Sunday, June 8, 2008

think that black people are wasting a wealth of opportunities

I sat down to lunch the other day near a couple of white men who looked to be in their forties. We introduced ourselves and started talking. One said he’s a history teacher and the other teaches science. They also said their school’s student population is about 60% black, and that the black students are lagging far behind the other students.

This high school history teacher said some things that I thought demonstrated some common white ways of thinking about race. I wanted to point these tendencies out to him, but I also wanted to keep talking to him. So, I had to bite my tongue sometimes, though I did say at one point, “That’s mighty white of you. That right there is a mighty common white thing to say.” Here’s most of what we said to each other.

Early in the conversation, I asked how things were going with their different student populations.

“Well, the few Asian kids we have are doing great, and the Hispanic kids are keeping up pretty well, but not so much the black ones,” said the history teacher. “I teach a lot of AP [Advanced Placement] courses, though, so I don’t see many of them.”

“Oh? Why not?”

“Because pretty soon after they get in, most drop out.”

When I asked why he thought that happens, he said, “Well, it’s the same as a lot of other situations. They have this opportunity of an AP course, but like so many opportunities out there for them, most of them don’t take it.”

The other teacher nodded his head in agreement.

“What do you mean, they don’t take it? Aren’t those classes hard?”

“Sure they’re hard, but they don’t study. They think they don’t have to study.”

“Why not?”

The other man jumped in. “Because they think they don’t have to. Bill Cosby had a lot of good things to say about that, but communities like the one these kids come from don’t want to hear that.”

“Right,” said the history teacher. “They don’t want to hear that it’s on them to pick up opportunities and USE them. Did you know,” he said, leaning forward, “that it’s considered politically incorrect for us to pass too few black students?”

“No, I didn’t. What do you mean?”

“I mean that we have a lot of pressure on us to so-called ‘prove’ that we’re working hard enough to help these kids. What that translates to is, we have to pass a certain number, no matter how well or badly they do.”

“And the kids know that,” said the science teacher. “When I ask them why they don’t put in more effort, they come up and tell me, ‘Cuz we know that you have to pass some of us!’”

“Right, right,” said the other teacher. “So that means there’s a sense of entitlement now for them. It’s this idea that at least some of them can get by without doing any work. They think black people are just entitled to getting into and passing things like AP courses.”

“That's strange. So, do any black students work in your classes?”

“Oh sure, of course, some do. But most don’t, and that’s why most of them have to drop out. And they don’t only drop out of my classes, they drop out of high school.”

“What percentage do that?”

“I don’t really know. But a lot more than other groups.”

“So,” I asked, “what’s the cause of that? I mean, I don’t think that pressure to pass a certain amount of black kids is the only reason a lot don’t do well enough to study.”

“Right, it’s not,” said the history teacher. “But, the thing is, I don’t concern myself with what causes them not to study. My job is just to help them study, however I can. To provide them with opportunities. And most of them just don’t take those opportunities. My belief is that it’s up to them to take what they’re offered, and to suffer the consequences if they don’t.”

“We provide so many opportunities,” said the other teacher. “Like, we have special mentoring programs that we’re trying to get volunteers for. But again, they don’t take it. Some of these volunteers can’t find students.”

“Look at Oprah,” said the history teacher.

“Oprah?” I asked.

“Yeah. She’s building schools in South Africa, right? Instead of here, where a lot of black kids could use schools like that, newer, better schools. Well, you know why she went there instead? Because the black communities here don’t want those new schools. That opportunity she’s offering them isn’t appreciated. And that’s just like so many of the opportunities we’re trying to provide.”

“Well,” I said, “I don’t know about Oprah’s refused efforts to build schools here, I’ll have to look into that. I have wondered why she’s so interested in education there instead of here.”

We munched our sandwiches for a minute.

Then I asked, “But, if that general thing you’re talking about is true, where does it come from? Why do you suppose black kids aren’t taking all these wonderful opportunities they supposedly have?”

“Supposedly?” said the history teacher. “Look, there’s a wealth of opportunity out there, for anyone who wants to get up and grab it, especially for black people. All sorts of set asides!”

The science teacher nodded vigorously as the other went on. “Okay, you see, I might have a different perspective. I’m Irish American, okay? Third generation. My people suffered, and struggled, and look where so many of us are today. Look where I am. Okay, history teacher, not such a big deal, but I was born in deep poverty—welfare, absent father, the whole bit. I pulled myself out of it. And so when chances and options get dangled in front of people, I think it’s up to them to grab it. Like I did.”

“Right, I suppose. But, why do you think they don’t grab it?”

