Language is a powerful force in our lives. The things that we choose to say and not say are rooted in our quiet private thoughts and deeply held beliefs. No one can see these secret thoughts but language has a way of disclosing our true beliefs whether or not it is our intention.
As Jill Berkowicz and Ann Myers have stated,
“In education there is a soft underbelly of that of which we do not speak.” (from The Stem Shift, 2015)
Scripture reveals that;
“The intrinsically good man produces what is good and honorable and moral out of the good treasure stored in his heart; and the intrinsically evil man produces what is wicked and depraved out of the evil in his heart; for his mouth speaks from the overflow of his heart.” Luke 6:45
Evil is not a term often used in our culture and we would all agree that the overtly evil are locked up far away from us the law abiding members of society. But while the word evil conjures images of blatant brutal and bloody violence, it also can be used to describe soft sweet destruction. As in the case of disgruntled spouses lacing coffee and other dainties with cyanide. Dr. Luke here is implying that intrinsic evil can also manifest itself with words.
In American culture, coded language is the cyanide in the coffee. And the teaching profession is no exception to the rule. The coded phrase “these kids” is a term generally used to describe poor black, brown and now Spanish speaking children by some urban teachers of from various backgrounds. For years I have heard this term used during meetings, in passing conversations, in faculty lounges and even in conversations with prospective teachers.
In this essay I’d like to expose this term as a counterproductive tool that reflects and promotes racism and robs children of the dignity they deserve as talented human beings. Now as never before we must confront personal bias and do the self reflective work that empowers us to inspire this generation even as our profession is being attacked. These, after all, are our children and as population trends continue we must all be equipped to deliver our best in order to prepare our citizenry for life for our quality of life will depend on it. In other words while we are racing to memorize the academic standards we cannot leave our ethical standards behind.
When I first started teaching I heard teachers using the term “these kids” to describe our population of urban students. I must confess that I started using it too, it was a staple of the professional group lingo and was justified by the percentage of students living at or below the poverty level. But as time passed I began to note that cynicism was the driving group-think of these teachers not intellectual acumen or instructional expertise. It was then that this phrase began to rub me the wrong way.
This term came in to being after school desegregation in America when white teachers began to have regular contact with black students. This group of teachers had little exposure to black students and black culture. We were culturally different from white children in many ways and were considered “less than” because of these differences. Let’s not forget that at the time of integration key arguments questioning the intelligence of blacks were present in the media. (Arthur Jensen, Harvard Educational Review, 1969). As a historical note I remember being bused to the suburbs for fifth grade in 1972 and being greeted not with milk and cookies but with displeased white parents standing outside the school protesting our arrival, I was one of “those kids.”
Race is still the greatest stumbling block in America.
It is the beam in the eye that blinds us from seeing each other clearly.
As stated by Christopher Emdin in his 2015 book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’all too…
“The work for (teachers of all ethnic backgrounds) becomes developing the self-reflection necessary to deconstruct the ways that media messages, other teachers (often exaggerated) stories and their own need to be the hero affects how they see and teach students. The teacher must work to ensure that the institution does not absolve them of the responsibility to acknowledge the baggage they bring to the classroom and analyze how that might affect student achievement. Without teachers acknowledging the biases they hold and how these biases impact the ways they see and teach students, there is no starting point to change the dismal statistics related to the academic underperformance of urban youth.”
The cult of otherization is sweeping the nation as populist ideas resurface in our country. Otherization was an integral part of American slavery. It was a key component among the psychological devices used to dehumanize Africans for the sake of wealth. Recently several whites have subtly “confronted” me with their new knowledge that Africans were involved in the slave trade. Henry Louis Gates in his book, Life Upon These Shores states that without African participation, the slave trade would not have been probable. Greed comes in all forms…and colors and it causes much pain. I am shocked at the lack of forethought of those mentioning this me. They seemed much more relieved with their new found absolution of guilt than unnerved at the notion that the fruit of American slavery standing right in front of them was quietly listening to their heart speak.
I can only surmise that this exciting knowledge relieved them of their white guilt so much that they felt free to tell me. I on the other hand, saw the excitement of this newfound fact as their opportunity blame the progeny of this evil institution for their own demise thereby circumventing their empathic core and giving them a free pass on compassion. Carried out to its logical conclusion this train of thought would end with,
Slavery was essentially their fault not ours, so what do I care about these kids?
In the book of Genesis, the first book of the bible, God confronts Cain (one of the sons born to Adam and Eve) and asks him the whereabouts of his brother Abel. Knowing as they say in the south “full well” that he had just murdered Abel because he was jealous of him as he had offered up a more acceptable sacrifice to God. Cain’s response was filled with what C.H. Spurgeon called the coldest impertinence as he asked in response “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
This one question is one of the most challenging human considerations for it cuts to the core of what it is to be human and righteously navigate relationships. Whether or not we believe in God and no matter our religious affiliation we must confront the relationships that we have with others and the extent to which we are responsible for the reciprocal process of relating. Our existence depends upon this. Cain’s response is typical of human behavior. Instead of owning up to his own shortcoming he becomes angry and lashes out against his brother.
American educational fiscal policy, has long reflected a cold impertinence towards children of color. So over the years, instead of laying the ground work that would provide equal access to high quality education it became easier to ignore children in certain neighborhoods and dis-invest in their futures. Why would anyone care about what happened to these kids? We are currently paying a very high price for this evil. We will never know how many mathematicians, scientists, engineers, doctors and the like have been lost because they were the others who were deemed unworthy. But there is hope.
I believe as Rev. Dr. William Barber of the North Carolina Forward Together Movement, that the way out is to seek higher moral ground. Our children are worth the uncomfortable self reflection that it will take to change our thinking so that we protect their futures and thereby the future of our nation. It starts with transforming our hearts so that our language changes. These kids must become OUR kids.
This blog exists to inspire teachers towards increased self awareness, inspiration and hope. I believe that hope begins with greater spiritual insight through the renewal of the mind. I want you to take the time to watch the video below and hear Rev. Barber as he enlightens and inspires us all to get to the higher moral ground that this requires. Feel free to comment after you reflect upon his words here on wordpress or on facebook.
After having spent much of my life teaching elementary school and thinking about how children learn, I decided to create this blog to invite others to reflect with me. Presently, there is a lot of conversation about education in the media. Now more than ever our voices need to be heard.
The longer I teach the more I realize that wisdom demands that the more you know… the more you must learn (…and be willing to share.)
The key to being a great teacher is to always feed the fire of your passion for learning so that you may never stop growing. At this point I see that sharing is integral to my continued growth. I truly enjoy creating the podcasts of this blog. I am learning and relearning important principles as I go along. So take a much needed break, get a cup of coffee and come reflect and learn with me!