’re a middle school teacher, you have signed up for seeing kids making bad decisions. So no one’s going to be shocked if you do something that we don’t agree with. But what really gets the kids is their response to getting called on their behavior. So, a kid does something wrong, the teacher calls him on the behavior, then rather than just sitting with it—and it does get complicated with race too, because if you feel like you’re always getting called on, you want to resist against that. It’s not fair if you feel like the Black boys are always getting called on stuff. So I hear that. But you have to learn how to sit with an emotion like shame. Live with it. I call it catch a loss – catch a L – and then keep it moving. Like if the police pull you over and you weren’t speeding, you can sit there and talk back, but that’s not going to work out for you.

It happens the same way with teachers. Whether it’s fair or foul or not, they have more authority, so you have to realize how to catch a loss in the moment and then come back later to get your justice. The teacher will be more likely to hear you out. You did what you did, you get called on it, and then you do something back—disrespect, insubordination, disrupting the classroom environment. As opposed to just catching a loss in the moment, and then after everyone calms down, just go back and say look, I think you misunderstood what happened. It will never work if you try to adjudicate the issue right then and there. Especially if you’re a Black man, everyone’s already riled up anyway because of your Black maleness. There’s psychological research that shows that when you ask people, how old do you think this Black boy is? They’re routinely seen to be 3-4 years older than they actually are. So I talk to these boys about playfighting in the street. They’ve been at this school since second or third grade. They’ve been playfighting the whole time. Playfighting at 8 years old is one thing, but at 13, I know you’re playfighting, maybe even your teacher knows you’re playfighting, but that person across the street just sees a bunch of men fighting each other.

So it’s a dilemma because you don’t want to have to cede your rights in order to survive. Welcome to the real world. But that double consciousness that DuBois talks about is actually a powerful tool—you have to be able to see yourself through the eyes of other people in order to better navigate the world. And hopefully then, ultimately transform it. But, like I tell my students, I can’t just sprint down the street to catch the train. I have to be aware of where my body is in relation to other people, especially white women. So, that’s not fair, but I don’t think life is fair. There are all sorts of ways of resisting that are necessary. So I’m not saying don’t resist. I’m just saying you have to be smart about how you resist.

A lot of boys feel like they’re being profiled. A lot of teachers say, “No, no, you’re not being profiled.” But I’ll say “Yes, you are being profiled. Now what?” And we see in police brutality, people who are actively trying not to seem threatening, still getting killed. But the notion is, fair or foul, if you know you’re being profiled, you have to act accordingly.

And some take this too far – they say you have to walk around in a suit and tie. That’s anti-blackness. There is work that can be done so we can dress how we dress, but show people that that’s not a threat. But I do think there is some capitol – it’s almost like multilingualism. To the extent that they do admire a Jay Z or a Kendrick Lamar, what makes those guys so successful in some ways is they can navigate multiple spaces. It’s like a form of code-switching. It’s an asset. Especially young boys see it as being inauthentic. They think, if I flip it up for someone, that means I’m being inauthentic to my Blackness, or to my Black maleness. But that’s just unrealistic; who acts the exact same way in a Black church, with their Black best friends, in a store…? Part of life is, you check your surroundings, you see what the norms are, and you act accordingly. I can understand why people come to that conclusion, but the reality is you don’t talk to your grandmother the same way you talk to your best friend. Behaviorally, this is the same thing.

Then usually what happens is you retreat to your space where you feel most authentic, and you can sit back and realize, I just played the game the right way. I’m still who I am, but I can go into that predominately white space, survive, get what I need out of it, come back, go to that predominately of color male space, whatever that is, survive, get what you need out of that, and so on and so forth. It’s a skill. Now if you do that too much and don’t do anything to transform the situation—a rightful criticism—if you’re just navigating and not challenging… A colleague of mine, Dr. Alia El Amin, helped us think about, is navigation enough? No, challenging is important too. If you’re not challenging it, you’re not doing anyone any favors. But if you can effectively navigate the space, you’ll be in a better place to challenge some of those systems of power. ​​

When you teach them about how to navigate different spaces, especially how to behave in classes and interviews, do you come across ideas of “acting white”?

