Where I teach, in suburban Maryland on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., our schools carry out a range of programs meant to teach children to value our diversity. Everyone in the school system loves diversity, and we talk about it as a source of strength. But I'm not sure that this is how our students see it. My encounters in culturally diverse classrooms have left me feeling that many students see their diversity, not as a source of strength, but as an indicator of their likely future failure.
I had a 6th grade class of 29 students, of whom all but two were black or Hispanic, and most of whom had low socioeconomic status. Most of the class read at a 4th grade level or lower. They were by far my hardest class of the day. Numerous class discussions had indicated that many of them saw no value in education. The majority displayed low self-esteem, low expectations, and, at the age of 10 or 11, had already bought out of the education system.
To prompt a discussion about self-esteem, I decided to show a film based on a Langston Hughes story about a black youth who attempts to steal the purse of an elderly black woman. He fails, and the woman takes him into her home, where she proceeds to apply generous amounts of love and understanding. Love is a powerful medicine, and we learn that all of us have it within ourselves to be better people. Nice message. I was not at all prepared for my class's response.
When I asked if anyone wanted to share reactions to the film, an A student, raised his hand and said, “As soon as you see a black boy, you know he's gonna do something bad.” Me: “Just because he's black, he's bad?” Student: “Everybody knows that black people are bad. That's the way we are.” About now I was becoming a little horrified, both at the answer and that it was coming from him, of all students. I counted on the class to rebuke him. That's not what happened.
I restated his proposition that “black people are bad” and asked who agreed with that. By a show of hands, 24 of my 29 students echoed their agreement! I needed to clarify what it was they were agreeing to, so I bagged the planned lesson and opened up the discussion. Maybe I was misunderstanding the use of “bad.” “Do you mean `cool' or `tough' or `hot,' or do you mean bad as in `not good' or `evil?' ” I asked. They meant the latter.
“Being Bad Is the Way We Are”
In the view of most of my class, black people were determined inherently to be bad. To my students, it wasn't a matter of choice, of upbringing, but simply a racial attribute. They had no doubt in this, nor was this their sole racial stereotype. As the discussion continued, a disturbing picture of their self-image emerged. All of the following comments received a near consensus:
- Blacks are poor and stay poor because they're dumber than whites (and Asians).
- Black people don't like to work hard.
- Black men make women pregnant and leave.
- Black boys expect to die young and unnaturally.
- White people are smart and have money.
- Asians are smart and have money.
- Asians don't like blacks or Hispanics.
- Hispanics are more like blacks than whites. They can't be white so they try to be black.
- Hispanics are poor and don't try hard because, like blacks, they know it doesn't matter. They will be like blacks because when you're poor, you have to be bad to survive.
My students also expressed a particular disdain for those they saw as wannabees (want to be's): Black kids who do their schoolwork and behave want to be white. White kids who do poorly or who want to be cool dress and act like blacks. Hispanic kids can't be white so they want to be black. Wannabees are funny because they pretend to be what they can't be.
It was striking that most of my black and Hispanic students held these views of race and class. Such expectations are worlds apart from how my friends and I viewed the world growing up in this area only 30 years ago.
White and Black, Good and Evil
My students had developed a bipolar view of the world with white and goodness at one pole and darkness and badness at the other. Forty years ago, Caribbean-born Franz Fanon wrote about this phenomenon in Black Skin, White Masks. He focused on how oppressed people internalize the loathing of the oppressor; on how people who are despised learn to despair of themselves. In suburban Maryland, in the '90s, this is not supposed to happen. When everything we do is an effort to show how we value diversity, how do these bleak stereotypes persist?
What emerged in the discussions that followed was a picture of children painfully aware of the poverty of their world. In their world, the contrast between the ideal and real is stark and cold. I did not end this discussion when the bell rang that day. Instead I went to our counselor, a young black woman who had managed to establish a wonderful rapport with many of the students. She was not surprised at what my students had said. We decided that she would come into the class, and together we would take this discussion deeper.
She shared her own experiences with them, and told them that her world had been not unlike theirs. She told them that many of her classmates today were not “successes”—they had not made the choices she had made, or had not had the support that she had had. We talked about why: that until a few decades ago, this country had denied blacks access to equal schools and barred them from success. We talked about how the removal of legal barriers alone did not undo the attitudes and actions of a society steeped in racism. We talked about the things they could not see.
They talked about life. Hard work does not equal success in their world; instead, it means that parents are gone and children take care of children, they told us. The people who have the material goods that reflect the good life get their money through guns and drugs. Wimps die young and live in fear. Tough guys die young but are proud. Bosses are white and workers are black, and black people don't do important things, except in schoolbooks. In their world, few aspire to be doctors, scientists, or lawyers; most don't “wannabee” because they understand the hard reality of what they will be. They accept their fate and their place.
Within their paradigm, my students don't lack for pride. They are, in fact, quite proud of what they are. They were good at being bad, some were excellent at it, and the badder they were, the greater their social status. They made a game of it and sometimes competed quite intensely to be recognized for it. They had found a way to have success—on their terms. Success in the world of school, on our terms, wasn't a real option.
Prisoners of Racism
I felt simultaneously paralyzed and enlightened by this experience. I kept the discussion going for three class periods until it seemed to die a natural death, though we returned to it from time to time, often at the prompting of the class. For the rest of the year, despite being trapped in the curriculum of Ancient Civilizations, I ventured out into their world with discussions of slavery, racism, and class. I talked about how 200 years ago, life for most whites was pretty poor and not terribly free, especially in Europe, and how ideas about race and class were taught and promoted in the interest of a few white men. My students could understand that if you teach children to be bigoted and racist, then they would likely grow to be bigoted and racist adults, not because they were mean but because of how they were taught.
