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Addressing Bias When It Comes to Anger and Black Male Students

Most expecting parents are thrilled at the doctor’s visit when they learn the sex of their child. Don’t get me wrong; I was too. However, when I learned we were having a boy, I knew that, as African-American parents, raising him would be the toughest job we would ever have.

Search #ferguson or research school suspension statistics, and maybe you can begin to understand why I felt that raising a black boy would be, well, complicated. I honestly don’t know if it is more or less complicated than raising any child, and I make no proclamations to be a parenting expert.

I can only speak through the lens of my experience, and ask you to listen with empathy.

Allow me a moment to share an anecdote that can give you perspective. A white, male co-worker who I appreciate dearly reminded me about something he said when I was moved to a district position last year.

“Now, don’t turn into a mean black woman,” he said.

I don’t remember what I said to him at the time, but when he reminded me of it last week, we were able to have a real conversation about what he said and the implications.

Simply put, his words implied that black women in a real or perceived position of leadership were, more often than not, mean. 

I could have taken offense and ended the conversation there, but it wouldn’t have moved us forward. Instead, we had a lengthy conversation in which he admitted that he did not realize he stereotyped me, and hopefully as a result of our conversation, he will not stereotype other black women in the future.

I am sure I will unintentionally offend him one day, and I hope he checks me on it so that I will continue to grow and we can continue to move forward.

I share that anecdote to say, as easily and unintentionally as he can stereotype me, we can stereotype our black boys.

Bill Ferriter wrote a brave and moving blog in response to #ferguson that highlighted an experience that he had with a struggling, angry and frustrated black male student named Derek. In the comments I shared that all of our black male students will not fit in the same mold, and we should be careful not assume such. 

This takes me back to my 6-year-old son, and how we are trying to get to, and stay connected to, the heart of who he is as a young man at all times – but especially when he is frustrated or angry because we know how he behaves in those moments may end up defining him.

First of all, as parents, we have made the conscious decision to look at misbehavior as a temporary lapse in expected behavior instead of an inherent character flaw.

For example, one night he growled at his little sister and continued to purposefully bother her. I can punish him for his behavior, but punishment alone won’t help me to understand the root of the problem.

“What is really going on here?” I asked him after the growling incident.

“I was asking her to hold something and she was ignoring me. I don’t like it when she ignores me,” he said through tears.

My son, like all sons, wants to be heard. If his sister wasn’t going to see or hear him, then he was going to make sure she acknowledged him, and he was no longer going to be polite about it.

Another example happened one evening after school. He was unlike himself all night; uncharacteristically cranky, whiney, and even a little unpleasant.

My husband and I had had enough, and decided to send him to bed early. When
I was tucking him in, I asked him if there was anything else he needed to share. Finally he opened up, again with tears.

“I don’t want to do my homework in after care. It’s ok with you and Daddy, but there I feel like I can’t make a mistake. I have to get them all right.”

My son, like all sons, doesn’t want to feel incompetent. He would rather pretend like he doesn’t have homework or refuse to do the homework than possibly make a mistake in front of his after-school counselors or classmates.     

We are consciously working on teaching our son to explain his feelings, especially his frustration and anger, because we know how quickly that can turn into disruptive behavior. All children are not taught how to express their feelings, and they may not even realize that feelings of anger are things that can be explained.

So what I am asking of you is on behalf of all of the sons and daughters we teach--

  •  Recognize your biases and actively work to overcome them. The Teaching Tolerance Anti-Bias Framework is a great resource for teachers and students to support that effort. Also, if you genuinely want to talk about race and education and you can’t find anyone to engage with you, tweet me. We can figure this out together. I don’t have the answers, but I am all about building a “coalition of the willing” to find solutions.
  •  Remember a child who is misbehaving may have no other tool to express anger or frustration. It’s your job to hold him accountable for his actions, but also get to the root of the problem. You can do this with students by building authentic relationships, engaging in honest conversation, and teaching a student how to communicate through anger and frustration. Recent research has found language skills can influence impulse control in children. If you don’t feel comfortable working with children through this this, please ask for help from a colleague, counselor, or your administration.

Author John Maxwell has said it better than me, so I am going to end with these words. “If you can learn to understand people – how they think, what they feel, what inspires them, how they’re likely to act and react in a given situation – then you can motivate and influence them in a positive way.”