“I don’t know,” he said, right at the same time that the other one said, “Who knows?”

“Well,” I said, “maybe they’re discouraged from grabbing it. And maybe you as a white kid were more encouraged to grab it.”

“By what?” said Mr. History [that’s easier to type than “the history teacher.”].

“By internalized racism, for one thing. There’s a lot of messages out there that tell kids that people like you should grab opportunities and run with them, but also telling black kids that they’re not likely to get anywhere if they try to do so.

“Look,” I said, trying to focus my thoughts after eating a pretty big sandwich. “You guys keep talking about giving these kids more and more opportunities, like that’s all that can be done about their lower achievement rates. You keep veering away from the question of WHY so many don’t take those opportunities, WHY those that do don’t usually get very far.”

“But, you see,” said Mr. History, “I had it bad too, and so did my people. I was the one, it was ME, who saw chances and pursued them. No one was telling me that I should do so, in fact my family members and friends basically told me not to. But I did. So again, I think it’s up to the individual.”

“Right,” said Mr. Science, “That’s all we can do. Teaching is the opportunity business, basically. We give them all sorts of opportunities, more and more all the time.”

“You know,” I said to Mr. History, “what you just said, about how what people gain in life is up to the individual? That’s mighty white of you. That right there is a mighty common white thing to say.”

He just looked at me, with a look I found inscrutable.

I continued, “You did get encouraged, just because you’re white, and a white male too. You could easily look around at the world, at TV and movies and advertising and so on, and almost all of the successful people were white people, mostly white men like you were gonna be. Opportunity looked more do-able to you than it does to a black kid, who even today has trouble finding images like that.”

“Are you kidding?” said Mr. Science. “There’s all sorts of successful black people.”

“Oh really?” I said, “All sorts? Does that mean many, as in, like, a lot? There’s not a lot, and black kids can see that. They can see how much harder it is for black people to get there, and I suspect they can also see that they’re still not especially welcome once they do get there. And then there’s other messages, from within their community.”

“Like what?” said Mr. History. “Oh, I know, the lack of a father figure. There’s one.”

“Hmm, I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe. Maybe for a boy especially, without a male role-model. I’m not sure. That doesn’t account for the girls, though, does it?”

We scratched our chins or twirled our soda straws.

“What about a lack of jobs?” I said, “What about poverty, and parents who can’t be there as much to encourage their kids because they’re working two jobs?”

“Well, poor white kids have that problem too,” said Mr. Science. “They don’t drop out as much.”

“Right,” I said. “We could talk about these things in terms of class, too. But it’s a double-whammy for black kids who are poor, in terms of race and class. What about history? You’re a history teacher. Are there any historical legacies in effect here?”

“Well, I don’t know. I don’t teach African American history in terms of ‘legacies’ like that.”

“What about a white historical legacy?” I said. “What about generational transference of wealth? Did you know that the average white family is, what, eight or ten times as wealthy as the average black family?”

They both looked at me blankly, but then Mr. History said, “Poor is poor.”

“Yeah, I guess. But some groups have been much more poor, and for a long time, because racism is an extra layer on top of it. And you know, when we were talking about jobs, it made me think . . . does this make any sense? You say black students don’t want to work. What about a community that has a historical heritage of being forced to work, and work much harder than the people around them, and then after slavery, for much less pay? A lot of that is still true, and the chances for advancement are usually much less too. Do you think there could be a general attitude in that community and in its families, an attitude that’s against that kind of work, that’s resentful about 'work' itself? I mean, I don’t think black people work less—I think they work more, if anything. I’m talking about the possibility of a resentment, or maybe a weariness, against enforced and unfair work, and the lack of real opportunities for better work. And so, a part of that might be that any work a person doesn’t HAVE to do is work that a person shouldn’t do. Does that make any sense?”

“I don’t know, sounds a little half-baked,” said Mr. History, as Mr. Science stared out the window.

“Well, yeah, it’s less than half-baked. It occurred to me just now. But, I mean, think about the white side of that. Work really has been an opportunity for white people, especially for white men like us. The possibilities for us have seemed almost limitless, in a way that they haven’t for black people. You mentioned entitlement before—I think it’s white men who’ve felt the most entitled to all sorts of opportunities, and to make or break their own lives.Without even realizing that others haven’t been entitled to that. Not to mention how, because they've been entitled, they've been able to earn more money, and then to pass it down, generation after generation.”

“Maybe. Anyway, all I know is, if opportunity is offered to you, it’s up to you to grab it.”

“Oh man,” I said. “That is so sad!”

“What’s sad?”

“That you’re teaching these kids, with that attitude! Sixty percent of your students!”

“What attitude?”

