Make Some Noise

We teachers do have a moral and professional responsibility to acknowledge and correct discrimination in our own practice and classrooms, as well as a larger responsibility to advocate for justice and equality for our students at every level, using all means at our disposal.

When we encounter an unfair situation, we may accept the explanation that it is an unfortunate exception or a fluke. A second occurrence might make us more concerned. But when, as the Declaration of Independence proclaims, there is “a long train of abuses…..,” it’s time for action.

Almost 30 years ago, while our high IQ, black deaf son was in elementary school, his father and I sat through an excruciating parent/teacher conference with his team of teachers that year: two black women, one white woman. The black teachers praised his creativity, academic achievements, and wanted to challenge him more. The white teacher was frustrated that she had to accommodate for his hearing impairment (e.g., she could not give him oral spelling tests). Her major complaint, however, was that he finished his class work too far ahead of the other students, then became a distraction to her. Her solution: Punish him by making him go into the corner and read a book!  [Unpack that for a moment.]  The more infuriating part, however, was her demand to us, “Why don’t you have a doctor put him on Ritalin™ or something?!”

Yesterday, a black mother whose child is in our church afterschool program told us about a parent/teacher conference she and her husband had attended earlier that day with their son’s white teacher.  The boy has exceptionally high grades and test scores, but the teacher kept sending notes home that he was disruptive in class. Her complaint: He finishes his work ahead of everybody else; then becomes a distraction. Her recommendation: “Why don’t you take him to a doctor and see if he can be put on some type of medication……”

Between these two incidents I have witnessed and heard innumerable reports from Black parents across the nation of similar encounters.  Black students, usually males, being viewed not as potentially gifted, needing enrichment or more academic challenge, but as disrupters and distractions. So-called professional educators not questioning their own weak classroom practices, lack of differentiated instruction, poor preparation, or implicit biases, but instead wanting these non-compliant Black boys drugged into passivity.

These repeated episodes of inequity make me wonder about those who argue that “good teaching is just good teaching” in response to charges of racism or other discrimination in classrooms.  What makes that claim suspicious is how some of these teachers (such as the two I reference above) have very different recommendations for white students who exhibit similar behaviors. Clearly, they (and the rest of us) know how to provide “good teaching” to some students. Such hypocritical double standards are also behind the disproportionate use of excessive disciplinary measures on Black students that too often marks the beginning of the school-to-prison pipeline.

It’s not that big a leap from unchallenged examples of everyday racism in too many classrooms, to situations such as those in Detroit. What would be unthinkable for the children of privilege, is perpetuated and worse yet, tolerated, on children of the poor.

Parents of color continue fighting these inequities and resisting the knee-jerk response to unnecessarily medicate our sons as we have for decades.  Slowly (but happily), more educators are also beginning to speak up within our faculty meetings, schools, and districts about these unethical practices too often condoned or ignored by the systems in which we work.  We teachers do have a moral and professional responsibility to acknowledge and correct discrimination in our own practice and classrooms, as well as a larger responsibility to advocate for justice and equality for our students at every level, using all means at our disposal.