16 Comments

Kris Giere commented on August 25, 2014 at 3:45pm:

Understanding...

Val!

What a powerful and eloquent post! You have done a wonderful job getting to the heart of what we all should want to strive for as teachers. If we prioritize understanding the hearts and motivations of our students, we can have such a powerful impact on each and everyone of them. I know. It is easier said than done, but our goals should take effort.  Thank you for reminding us of the complexity involved in reaching students, any student.  Also, thank you for the cool resources!

Kris

Val Brown Val Brown commented on August 30, 2014 at 8:35am:

Heart and Motivations

"It is easier said than done, but our goals should take effort."

You make a valid point Kris, especially when it comes to issues that are historically difficult to face. Some action is better than inaction. I think we should give ourselves the grace to mess up a little in the beginning. It will get easier and we will be better for it.  

Byron commented on August 26, 2014 at 9:31pm:

Courageous

Val,

I really connected, as a father of a Black boy, to your blog post. I also connected as an Educator. I work in a Title I school and your blog is a testimony worth sharing. Teachers and educators responsible for educating Black boys need to/must recognize their personal biases and engage in authentic conversations about how they impact their expectations and interactions with Black males. I am planning to use Eric Jensen's book "Teaching with Poverty in Mind" as a book study. I am going to use the Anti-bias framework as a resource and discussion starter. Great post! Expecting more...

Lauren Stephenson commented on August 27, 2014 at 12:19pm:

Black.Man.Teach.

Hi Byron,

Have you seen the site Black.Man.Teach.? It features profiles of black male educators as a way of supporting those teachers and encouraging young African American students to join the profession. Lots of rich insight about students of color in those profiles.

Also, have you joined the Collaboratory? That would be a great way to continue this conversation and share your takeaways with the anti-bias framework and Jensen's book.

Thanks for commenting!

Val Brown Val Brown commented on August 30, 2014 at 8:39am:

Leading for Change

Byron, 

Thank you so much for using your position to lead change. If possible, please share your efforts, thoughts, actions steps, etc. on CTQ. We can all learn from your work. 

Brianna Crowley commented on August 27, 2014 at 8:55am:

So Glad We're Connected!

I've had a summer filled with examining my own understanding of #educolor and the way race impacts my classroom. From Jose Vilson's book to the Twitter conversations around the incidents in Ferguson, I've been reexamining myself for unconsious biases and ways I can learn from and engage with my students of color.

I live in a predominently white district with smaller populations of Asian-Americans, Indian-Americans, and a very small population of black-Americans. (Even there, I feel like I should examine the use of my hyphenated "American" labels...but I don't know how else to expresss the racial demographics).  But I teach many of those minority students, and I want to do the very best I can to make their educational environment reflect and value their culture, their interests, and their needs. 

So that's why I'm glad to have you, Val, and your husband, and Jose, and so many other educators I trust in my PLN. You offer opportunity for that honest conversation when I need it, and you share your story so that I can learn from it. Thank you! 

 

Val Brown Val Brown commented on August 30, 2014 at 8:43am:

Glad to Have You!

One of my fellow #risingleaders, Jozette, said that this is not only an issue for educators of color. We have to be in this together if this is going to work! Please let me know how I can continue to support you. Like I said, I don't know all of the answers, but I am willing to engage. 

Bill Ivey commented on August 27, 2014 at 11:00am:

Thank you for this!

So many connections I could make to this. Three things particularly resonate. One is the degree to which we can unintentially offend (whether or not racial or other bias is a factor) and how a willingness to confront and be confronted, in love, is fundamentally important to working that through. Building awareness through any means possible can only help. And of course, beyond building awareness in our own lives, we can (and should) build awareness in our students' lives.

Another is what I've heard from other parents, that systemic racism means some kinds of conversations (e.g. how to handle being stopped by the police) that all parents have with their children must of necessity take on a different flavour depending on race. Many years in my Humanities 7 course, the kids design a unit where I can suggest If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson, and there's a point in the book where one of the two main characters (a Black sophomore in high school) is talking with his father about how to remain safe in White neighbourhoods. Most years, we have a pretty good and honest conversation in reaction. I keep working on learning what I can about ensuring those kinds of conversations are both honest and respectful.