“An attitude that applies your white experience to their black experience and claims they’re the same! An attitude that shows that you have no concern about where they are, what they’re going through, what the world looks like to THEM instead of to you. It does look different, you know? And they know that. In fact, I suspect that’s a way that they know something pretty important that their teachers don’t know.”

I was a little surprised to be saying this so bluntly to two men I’d just met, and saying it about their jobs, their livelihood, probably their very identities as teachers. They didn’t get upset, though, at least not visibly. They were quiet, and just seemed kind of thoughtful.

And maybe uncomfortable, because pretty soon Mr. History said he had to go, and Mr. Science did too. So we stood up and thanked each other for an interesting conversation.

Afterwards, I found the conversation dismaying. These two white teachers, who work mostly with black students, have very little idea about what race means for their students, and for themselves. I think they believe they’re doing all that they can by providing black students with a wealth of opportunities, and that like Mr. History said, it’s up to students to grab opportunities and succeed, or to waste them and fail. These two teachers seem to have been steered away from thinking or caring about what black students, and their families and neighbors, think and say about a young black person’s pursuit of opportunity.


  1. Interesting.

    I wonder what and whose history Mr. History teaches? Does it reflect the interests of his students? You have to reach out to them and pull THEM in any way possible--this would include seeing outside your self, as well as internal critique....i'm not getting that vibe.

  2. This is really so sad. Those 2 teachers need to be fired. It is the responsibility of the teacher to reach every student. These 2 white male teachers have no compassion. What a cop out to say about black students: "they" don't take advantage of "my" opportunities. What have those teachers done to encourage the students to take advantage or to show them how to do so? They should get to know each black student individually (yes black students may need more of the teacher's attention than white students and so what if they do) and figure out a way to get them to want to succeed. How about a hand written note inviting the few black students who started in the AP class who may have not done so hot on the first quiz to share a pizza after school and go over the quiz? Is that so hard? That is what teaching is all about. It is the TEACHER'S RESPONSIBILITY to reach the student by any means possible and that means getting to know the student so you can reach them. Not just tossing out an opportunity that you know the student for whatever reasons can't access and then blaming the student for not accessing it. Who is the adult in this situation. It is a crime those 2 men consider themselves teachers. Send them the link to this blog.

  3. I am amazed the conversation went as long as it did. But then again you are in a position to say what those children cannot say without the blinders going on and the earplugs going in.

  4. RIGHT ON!

    YOU are my hero! I wish I had been eating near you.

    I never get to have these conversations because I always get shut down and told I am wrong. But I am a woman and a woman of Color at that.

    I wish I could - wow!

    I am so humbled by what you did -wow!

    From personal experience I had been constantly steered away from Honors classes by teachers and guidance counselors who would say things like, "You know it is going to be hard don't you?" or "I don't think you can handle it.".

    Every year in Jr. and Sr. High my mother would have to go into work late so she could come to the school and demand they put me in the classes. I usually got B's in my honors classes -especially the math tract, but I always felt afraid in class to respond or participate thinking the teacher would nod and think. "You see I told her she couldn't do it" if I got an answer wrong. I was usually terrified in those classes all the time, which made them even harder. I had an ulcer in high school by 10th grade.

    Looking back now, if I didn't have my mom who knew I could do it with ease, I probably would have dropped out too. Just went back to regular classes, saved myself the stress, and aced the classes with straight A's and 4.0 GPA.

    These men may be projecting an attitude these kids can sense as well, but that they are not aware they are doing it.

    You planted a seed my friend!

    I am so glad you did what you did-I think it took a lot of courage and I am all Perklempt(sp). Talk amongst yourselves please. (sniff)

  5. Holy shit, that's blunt. I would not be allowed to do that, have that kind of conversation with white men, especially strangers. If I even mention 'white', they would think that I'm an anti-white racist, and then excuse themselves.

  6. The obliviousness and ignorance of these teachers is both sad and unsurprising. It's so easy for them to say opportunity is attainable for all simply because they are part of the majority. I'd hate having to be a student who had to learn history from someone so blind.

  7. Also, love the way being Irish is totally and completely analogous to being African-American.

  8. ...and people wonder why the school system has failed so many students...

  9. Wow, I think you totally owned those guys. Hooray!!

    It's so incredibly sad though to see the lack of empathy they have for their students. How are these kids gonna turn out?

  10. My husband is a high school teacher, and during the last several years most of his students have not been white kids. We've had a lot of conversations about race and ethnicity in his classroom. With that background I can say that the views of these two teachers are probably not uncommon. This sounds like classic back-to-the-wall teaching, the attitude that the teacher is "putting it out there" and it is the students' responsibility entirely to access and use whatever the teacher is attempting to communicate. This is terrible teaching for students of ANY color, but it's a shame to see so many teachers deflect their role as potent agents against racism.

