Say My Name: ‘I’m the Other Black Kid in Your Class’

Am I taking crazy pills? Is there something I am missing? Why is it that my child is midway through the school year and yether White teachers still call her by the name of every Black child in the class other than her own. Not just the enrichment teacher that she sees only periodically. But several of her teachers. There are three Black girls in the class, THREE. They look nothing alike- one is small and light skinned, one is medium height and dark, and the other is big for her age-tall, with blossoming bosom and brown-sugar-colored skin. They all have distinct personalities. And yet, invariably, my child will be called the wrong name on any given day.

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This is disturbing for many reasons. I know that these teachers are competent and hardworking. They are committed to their jobs and to their teaching responsiblities. Our private, affluent, high-ranking school demands it. This is why (I must conclude) that learning the names and identities of the African-American students is not a priority with them- not important. Clearly, they have no idea how upsetting this is for the children. These teachers must not realize that this constant mis-identification tells the children that they are not valued and that they are all viewed as the same person, with no individual worth.

It also indicates that the teacher’s evaluations may not be accurate. When the teacher is assessing how each child is doing in her respective subjects, how is the teacher keeping up with who is doing what–which child is the one who participates in class comfortably or shows strong leadership skills? Which child has behavioral challenges or social discomfort? If you cannot distinguish between them, how do you accurately assess them and effectively help them? The truth is, you can’t. When I go into my parent/teacher conference, anything the teacher tells me about my child is questionable. How do I know that she is really talking about my child, when I know that her distinctions between the African-American kids are confused, jumbled and unclear?

Fortunately, all three of the African-American girls in my daughter’s class are good, well-rounded students. But what if they were not? This occurred with my son in high school. He often got chastised for the behavior of the other African-American boy in his class (there were only two of them). In one instance, the other boy spoke inappropriately while an exam was being administered. The teacher called out my son’s name and asked him to leave the room. When she discovered that she had asked the wrong person to leave the room, she was too embarrassed to correct her mistake and my son had to get up and leave, thereby forfeiting the test. Only upon protest to the dean, did the teacher acknowledge her mistake.
I must confess that I have been guilty of the same inability to distinguish members of the same race. When my children attended a predominantly African-American school, I had the occasion to meet the only two Latino children in the school. They were the same sex, about the same age, and to me, looked very similar. One of these children was in my child’s class. So when I saw her in the context of the class (i.e. in her assigned seat), I was confident with her name. But if I saw either of the Latino children in the hallway or the playground, I was very unsure. I could not tell them apart. So I know that this can happen, especially where there are so few members of a racial group present.
However, teachers, who must interact and teach these children on a daily basis, must get beyond that initial blindness. There is just too much at stake. In the learning environment, where achievement is bolstered by the student’s positive self-perception of belonging and value, how is this mis-identification affecting our African-American children’s performance? How might this inspire negative behavior in order to be noticed as an individual? How is this affecting the effectiveness of their evaluations? It is impossible as a parent to feel confident that the school is meeting the individual needs of the child if the teachers, even one teacher, cannot distinguish one student from another? And if my child begins to seek negative attention as a means of defining her own identity, how do I deal with that when I can’t even be sure that the particular negative behavior is properly ascribed to my child?
Fortunately, my child is not acting outing inappropriately, and her self-esteem is apparently thriving at school. So I do not have these problems, yet. But I do not want to wait to address this teacher confusion problem until she does begin to act out, or feel badly about her place in the school, or question her value. So how will I deal with it? I will employ some proactive parenting. I will discuss the problem with the teacher and school headmaster. This is not a problem that will just go away (clearly, since more than half of the school year has passed and there is little improvement!) This is not, I believe, a problem that will be solved with sensitivity discussions or diversity training. Each teacher must hear from the parent and their superiors how important it is that they take steps to learn who is who. PERIOD. They must prioritize this.
Specifically, I will tell the teacher:
1. That when he/she confuses my child’s name with the names of other African-American children, my child is distressed everytime it happens. That she feels insulted and devalued.
2. That I am concerned and wary that if there is confusion with distinguishing students, my daughter’s evaluations may be inaccurate, and not purely reflective her performance.
3. Ask if there is some way I can work with the teacher to rectify this. I will suggest that my daughter wear something subtle to cue the teacher. Or I can point out some feature that is distinctive. My suggestion (that the teacher needs a cue or other assistance) may embarrass the teacher. But this offer to help will let her know how serious I am about her taking action to correct the habit.
4. Let the teacher know that I plan on discussing the problem with the teacher’s superior because she is not the only person having difficulty distinguishing the African-American students.
5. Ask the teacher to apologize to my child so that my child knows that this is not her problem or responsibility, but the teacher’s mistake and oversight.
6. Finally, thank the teacher for her time and her willingness to adjust. The goal is never to alienate, but to let the teacher know that the issue is an important one to me because it is important to my child. It doesn’t matter how accidental or “inadvertent” teacher’s mistake is. If it makes the child feel badly, it must be addressed.
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(Originally Posted April 13, 2005)
© Gina Carroll

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COMMENTS
- I enjoyed reading this so much. One of my epiphanies with regard to this issue is when I realized that when I found myself as an adult in a mostly White neighborhood with my children attending a mostly White school, that there were at least a couple of things going on for me personally. First, that I, for the life of me could not distinguish one White child from another, even our neighbor‘s child. Cross-racial identification within the court system is rampant with these miscues. Certainly, Asians and other find the same dynamic happening. I takes real work to deal with this on a personal level. Teachers, I am sure, feel that they can identify their students, no matter what race they are. But this is just ego. If they were honest, they would acknowledge that there is a problem. First of all, when misidentification happens in the classroom, our students need to speak up and correct each instance by telling the teacher their correct name. Then, it probably would be really helpful if students of African- American heritage did some projects, not only on their fellow students, but on teachers as well to show just how rampant this is. It could be done in a legalistic setting, say, a court case of eyewitness identification. It should be done in an objective way, so that everyone can see that most fall victim to this. Be proactive. When this happens, the student should let the teacher know their mistake. Then the next day, wear a name tag. And, if necessary, bring name tags so that all can have them in order that all are able to identify one another. I agree that teachers need to deal with this, no matter what their ethnicity. They need to know that it is not alright to continue to be clueless and not deal with the issue. When this happened to me, I was truly appalled. It takes an effort on everybody‘s part to deal with this issue. It also takes caring when “they” are not the only ones that do it. It is everybody‘s problem to deal with in a positive way. Written by: Toni at 2005/04/13 – 23:41:18BN Top 100 Bestsellers: Save up to 30%

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Comments

  1. What a fabulous article! I am miffed that this happened so late in the year. I get that this could happen within the first few weeks of school…but seriously, this is absurd! This is clearly evident that these teachers are not getting to know their students very well. If she knew your daughter, she would notice subtle cues on her own. She would know your daughter’s personality. And she would know her as an individual. Shame on these teachers for not getting to throughly know their students!

  2. Very interesting reading. I know at some point my daughter will be facing these type of situations because she most likely for the remainder of her years will be one of only a handful of kids of color in her class. I oddly thought when we went the public school route that there would be more diversity but I was wrong.

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