White Bias and Your Black Child

There is an ongoing debate about the effectiveness of White teachers with Black children, particularly in urban schools. Many feel that White teachers are not effective educators for Black children. The arguments against their ability to teach Black children go something like this:

Many White teachers come to education with a set of prejudices, stereotypes and biases about Black people that are widely accepted and wholly unquestioned. These stereotypes — often concerning the children’s ability to learn, their willingness to learn, and their propensity for violence–are so much in the fabric of the White belief system that White teachers often are not even consciously aware of their own biases. And often even when they are aware, they accept them as true. In either case, these biases and prejudices are almost always detrimental to the White teacher’s ability to help their Black students achieve.

In addition, most White teachers are not informed enough about the cultural chasm that lies between their Black students and themselves. There are many cultural differences in language use, non-verbal communication, family structure and socialization, to name just a few. These differences very often make communication and trust building complex and difficult. If a teacher is not understood by her students, or not understanding her students and at the same time, unaware that the misunderstanding stems from her own beliefs or cultural unawareness, she is likely to attribute this failure-to-connect to causes outside of herself, thereby failing to properly and adequately address the problem. Thus, often blame for the failure is placed on the children, instead of the teacher herself. Here, again, the children suffer.

To get a handle on the relevance of this question, you only need to review school demographics for this country: White females comprise 83% of U.S. elementary school teachersThere is no staff of color in 44% of U.S. schoolsAfrican-American teachers comprise 6% of the U.S. teacher population.From Black Students, Middle Class Teachers, Jawanza Kunjufu)the reality is that most teachers in most schools are white females, thus most Black children are going to have white teachers most of the time.

I sincerely believe that the vast majority of teachers are devoted career professionals who want to do what is best for all of their students. But at a time when so much is being made about the “achievement gap” between Black students and their White counterparts, and as we all seek to find the causes thereof, mustn’t we ask the crucial question: Do the values, perceptions and expectations that many White teachers bring to their classrooms actually negatively affect the very students they seek to serve?

Because Of The Kids

The very compelling book, Because of the Kids, by Jennifer E. Obidah and Karen Manheim-Teel, really takes this subject head-on. The book chronicles the admirable efforts of Karen Manhiem-Teel and Jennifer E. Obidah to tackle the racial divide between Karen, who is a veteran White teacher, and her classroom of Black students.

What is most interesting for me about the “experiment” of these two teacher-researchers is Karen’s gradual recognition of the profound impact that her background (and the societal view that comes with it)has on her teaching. She comes to see that her 1950s middle-class all-white upbringing and her unquestioned and unchallenged assumptions about Black people strongly influence her perception of her students and their performance. Similarly, she realizes how her student’s urban, low-income Black experience and their notions about who she is, color (no pun intended here) their reactions and responses to Karen. Karen discovers that the conflict between her middle-class perceptions and expectations, and the perceptions and expectations of her mostly poor students, are at the core of her inability to optimally serve them.

Jennifer, a Black teacher who is a Caribbean-born resident of Bronx, New York, takes on the task of showing Karen the realities of the social-racial-economic disconnect between Karen and her students, and helping her to overcome the many resulting obstacles. Their work gets more difficult as they discover that their own social-racial-economic differences begin to profoundly complicate the communications between them., to the point that they come very close to terminating the effort altogether.

How they work out their relationship and Karen’s classroom issues is not just an impressive journey, it is an inspirational one. And their ability to improve Karen’s effectiveness as a teacher is truly important instructional reading for educators. But the real contribution of this book is the way it illustrates the simple, too-often-denied truth that when a White teacher endeavors to teach a Black child, he or she must consider that the child’s success is profoundly affected by the teacher’s own social, racial and economic make-up. And in order not to be a detriment to the child, the teacher must look within and be in touch with his or her own biases. This, as Karen found, can be hard and complicated, but crucial.

A turning point for Karen in this regard is when she is faced with resistance and negative reactions to a history lesson. The lesson involved role play in which she assigned the roles of “barbarian” and “slave” to her Black students.. She couldn’t understand why the students were not cooperative. Jennifer, however, immediately perceived that the students were offended by the labels. Karen realizes that she failed to connect the students with their personal histories as descendents of slaves. And when her students did not respond positively as she expected, she immdiately “shifted the blame” to the students, instead of considering her own cultural blindness. She attributed their reaction to immaturity and “saw their behavior only as “acting up”. (p.50)

It is significant to note that Karen would not have realized the role that her racial bias played in her classroom had Jennifer not participated. As a member of the White majority, Karen’s biases and social prejudices had never been questioned by her. When she invited Jennifer to assist her in trying improve the success of her all-Black class, she did not believe that her own beliefs were at all relevant to her students’ performance.

Another striking point in this study is Karen’s willingness to submit to intense scrutiny. She was already a highly regarded teacher, who had achieved some degree of success with her predominantly Black students. With a commitment to pursue success with her work, she went far beyond the requirements of her job. Her collaboration with Jennifer put her on the hot-seat–her motivations, actions and conclusions were minutely observed, documented and critiqued by Jennifer. Not only did she choose to subject herself to this, she chose to change. Both Karen and Jennifer had to step out of their professional and personal comfort zones…and things got very uncomfortable! How many similarly situated teachers would be willing to take these extra steps.. for these particular students? How many would even acknowledge the need to question themselves?

What About Private Schools and the Suburbs?