    That said, one teacher can do only so much. The systems in which teachers operate, the demands that are placed upon them, the ridiculous, bloated bureaucracies in which they work, contribute even more to the deep institutionalized racism of the education system, in my opinion. The large urban public school systems in which so many children are "educated" adopt a cattle-herding approach to the whole operation. It facilitates entrenchment among teachers - especially those who are already defensive about their work - and stifles attempts at building community and providing individualized attention to their students.

    It is possible to help students break through barriers, but as I said, one teacher can do only so much. The most frustrating thing to see is a fleeting moment of hope slapped down bluntly by one of the many, many barriers that minority students face.

    As far as I can tell, many public school districts do a horrible job of professional development around the areas of cultural competence. The worst kind of buzzword-filled nonsense! It causes defensiveness among teachers with deeply-held racist attitudes and deep sighs and eye rolling among teachers who want and need tools to confront and combat racism.

  11. I don't know what impact this conversation had on the two men, but it seems hopeless that it ever went anywhere.

    The more I learn about psychology, it will take a serious break in their biography for them to really understand what you said to them. Character structures are largely set before adolescence.

    While it feels good to "own" like that, I doubt it did much good other than shut them down to the idea of what you were talking about. Granted I wasn't their at the restaurant, but I've had similar conversations. It just leads to people not talking to you and then who are you going to reach?

    The good thing about the conversation is that it's encouraging at least to me in my personal efforts as an antiracist white.

  12. Annie,

    That's such a thoughtful post.

    A government-housing neighborhood and school in D.C. is my experience with some of the dynamics you mention.

    You said that attempts at building community seem stifled, I see that, like each family is struggling alone, alone together.

    The kids do try in school, but in contrast to accomplishment by kids of all backgrounds and races in other areas in the city and suburbs.

    There are kids doing impressive things in writing, in service work, environmental work --river cleanup projects, etc., but not the kids in the housing 'project'.

    One high school in a D.C. suburb is now minority white, and got written up in the media as a school of integration and dynamism in the area, kids from Vietnam, Latin America, Ethiopia, something like twenty different countries represented!

    My own experience with kids in the poorest neighborhood here in the city is a study in how people try to break out of a maze of injustice.

    Just one little girl with whom I've developed a bond, five years old, lives with her family in a one-bedroom apartment.

    She sleeps either in her parents' bed or on the living room couch, doesn't have her own bed.

    Her apartment building is considered the drug area of her complex, that's a whole long story.

    This little girl had no preparation for kindergarten this year, and started out behind from the first day.

    She is a gem, she is perceptivity like every nerve cell in her being is tuning in to others...

    ...that's a giftedness she has, along with an artistic beauty that is evident in her, but also her almost-adult-like sensitivity seems partly from necessity.

    There are tutoring programs, etc., I was part of one. It often seemed backwards trying to get kids to focus on math or reading but not having the basic one two threes of life's necessities like good food, etc.

    I often wonder what the school could do, much more comprehensively -- it could do wonders with enough resources used for the kids, and the families, but that seems like a dream.

    Racism's worst ravages of the past are still playing out in certain areas of continued poverty.

    I've seen how impossible for the families to take advantage of opportunities when life links together in a downward spiral, hard to break out of one rung.

    Getting out of the ghettoized 'project' is most of their goal.

    One thing I noticed, the principal at this little girl's school is so heavily into discipline and strict constrainment of kids' stressed-out behaviors that are probably the result of poor diet, etc. -- versus laying off the discipline and trying some encouragement and creativity.

    To expect these kids to take advantage of opportunities is to wish their families were given more help -- their families have no cars, nutrition and financial undergirdings, etc. The parents are really struggling.

    The potential in these kids inspires activists in the neighborhood trying to help.

    Some helpers I've noticed have the grace to give a fish and not criticize the need for a fish versus a fishing pole, until a fishing pole even can be taken advantage of.

    We ALL would be in the same predicament if we were in their circumstances. All of us.

  13. Karen,

    I am wondering if that minority white school you mentioned is the one I attended in Northern VA 25 years ago...

  14. JEB Stuart, by any chance?!

    There are many schools in the D.C. area that fit the description, too -- Washington Lee in Arlington is similar.

    The write-up of Jeb Stuart was in Newsweek or something similar, a national publication, can't remember which one -- will try to find it online, it's been a few years since the write-up.

    I'm a proud alum of Stuart :) What is your experience? Would be interested to hear!