Yes, it’s that notion of being inauthentic. I can understand that. But that’s a form of resistance that doesn’t help you transform anything. So if they say, I don’t want to do that because I’m not trying to please The Man. Okay, but unless you’re going to live in a bubble, that’s part of the world. And whiteness and Blackness are ideas, they’re not real things. It’s not like your DNA is changing because you’re acting a certain way. These notions of acting Black and acting white are ideas imposed upon you by guess who? These ideas come from white supremacy. White people made Blackness. White people made whiteness and Blackness. So them’s the rules now. So what’s acting white? Dressing up nicely? I mean, if it’s dressing in a European-style suit, ok, I can get with it a little bit. But just dressing up? Is it being articulate? That doesn’t make sense. Is it being nice? What are the things that we’re associating with whiteness and Blackness that doesn’t fall into notions of white supremacy?

So, I understand, and I’ve dealt with that myself, almost to my detriment. But they need to realize, what do you mean by acting white, what are the features of acting white, does that make any sense?

But I think what people are really talking about, and where you can help this is, if you’re acting a certain way so that you can be successful for your own gain only, I can ride with that a little bit. By the way, one of the features of the Hip Hop characters they look up to is that they know how to play the game, they know how to hustle – going to different places, doing what you’ve gotta do, so that ultimately you come back just for yourself. But more importantly, it can be framed as if it’s not just about you. That’s one of the biggest differences, in terms of things we’re looking at in schools and how they’re framing success in terms of Black kids or people of color in general. If the goal is, beat the odds—statistics show that you’re not going to make it, but if you make it, you’ve won! If you make it to college, you’ve succeeded! You’ve beaten the odds, you’ve defied the stereotype, you’ve won. The end. I think that’s delving into the realm of respectability politics, acting white, and all the negative things we associate with it. But if it’s on a greater mission: if the goal of success is to go to college, come back, empower others. You’re standing on other people’s shoulders, and you’re setting people up to stand on your shoulders, it’s about community uplift and community success, then part of that game is navigating different spaces, some where we have power and privilege, some where we don’t. I guarantee you Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, part of their deal is they had to learn how to talk with, convince, compel white people to make stuff happen. And no one’s going to say Harriet Tubman was acting white.

So if you’re doing it for white people, to please and appease them, then that’s a problem. But if it’s part of the process of building a stronger community for yourself and more active self-determination, then it’s part of the game. Like, part of Malcom X’s story in his education was reading the dictionary. That was not written by Black people. Part of his story and his mission was going to Harvard and telling people about themselves. Huey Newton had a PhD.

What do you wish every parent would know about raising critically conscious children?

I’m going to answer this academically. One of the models in our research project that we operate under in terms of helping develop critically conscious students, or building on the notion that kids of color with a strong racial identity are kids that tend to do better, there are three components to it, and the last one builds on the first two.

  • Awareness of racism. Sort of like the Talk. Being upfront about racism: that it operates, how it operates. That’s the analytical piece, the awareness piece. Know what you’re fighting against.
  • Seeing your struggle as connected to something larger than you. You’re connected to other marginalized, oppressed groups, other kids around you. It’s hard to do in isolation; if you’re the only Black kid, then it’s hard to feel a sense of connectedness. But somehow, being connected to other folks in your situation so that you’re not doing it by yourself. And more importantly, historically: this is not about just you getting into Yale or Harvard. This is about, you’re standing on the shoulders of others who died, sacrificed immensely, so that you could get to Harvard. And, more importantly, it’s not over with. You are the next rung in that ladder. You are supposed to take that and set that up so that others can stand on your shoulders. Your success comes when those after you succeed. That’s why something like Jack and Jill—though it’s associated with bougie Blackness and high-class Blackness—when I was in a predominately white neighborhood and area, it was important for me to see other kids that were struggling with the same things that I was struggling with, to see that I’m part of something larger than just what’s going on in my English class in high school. So those two are key and then lead to the third.
  • Achievement as resistance. Ironically, this model was created by a white woman, Daphna Oyserman, who was interested in the connection between racial identity and achievement. It’s this notion that your achievement is the best way to resist. So, there’s resistance that can be like F you, I’m not playing this game! I’m just gonna curse the teacher out! As opposed to, your achievement is the resistance. Especially in the context we started in: this notion of seeing Black people as not intellectual. Achieving is the resistance. If you think about the school to prison pipeline, or foaming at the mouth racist people – what they hate to see is your success. What they don’t want is your success. Our success. So the more we instill the notion of keeping it real and being successful is achieving in the face of, because of, in spite of, all these obstacles that people throw at us, that will gives us success both individually in terms of all we’re trying to do in life, but also in the bigger mission or affirming our humanity, and achieving freedom.