These questions bring me to how this study would apply the independent and prodominately White schools. Even though this study took place in a predominantly Black urban public school, I believe there is a very high likelihood that the findings here would be the same for Black student/White teacher relationships in the independent schools. In the private schools where Black students are greatly in the minority, there is even less incentive for teachers to recognize how their own behavior might negatively impact a student of color. For the Black student here, the teacher’s social, economic, racial biases are likely to be reflected in the entire school community. Thus the teacher’s prejudices are more consistently reinforced by the school community and the student has few Black peers and very little Black community from whom to draw support. Even though there is a larger percentage of middle class students of color in the private schools, few are as affluent as the greater school community and so the disconnect has the potential to be even more profound.

What Must Teachers Do?

In light of the possibility of this kind of inadvertent bias, how can a White teacher avoid racial bias in action? Firstly, we all must acknowledge the reality of the problem. (Please read Because of the Kids) Then the teacher has to ask the hard questions:

1. Are my expectations different for a Black child than for children of my own race?

2. Do I attribute to Black children traits and behaviors based solely on the fact that they are Black?

3. Am I able to get past the non-verbal cues that are different and foreign to me to really get to know and understand this Black child?

4. Am I afraid of this child simply because of his race?

5. When a black faculty member or parent brings an issue to my attention, do I dismiss him/her as being too sensitive?

And if the answer is “yes” to any of these questions, the teacher must work very hard to avoid letting these prejudices translate into actions that result in disparate treatment among his or her students. Asking the question, “would I feel/act this way if this were a White student?” might be helpful. This is hard work. Self-scrutiny is tough, but necessary.

What Must Parents Do?

So what is a parent to do? How can we Black parents help bridge the gap between our children and their White teachers? As parents, we have to do our part (and sometimes other folk’s). We cannot leave this issue to the school administrators. If we do, it will not be addressed. We can protect our children by keeping our eyes and ears open…and our mouths. We must:

1. Actively support your school’s and school district’s efforts to recruit teachers of color.

2. Network within your school with families and faculty in general, and with families and faculty of color. Everyone benefits from the on-going flow of information and support:
-Support teachers who speak out on policy issues relevant to us.
-Share information about teachers, classes, services, etc. with other families. The more families you connect with, the greater you expand your realm of influence and your own knowledge about the school (and the teachers within it).

WITH REGARD TO YOUR CHILD SPECIFICALLY:

1. Remind your child that he is the most wonderful, capable and valuable treasure on the planet. That she can do anything she decides to do, and that you are there to help her do it.

2. Teach your child to respectfully question authority; that adults make mistakes and can be wrong. Give him or her the power to reject the unjust and champion the right always.

3. The way to fight biases on both sides is to know and be known. Connect with every teacher that teaches your child. Let the teacher know your expectations for your child. Indirectly, this also relays your expectations of the teacher.

4. Thoroughly investigate reports of misbehavior. Without ever letting your child off the hook for inappropriate behavior, make sure that the report is accurate; that your child’s part is clearly articulated; and listen carefully to your child’s side of the story. Remember that just because adults can craft more articulate explanations of problems doesn’t mean their’s is more accurate than your child‘s, who is likely not as sophisticated in expression. You cannot prevent your child from facing bias, prejudice and racism. But you can diminish its negative impact with a little attention and proactive parenting!

Can White teachers teach Black children? This is a moot question, really. White teachers must teach Black children. We have no other options in this country. Can White teachers better serve their Black students? Yes, by recognizing and making a commitment to address their own biases and prejudices. Are White teachers part of the “acheivement gap” problem? I haven’t seen any research that can answer this question unequivocally, but based on the work of Jennifer E. Obidah and Karen Manheim-Teel, this is a query well worth pursuing.
Posted by Gina L. Carroll at 11:40:30 Permanent Link Comments (3)

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Comments
1 – Thanks for timely posting, Gina. Once again, parents of black children are arming themsleves with a thick skin and an extra measure of patience as we head in for Parent-Teacher Conferences. I am trying to get every teacher and administrator to log onto the PBS.ORG/race. I don’t have high hopes that the institutionalized biases will be erased overnight, but I do want them to consider their affect and effect on children.P.S. I read “Unraveling THe ADD/ADHD Fiasco” and found many similarities with RAD parenting techniques. I’d love to discuss it with you. Send me an e-mail or call.Sincerely,Julie
Written by: Julie Davis Cuzick at 2006/11/01 – 19:59:53

2 – Interesting article. I agree with the advice about the parent responsibilty in teaching their children the life lessons needed to handle not only the classroom, but life in general. I also agree that there is a gap in the classroom between teacher and student in regard to prejudice but I feel that it quite often crosses racial lines. It is, as your piece states, more of a disconnect based on social, economic and cultural differences between the student and teacher. This also affects every demographic that is different from the teacher’s and it’s not just with the black student. Hispanics, Asians, Middle Eastern and the like all face the same delimma as the black student does in the American classroom. Of course this varies depending on the teacher, but as your numbers portray, most students will end up with majority of white teachers throughout their time in the public education system.In my opinion, the responsibilty lies more on the parent to teach their children the needed life lessons more so than the teachers trying to adjust mindset for each individual sociallly, economiclly or culturally different group that he/she may face in their classroom.
Written by: Stu Fellows at 2007/11/03 – 14:33:02

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Comments

  1. Parents must be involved enough to be aware when white teachers try to stop their children from advancing as fast as they’re capable of. If they are bored into misbehavior, they can easily end up in Special Ed. If parental advocacy fails, homeschool may be the better choice so the Black child can survive and thrive, especially Black boys.

    • Yes, Shannon, Thank you for connecting. Yes, the cultural disconnect, the expectation gap, and unacknowledged bias conspire to poor outcomes for our children. We parents must be vigilant advocates, and not just for our own. Thank you for all that you are doing at https://www.stopdiseducation.com.

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