  15. DSW, article found!

    It was in National Geographic. It's on Google.

    On whiteness, excerpt from the Geographic:

    "I don't want to be white," says a white student from Poland. I'm in the library with a cross section of students who volunteered to speak with me.

    Others agree with the Polish-born youth, but I'm confused. They explain. To call someone "white" is an insult, as are synonymous terms like Wonder bread. "I don't consider myself white," says a young woman from Russia. She has white skin. "Whites act white and do white stuff."

    "What's 'white stuff?'" I ask.

    "White kids act different. They hang out differently. Whites are privileged. They're smart, do homework on time, run the student government, participate in plays and musicals, sell stuff, have parents who are involved in the school."

    "When you go to apply for a job," says one boy, "you have to act white."

    "What do you do on weekends?" I ask.

    They all answer: Eat at a diner, talk, chill, watch television, go to an outlet mall, be with a boyfriend while he gets his car inspected, talk on the telephone, go to a movie.

    "Sounds like what a white person would do," I say. Several students shake their heads, amazed at my inability to understand.

  16. Karen,

    No...I attended that other one everyone talks so badly about in Alexandria.

    However, I will admit I was aggressive about getting what I needed and I met with some resistance and low expectations too.

  17. Macon, I agree with your post. But I have a question. How, then, do we break the cycle? It seems as though black people feel discouraged from taking opportunities and that it is disheartening that opportunity and the expectation of opportunity is just a part of the white world and not as much so for a black person. I get that and believe that--there is a history of black people either not being able to succeed or not being expected to succeed.
    But that cycle needs to stop. And I feel as though that cycle stopping would be through finally encouraging black people to succeed, telling them that you think they can, and giving them *opportunities* to do so.
    Now, I don't know about these teachers and if they way they talked to you is also they way they talk to students. But... if a teacher were to give educational opportunities to a black student, try to give them the tools they'd need to succeed and prepare for success, and tell the student that they believe they're smart enough to do this and help them along....

    Isn't that doing what you can to break the cycle? Because I feel like even though black people have been oppressed and discouraged, there still needs to be an attitude of "I can do this." And if they have to resources to do it, to get an education, and they don't take that opportunity.... is it still solely the white person's fault?

    I guess I'm asking what you would suggest and where the cycle breaks.

  18. @Karen. OMGoodness! What an intersting article on the students from Poland. Thanks for sharing. It's amazing how they even saw themselves as being separate from what it means to be "White". As an aside I've always considered that as a characteristic (it has its negative and positive aspects naturally) of Whiteness: To always be "doing" something. In one of my multicultural classes in my psychology program it was labeled in a more PC term as the "American Way". Basically, You're known and valued by what you do. I don't know if Macon has touched on this or not since I'm rather new to this blog. As a POC trying to reach my own career goals I have struggled with this over the years-Wondering if I'm doing enough? Am I projecting the right image? Do I live in the right zip code? Is my car nice enough, etc.? I do find myself comparing myself to my white peers. Overall as a society I think we struggle with just "being".


  19. I'm of the opinion that energy shouldn't be spent toward 'encouraging' the disadvantaged group. I think one should use one's energy to remove the barriers that are restricting the disadvantaged group's range of freedom.

    If those kids are poor, then obviously, poverty is a barrier. It's hard to concentrate on school if you're hungry, you have a shift after school to help ends meet, or you're in a dysfunctional or abusive family. If you have more serious problems at the moment, homework doesn't seem all that important.

    If you've ever suffered from family problems, you'd find that concentration on academics is difficult, and it's easier to distract your mind from thinking about your personal problems with something that doesn't require too much concentration or mental effort. Some family issue happened during a term of my undergrad, and it totally threw me off track. I forgot to go to class, I forgot that I had an exam, and I had to drop courses. I didn't know it would affect me so much, as it wasn't even that serious compared to other people's problems. I just couldn't concentrate. Either I was thinking about the unresolvable family issue, or I distracted myself with something mindless. Academics usually requires too much mental effort to work as a distraction from your personal problems.

  20. I watched a video made by YouTube in which a black kid on skid row with a camera pans over a sidewalk of homeless people and says (roughly), "I don't want to make this into a race issue....but all the people down here are black. And all the people up there in those shiny buildings...are white."

    Black kids understand that it's harder to get out of poverty if you, your family, and a multitude of people you know have been in poverty forever. So to echo the idea that white people tend to see work as opportunity while those who are impoverished do not, it's interesting that often times black kids can have such an accurate perception of inequality, while whites often dismiss this attitude as a lack of motivation.