I also told them that I wanted them to see that the lives and the world into which they were born were not of their making and not their fault, or the fault of their race and that, in fact, the world is constantly remade by what we do. They could have a chance to make it different, if they would work at it.
They wanted to know why a white guy was telling them this. I acknowledged that, yes, I was privileged, but I wasn't particularly interested in maintaining my privileged status. Some of them thought I was cool, some of them thought I was crazy, but, in all of this, they were thinking and it was good.
I came to understand their behaviors differently. As prisoners of badness, they had no options. Their acting poorly wasn't anything personal; it just happened. When the impulse came to do something wrong, thinking about controlling it would be unnatural, would be “white.” I slowly, and painfully, shifted my responses from focusing on their irritating behavior to pushing them to consider options. My class atmosphere never became what I wanted it to be, but it did get better.
How Do We Teach Them?
I gave a lot of thought to how we teach students to value diversity. The thoughts and words of my students made a mockery of our celebrations. Setting aside a month for black history or women's history seems strange and artificial to most students regardless of color. These children aren't naive. What are the other seven months: White Male History Months? History needs to be inclusionary, but it needs to be natural so that children come to see that there's nothing strange or odd about black people or women achieving success. I have begun to fear that singling out groups for special attention does more to foster suspicion, jealousy, and cynicism, than it does to promote understanding, empathy, and community.
All students need to deal with real history early on. They need to confront the poisonous effect racism has had on our society. They need to see the connection of racism to poverty, that the road out of slavery was paved, for the most part, with horrible intentions, and that poverty is the logical outcome of how black Americans were treated in the 120 years since the end of slavery.
We should be deeply concerned because children form their own impressions early on, and they sense the dissonance between the reality of life and the pretty pictures offered in school. If we're concerned with our children genuinely valuing diversity and with all our children developing high self-esteem, then we have to offer our children genuine knowledge and insight into the world in which they live. I don't think we do.
Our History of Avoiding the Issue
We have tried to go, in 30 years, from social attitudes that held that black Americans were subhuman to celebrating our multicultural roots. We act as if 300 years of racism has affected neither blacks nor whites.
Our country perpetuated slavery on the basis that slaves weren't human. When we ended slavery, we continued to teach the racist attitudes that underpinned it. Having denied free black Americans education, housing, equal protection under the laws, jobs, and access to capital from Emancipation (in 1865) to the present day, we say, “What's wrong with these people? Haven't we done enough for them?” Conservatives resent the notion of compensation for anything that happened after the Civil War, and liberals think that the Civil Rights Legislation of the '60s changed everything.
Routinely, we compare blacks to the Irish, the Southern and Eastern Europeans, the Asians, or the Native Americans, all of whom have been discriminated against at different points in our history. Yet we ignore the perversely special case of the hatred and dehumanization shown to blacks in America. The media increasingly portray poverty and violence as a condition of race; we have ample evidence that young children are internalizing these views; and still we act amazed at what's going on in our society. At the root of it is our inability to talk about what happened, why it happened, and what the consequences of almost 400 years of racism are. We don't have to talk about it, but there's not a chance in the world that we can begin to turn things around until we do.
Beyond the Guilt Trap
Ultimately this is not about guilt or responsibility for the past. Whites living today are not guilty for crimes of the past. I don't believe in racial or ethnic guilt any more than I believe you can make any qualitative generalization about a race or ethnic group. We are all very much prisoners of the same racism; the hater and hated bound up together in a web of lies that have shaped both of us.
But while we are not responsible for the crimes of the past, we do bear an obligation to change those things that we have the power to change. Confronting the effects of racism in our society begins with white Americans, not because we are guilty, but because our social group alone has the resources and political power to make change possible.
We must open the door and confront the origin and basis of racist thought and how it has long influenced our collective intellectual development. It was, after all, only in 1962 that I sat in a Maryland classroom participating in a debate in which one of the central issues was whether or not blacks were human beings—and therefore entitled to rights. Those racist arguments were not invented by my student peers, but rather were passed on to them by their parents, churches, and schools, as, indeed, these attitudes had been passed on to their parents and to their parents before them.
We cannot gloss over our history by dedicating months to one or another cultures or by telling myths about other peoples. In school we talk about great black African kings (as if any king is a “good” king), inventors, and scholars. We bring in black writers and scientists. We have a party and praise our diversity. The children know better. They go home and into the real world. They carry the secret of racism inside them, harboring questions and doubts about themselves and others, and about a seemingly cold and cruel world.
Without real answers, real knowledge, their doubts and questions may grow to facts and fears. They may learn not to like themselves, or others, or both. We may offer them a way out, and they, thinking it a trap or trick, may decide that the prison they know is safer. They may come to our parties, but only because it's a place to eat. They will wonder about what it is we are celebrating. They won't believe us when we tell them. Too bad. Too late?
Editor's note: A version of this article appeared in The Washington Post (February 13, 1994) as “The Stereotype Within: Why My Students Don't Buy Black History Month.”
Marc Elrich teaches 4th grade in suburban Maryland. He may be reached at 840 Maplewood Ave., Takoma Park, MD 20912.