So – being aware, seeing that you’re connected to something bigger than you, and that your achievement is the ultimate success in battling racism and other forms of oppression.

Now what achievement is – whether it’s school or something else… I think that because of the notion of Black people as unintellectual, I think school is often the site of that resistance because of the misconceptions. So Malcolm reading the dictionary and becoming super literate and a leader and articulate and moving people—he’s one of the first MCs. In a context of having been famously told, you’ll never be a lawyer, you’ll be a janitor. It’s the ultimate success, because not only did he prove that person wrong, he proved him wrong to the degree of moving entire communities to love themselves and to see themselves in a different way.

What are some suggestions parents might give to schools their children are in?

It think I’m going to answer in a different way. I think schools need to see families and communities as assets. So oftentimes, communities and families are seen as the problem. “These kids never learn how to…” or “their families just don’t care enough to…” or “they just value different things.” This is a deficit view of families, communities and their histories.

First of all, parents are kids’ first and most important teachers. There is often a tension between teachers and families because both are teaching the kids and both feel that they know the kids uniquely well. They are often pitted against each other, usually not on purpose but just because they’re not being intentional to not be. Teachers have to see parents and communities as experts on their kids, and we need to tap into that expertise.

Schools are in the middle of communities—neighborhoods—and then there are others—elders, parents—who have authority in those neighborhoods, and then the second they step into the school, they’re basically stripped of all that. That’s because it’s not being recognized intentionally, or because the only reason you’re communicating with them is because there’s a problem. So there’s this phenomenon where teachers know that they have to call home from a non-school number, because the parents know that if the school is calling, it’s because there’s a problem. And that’s a really bad dynamic. So that’s obviously going to make parents defensive. Because what’s the implication? So you have to see the parents, the families and communities through an asset lens.

And you also need to see the students through an asset lens. We do this weird thing: if Pepsi or Coke was trying to figure out how to improve their product, they’d do what we call consumer research. They’d talk to the people who are consuming the product and say, what do you like? What’s not working? What should we change? But in education, we do this weird thing where, if we’re trying to figure out what’s wrong and what’s not working in schools, we talk to teachers and we talk to fancy experts like Dr. Graves. We don’t actually talk to the consumers of education: the students. So, seeing students as experts on their own lives and communities, and leveraging that. This is very much a Freirean concept (Paolo Freire, famous author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed): people are experts on their own communities. Leverage that, see that. Don’t use the banking model of education, where students are empty vessels and I’m here to deposit information in your head. As opposed to what Freire would call the reciprocal teaching model in that I have expertise, they have expertise, we need to, in a feedback loop, work together to get the job done.

Sometimes people feel like if you’re black and have black students, there’s some magical connection you already have, which is not necessarily true, for all the reasons we said before, in terms of the diversity within ethnic groups, much less across all the ethnic groups that comprise a racial group. But if a white teacher says well, I don’t know these kids’ cultures and how am I supposed to? Put students in a position to teach you so you can teach them. Try and figure out what your students are into. What motivates them? Then leverage that so you can teach the Pythagorean theorem. That means that you have to see your students as having valuable knowledge to build upon, to then teach them the functional and critical skills they need.