  21. here is the video by the way

  22. Hi Macon. Your article triggered a lot of memories. I was so inspired that I mentioned your encounter in my post today, "When Tears Are Like Rain & The Sun Feels So Good".

    And yeah buddy... it's a long read. Heh-heh. You'll love it anyway.

  23. DWS, Restructure,

    DWS, I'm not TOTALLY sure what school you mean but, I think I have an idea. I don't know as much about that school as other people seem to but your statement about having to be aggressive getting what you needed gave me pause.

    Did you have to ask to be in AP classes, etc.?

    I realized when reading what you wrote that I never had to be aggressive to get what I needed in high school, and it's a strange thought.

    Generally I'd be placed in things without asking or applying, I guess I was so insecure in high school that I didn't have extra energy to question the good stuff that was given to me, my focus was on the horrors of unpopularity, etc.

    Low expectations, I did get sometimes, due to a quiet personality, female, didn't look or act intelligent probably. I saw intelligence as listening and reaction.

    But now, I see low, lower than low expectations for the kids I know in D.C.

    When one little boy, obviously smart, mentioned he was in the Special Olympics, that didn't compute... at odds with my experience of him.

    He told me he's in special ed. He has said some wise things that have blown me away. He is not physically handicapped, so they must consider him mentally challenged.

    Too many of the kids there are in special ed. What's scary, I used to have a picture of kids in special ed, and used to think teaching special ed would be challenging, working with kids who had low potential...

    ... but if kids like these are in special ed, it's called special misplacement.

    These kids need to learn to get what they need, not only in school, but in life, but how?

    I think, Restructure, what you said is right on, that the main energy of encouragement has to be placed at the SYSTEMIC things that are the barriers in their lives.

    I do think both kinds of encouragement and attention are needed, like in all of our lives.

    But the main thing that turns me off is people, especially white people, who go in to help personally, but who don't WANT to change the big systemic picture --

    -- who see helping these 'poor' kids as an end in itself in a system they see as just fine.

    That is paternalism, I think.

    I really think, to deserve the love and the high of helping the kids -- I and anyone who gets these kids' love is obligated to work on both ends, systemically to change the conditions that make them need help.

    The pleasure of these kids is profound. So is the pain. Poverty is exhauting for everyone, including those who come in to help people in it. It just makes sense to work on the complexities of the causes, the political system, etc.

  24. Anonymous newbie,

    I think that's an example of what is meant by race being function... the white kids from Poland don't see themselves as white or don't want to see themselves as white...

    One little girl said once about me, stunned, "Karen isn't white?!" when another referred to me as white. It was a revelation that she didn't see me as white even though I look white, but I think she saw my function or actions. She smiled at me and she felt she was giving me a compliment.

    The kids from Poland... would it be correct to say, that in some ways Eastern Europeans are not part of white supremacy or whiteness systemically in this country? This can get very confusing and I wish it were not even something that should need to be defined or talked about...

  25. Karen,

    I went to T.C. Williams. When I transferred in I was told I scored higher than any black student on the English placement exam and was taken to lunch by the black assistant principal and placed in honors english.

    The first year went well. The second year I noticed my assigned one on one time with the teacher was constantly being interrupted by classmates and I made the mistake of speaking up about it. That resulted in a year-long campaign to get me out of the class.

    After that big drama I declined to take the AP class because I found my last experience so traumatic. However, I aced my 12th grade English class. I did take AP Physics but I probably should not have.

    The other memorable moment was a group meeting with my guidance counselor. I remember all of us sitting in a circle and being asked what we wanted to major in. When it was my turn I said "architect" and the guidance counselor started laughing.

    Given my grades (at that point I was still in the top 15%) and drafting abilities I did not think it was an unattainable goal. But perhaps she did. All I know is I mentioned the experience to my mother and I had a new guidance counselor the next day.

    I ended up going to college and obtaining degrees in Engineering and Law.

  26. DWS,

    I had found myself thinking after reading your other post, "I bet that his being aggressive about getting what he needed served him well in life, even though it sucks that he had to be that way in high school just to get what he needed".

    So it makes sense, the professional degrees.

    One thing about your writing I noticed, you seem to have fluid writing, consonant with the law degree, and a kind of reserve, perfect economy of words consonant with the engineering! :)

  27. Thanks Karen. I am a black that changes the dynamic considerably.

  28. DWS, Apologies for my gender bias of the "he"!

    Yeah, that does add another dynamic to what you described! Gender bias in all its ramifications... that counselor probably thought "a female architect?!?!" --

    I would think that being a black female at a school which was - I think? - newly integrated at that time, would have been challenging in ways people undoubtedly didn't give you support for, and actually, worse, gave you obstacles.

