Addressing Bias When It Comes to Anger and Black Male Students

As parents, we are trying to get to,and stay connected to, the heart of who our son is 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.

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.”