There’s been a big pushback in some places against ethnic studies programs, which are fascinating programs about leveraging community capitol. Tara Yoso talks about this notion that communities have knowledge and dispositions and skills—I think Luis Mole calls it funds of knowledge—that we don’t build on in schools. We do the banking model: textbooks have the information, kids don’t have the information, we have to deposit. So it’s a notion of seeing expertise, naming expertise in the communities, and the experiences that students come from and have…in order to teach them calculus, and critical and functional skills. It’s not a magic wand where if you do it in Spanish or ground it in some culture then everything’s going to automatically happen. It’s not an end; it’s a means to an end. Some teachers feel it’s either culturally competent stuff, or it’s holding kids to the standards. No, it’s using cultural competence to achieve high standards. It’s a means to an end.

For white kids, it’s not an issue, because the culture of power is their culture they’re used to. Lisa Delpit talks about the culture of power. Her famous book is Other People’s Children. I use the example from when I was growing up. There’s that room in your grandparents’ house that’s covered in plastic, like a museum. You step on the couch, what happens? Grandma says, “Get off that couch!” So if I do the same thing and now I’m in school, and the teacher says, “Do you think that’s a good idea to be standing on that couch?” This is a rhetorical question; this is about discourse. So if you’re used to getting a declaratory statement, and now this person’s asking you a rhetorical question, so you say, “I do think it’s a good idea!” Then that makes you look oppositional. But it’s really that [teachers are] using a discourse that’s not connected to their culture of power at home. So Delpit argues that in order to teach, you need to make a cultural bridge. It’s almost like language. When immigrants come here, we don’t just give them a vocabulary test. We give them English Language Learning services, and then we test them. And we have to do similar things, according to Delpit. She’s not saying the culture of power at school is better than at home, but you have to bridge the two. This is where some of the initial thinking about cultural competence comes from. But again, it’s not just about operating in the culture of power. No, it’s a bridge.

So, recognize expertise and cultural capital that exists in communities; build a bridge in school so that you can teach all those standards that they make you teach to anyway.

Follow-up question: we were talking about how Blackness and whiteness are created, and how a cultural issue is a straw man because there’s no overarching Black culture. So when you say to build this cultural bridge when kids come in to school, can you clarify?

That’s not a racial culture. It’s culture in a larger perspective: whatever rules and norms govern a particular space or community. Whatever it is that governs the spaces and communities that they come from. And recognize that if there is anything that brings these cultures together under Blackness, it’s not something that comes from the inside; it comes from the outside.


All this stuff I’ve just talked about is learned. Some people act like, “I don’t know this!” But this isn’t stuff that I always knew that was intuitive, coursing through my veins. This is stuff that I had to learn, like book learn. That’s why I was naming people [that I learned from]. This is not just inherent knowledge from being a Black man. It’s stuff that I had to learn in school. So this information can be learned, should be learned. Sometimes I sense a reticence to do that. “Oh, you just come do it. You come talk to my black students.” I understand that, it makes sense. But just because I’m a Black guy doesn’t mean I’ll automatically connect or that it will work. We may or may not have common experiences to build from.

I don’t care what race you are: if you’re authentic to yourself and to what you know or don’t know, young folks are wide open. So if you feel like, I’m white, I’ll never connect with my Black students… you will connect to them if you show that you’re open to what are they into; if you’re willing to learn about them and you know you don’t know everything; if you develop a personal authority (as in, do what I say because I’m invested in you and I know you) versus a positional authority (as in, do what I say because I’m an adult). I think young folks are more open to transcending issues like race because they’re less jaded and they’re more optimistic and open-minded, just developmentally. If you develop a sense of personal authority, they don’t care what race you are. But they will care if you’re faking the funk or pretending that it doesn’t matter what race you are relative to them.

Autumn Allen

Autumn is an educator, a writer, a reviewer of books for children and young adults, and an independent scholar of children’s literature. Her graduate studies and her practice as an educator in community settings inform her interest in children’s… More about Autumn >
Autumn Allen