    I remember one high school assembly where everyone was expressing their unhappiness with the school, and the principal was being remarkably open, letting us vent --

    -- and one girl who was black said something to the effect that it was the kids with money who were popular in the school, the kids from such and such neighborhood, which was mine.

    I was surprised, and just kind of thought about that a lot, wishing I were friends with her to dispel the stereotype she had that did not apply to me.

    I had a desire for awareness of the obstacles the black students faced in our school... I wish I'd been more aware.

    Something unrelated, or maybe related -- I was thinking about how we all seem to have a stereotype these days, that we assume we all have a lot of both black and white friends, in 2008 --

    -- but, when I ask white people if they have any or many black friends or ask black people if they have any or many white friends--

    -- it's interesting the responses I get.

    It's usually an almost surprised no, as if they are surprised at that answer, as if they have black friends theroetically in their head, if they're white, or white friends theoretically, if they're black --

    -- but not that much in actuality, other than work acquaintances, etc., even though they want to, which is weird.

    If I asked people on here, I wonder if I would get more no's or yes --

    And is it the dynamics of the way our society is still structured that makes it like you still have to go out of your usual way, to have many friendships with other races?

    Or is it largely just a function of where we live and work? Or have I just asked a sample of people that is statistically biased in some way?

  29. I find it hard to believe that a black student who had the gumption to sign up for an AP class is "all of a sudden" unmotivated, lazy, and doesn't want to take advantage of opportunities.

    I remember when I was in HS, I was doing poorly in 3 classes one semester. I was depressed. My parents left messages for all three teachers to call them to discuss my progress.

    2 of the teachers were white, 1 was non-white. The only teacher that called my parents back was the non-white one. The other 2 teachers dismissed the REPEATED notes and telephone messages to call my parents.

    So finally my dad went up to the school and made the principal yank those two teachers out of class to discuss my progress. He said both of them were uninterested. I was a college prep/honors student. If those teachers treated me and my parents that way, no telling how they treated more "average" black/minority students.

    Other black classmates reported the same thing among certain white teachers at the school, and they even treated the poor white students poorly as well.

    My point is people can tell when you're uninterested in their growth and progress and respond accordingly. My advice to the two teachers is they seek teaching positions in predominately white areas or get out of teaching altogether b/c their attitudes are toxic to black children.

  30. Your post is the heart of it, Arianna.

    You made me think of a study in Psych 101, probably everyone heard of it in psych 101 :), where a teacher was told that a few students in her class had genius IQs...

    But those supposedly-genius student names were just picked at random from the class list; the researchers didn't know anything at all about the kids.

    The teacher was told that these kids were geniuses; but that's all she was told.

    At the end of the school year, those particular kids' test scores had increased dramatically.

    The teacher had, through subtle signs, shown these kids, without meaning to, her subconscious opinion of them as very smart. In actuality, they represented the usual range of intelligence, most were average.

    If that can happen, what so much worse can happen if a black student senses racism in a teacher.

    And if he takes it in, and doesn't have the support and psychic strength to see the teacher's inadequacy and her own inferiority.

    If instead of being able to pity her or cope with her or ignore her racism, instead sees the teacher subconsciously as authority on him?

    Some people say that no white person should teach black children until all racism white supremacy in our society is eliminated -- seems to have some truth.

    But most black parents don't have that choice and many wouldn't want that. It kind-of could be seen as racism in itself, though I would see it as a reaction to racism.

    As a white person who works with black children, it's my experience that you start questioning yourself, which I guess is the point of this blog.

    To have children's lives in your hands, and wonder at your own whiteness bias societal training.

    My high school became minority white after I graduated, early '70's, so I didn't grow up with much diversity in school. Wish I had. Diversity is one antidote to whiteness centrality, usually.

  31. I meant Anonymous, and Arianna

  32. Another thing white people (me) do:

    * notice that Black people and other nonwhite people are paying inordinately high prices for things like car insurance, and not realizing it because they either don't know people who are paying less or don't want to face this and its meaning;

    * notice Black people making excuses for white people that are often, in my view, really too kind...

  33. Yes, thanks for pointing out the insurance thing, Professor, that's going to be a great post, when I can find the time: "pay lower insurance rates."

  34. For what it's worth I kind of agree with them. It's up to students and their parents to take opportunities. Look, I had my share of racist teachers. I had one refuse to test me for the gifted program because, in her experience, "students from lower income families tend to score lower on the I.Q. test." My mother called major BS on that and kept trying until we found a teacher who would test me. And yeah, I was more than smart enough for the program. The point is that I didn't give up and my mother didn't give up. And it doesn't sound to me like these teachers are particularly racist. It sounds like they just want to teach to the kids who want to learn.