The third is the fundamental importance of separating behaviors from character. I do try, with all students who are sent to me for misbehaving, to talk to them about what they remember thinking and feeling when the incident took place, and work with them to figure out other ways of expressing and acting on those thoughts and feelings in the future (and why). The idea is thoughts and feelings come unbidden and are simply a natural part of who we are, but also that what we choose to do about those thoughts and feelings becomes the public face of who we are and thus shapes how that matches how we want to be seen. I work primarily with middle schoolers so, of course, some have a much greater self-awareness than others. But usually, we can work together and come to some sort of satisfactory resolution.

Val Brown Val Brown commented on August 30, 2014 at 8:57am:

Honored!

Bill, 

You are extremely active in the Collaboratory, so I was really excited to see that you read and commented on my post! It is a serious honor. 

There is one thing you said that I would like to echo. We have so many opportunities to talk about this issues within content areas. It does not have to be an add-on because for it's not an add-on for our students. It's real life! How you treat it..

"Most years, we have a pretty good and honest conversation in reaction." is fantastic. If we don't have these conversations, then how will anything ever change.  

 

 

 

 

Regina McCurdy commented on August 30, 2014 at 10:51am:

Good Tips for Teachers of All Students

First off, Val, what you say is true in regards to African American male students. There are many stereotypes that have been so pervasive for so long, we often don't stop to question what we really think and what is really true. I have six brothers and both of my parents were educators. They both communicated to my brothers often about making sure their lives at school and at work break the stereotype, because once it's in place, it's so much more of a struggle to defeat it. As a teacher myself, I've had quite a few one-on-one chats with black male students reverberating some of those same words of my parents to them, because I saw the potential they didn't see in themselves.

Secondly, the tips you give toward the end speaks to all teachers of all their students. How many times have I had other teachers give me the 411 on a students I was to have in my class? How many times have I been guilty of doing the same to a colleague as well? Acknowledging our biases about any student's behavior, attitude or culture is important, but what you modeled is key: being willing to enter into uncomfortable dialogue for the moment to have a lasting understanding and meaningful relationships for the future. 

Each child is different, with diverse experiences, cultures, tendencies... When we start to lump them into a categories based on our preferences  and tendencies without asking the whys and whats of who they are, we can create boxes that can unfortunately define them and confine them for a very long time.

Thanks Val, again for challenging us to think and grow towards each other for the good of all. 

Denise commented on September 4, 2014 at 9:23pm:

Thank you

Even though I am a teacher, I read your article from a mother's perspective and it was powerful. I am a good teacher, not exceptional, but good. I work hard to be exceptional but I always fall short. However, what I am exceptional in is building relationships with my students; not with all students but with the students who need a relationship the most. I try to encourage the ones who need encouraging but now what I want to do is give those who need a voice... The ability to find the words they need.

Renee Moore commented on September 5, 2014 at 7:34pm:

Great Advice

Been mostly offline for almost a week, and when I re-emerged today, this post was the first thing I saw. Outstanding. Too often, what is normal child/human behavior in black boys gets misconstrued (deliberately or ignorantly) as dangerous. Your thoughtful piece could be a great help to educators who really want to stop this cycle.

Jozette Martinez commented on October 7, 2014 at 11:35am:

My heart swells...

As usual, Val Brown is able to courageously and eloquently convey challenging topics and leave me in awe.

I will say, as a Latina woman, who is often pegged for being "passionate" (which to some equates to assertive, which to others equates to aggressive,) I can say that I would have been far more triggered than you. I think micro messages, as well as blatent "don't turn into a mean black woman," is unacceptable and is evidence of white privlege... but

I digress.

Onto your postitive and proactive approach, and the peacefulness that it takes to have courageous conversations. 

Brava amiga... bellisimo!

Val commented on October 7, 2014 at 11:44am:

:)

I love you my friend! Thanks for reading this piece. 

 

Cintron commented on December 10, 2015 at 6:34pm:

Inspired

Val, 

I am honored to have met and worked with you, and know, that there is not a mean bone in your being.  Thank you for sharing this post!  Everyone wants to be heard and acknowledged.  They all want to know, you are listening, and that their words matter; that they matter.  Communication is and always will be key, as is education, which is the key to everything.  We cannot become who we want to be, by remaining who we are.  Again, thanks for your post!  

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