    If all the other kids (Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, etc.) do well and the black kids don't I can understand where they'd throw up their hands and focus on the kids who want to learn. If the black kids came up to them and said, "Mr. History can you help me? I was late today because I had to take the train and drop my little brother off at his school and I haven't eaten since yesterday. Can you go over what I missed in class?" it would be different. But I'd cop an "attitude", too, if my students told me they weren't going to do their work because they're black and they know that I have to pass at least some of them. These kids do have to take control of their lives. I did.

    Black woman here. Managed to get through college without one scholarship. But I'm sure that was my teachers' faults for not understanding how difficult it was for me as a black woman. They never helped me take those opportunities! Or, you know, I could have just been too lazy to look scholarships up myself. I think the problem in in the fact that these kids' parents are not instilling in them the fact that education is important. This falls on the kids and their parents. Not the teachers. That's just my humble opinion.

  35. But Phaesty, for kids to have the confidence and self-awareness to explain articulately like that, that they haven't eaten, etc., to authority figures, that's in some ideal world.

    The kids I see in a poverty situation, many I know are smart enough to be in gifted classes, but they aren't even mastering the basics due to so many factors.

    They are hungry and their parents are hungry, too. The kids will often say to me, "May I have a dollar?" They then buy some trans-fat saturated processed garbage which is what they can by nearby with the money.

    They don't know enough or feel confident at their age and situation to even know to say, or to even know that it would be okay and not wrong to say, "Our family doesn't have groceries, how can we get help? I'm behind in my class, can you help me catch up?"

    It takes a certain level of functioning to do that. It takes a certain level of not needing help, to ask for help.

    The other night I was with three eleven year olds to celebrate their elementary school graduation, and they shoplifted some plastic fingernails while we were in CVS.

    It struck me that the reason they did that is they have pretty much nothing, and they are trying to find a way to get something and they don't see other avenues.

    No one is giving them the money they need. They do get summer little jobs selling candy through some organization.

    An elder black man told me, when I asked how I could help them re the shoplifting situation, "Tell them begging is always better than stealing."

    When some kids and parents are unable to take opportunities, it's usually not because they can but won't.

    It's usually because they can't but would.

  36. In a scene, of an episode, of the television show, All in the Family, Mike Stivic, Archie Bunker's son-in-law, was told that he would not get a job, which he had interviewed for, because the company needed to fill a quota to hire a specific number of black employees. Outside of the interview room, Mike Stivic confronted the black man to whom the job was given: “Don't you think it is unfair that you got the job because you are black?” To which the black man replied: “No, do you ever think it is unfair that you got a job because you are white?”

  37. Did you know,” he said, leaning forward, “that it’s considered politically incorrect for us to pass too few black students?”

    “No, I didn’t. What do you mean?”

    “I mean that we have a lot of pressure on us to so-called ‘prove’ that we’re working hard enough to help these kids. What that translates to is, we have to pass a certain number, no matter how well or badly they do.”

    “And the kids know that,” said the science teacher. “When I ask them why they don’t put in more effort, they come up and tell me, ‘Cuz we know that you have to pass some of us!’”

    If black kids are depending on white teachers to pass them to make them look PC, they're STILL failing. So maybe it's possible that the teachers are full of shit, especially since I doubt very seriously that ANY kid would say that to ANY teacher. Just because they "have to" pass some of you doesn't mean you're going to be the one they pass.

    And where were all of these PC-loving teachers when I was flunking math?

  38. Not to mention how, because they've been entitled, they've been able to earn more money, and then to pass it down, generation after generation.”

    I think you hit the nail on the head with this one. With the opportunities that are there for black Americans, many do not get them even though they try and those that do are so few, so when this wealth is passed to the next generation it is only 5 out of 50 as opposed to 70 out of 100 white. People (Africans, whites, and others alike...are constantly saying how many opportunities black Americans have but they don't understand the contextual basis of it.

  39. Indigoblu, speaking of hitting a nail on the head, I think you found another one--being trained as white means, to such a great degree, not understanding or even seeing the broader contexts that non-white people are much more trained to see by their minority experience.

    And yes, intergenerational transfer, of wealth, disposition, confidence, attitudes towards education, and so on, is such a major contextual difference between the lives of many whites and those of many non-whites.

  40. Thank you so much for this. I'm a white Australian woman, and the attitudes against Aboriginal people in this country and the 'wasting opportunities' is basically the same. For a long time I've known this was wrong, wrong, wrong but could never articulate why. You've helped give me language to express this to others.


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