Teaching Black Boys: 3 Principles for White Educators
When we speak of Black boys as a group defined by the fact that they share “categories” (they are Black and they are boys) we necessarily have to speak of the challenges that they face as a result of the way U.S. society renders those categories. There are particular conditions that are common to all Black boys:
- Fewer than 1.5% of all children’s books have Black boy protagonists. Black boys do not see themselves in books. As the parent of a White girl who reads voraciously, I can say that she has read thousands of books, most of which feature characters that she relates to in terms of race and/or gender. Her love of reading cannot be extricated from the fact of the books available to her.
- Our society talks about Black men from a deficit perspective: dropout rates, incarceration rates, absentee father rates. We rarely talk about the nearly two million Black men in the U.S. with four year college degrees, the 409,000 Black men with Masters degrees and the 71,000 Black men with PhDs. Black boys don’t see models of academic success that look like them, but it’s not because they aren’t there. It’s because they aren’t being shown to them.
- 85% of the teaching force in the U.S. is White. This is not an indictment. It, too, is a fact about categories that would be irrelevant, except for the ways that racial categories in the U.S. are loaded with meaning. The vast majority of White people in the U.S. grew up in racially segregated spaces, having very little exposure to Black people or Black cultural styles. When they (we) teach Black students, our lenses are necessarily clouded by many of the same stereotypes and negative messages that Black boy students have received about themselves.
What do we do about these circumstances that are so clearly connected to Black male success and failure in schools? It’s clear that one of the answers is to get more Black teachers into classrooms. But given the vast underrepresentation of Black teacher candidates in the U.S., it’s also clear that while we work to increase numbers of Black teachers in classrooms, we also have to build the racial proficiency of the teachers—the predominantly White teachers—who are already there. And while general racial proficiency is necessary for working with students of all racial groups (including White students), this task also requires getting very specific about the particular needs and challenges of children who fall into the “boy” box and the “Black” box at the same time. In our book, The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys, we suggest three overarching approaches for doing this.
First: Understand Yourself.
Black boys are not the only group that exhibits general patterns and norms based on the social identity boxes they find themselves in. White women teachers do too. Studies have shown that White people more quickly mis-identify a gun as a toy after seeing the image of a White six-year-old boy’s face, while they more quickly mis-identify a toy as a gun after seeing the image of a Black six-year-old boy’s face (Finnerty, 2017). White people have more trouble distinguishing between Black faces than White faces. Most people tend to see Black boys as 4.5 years older than their chronological age. White teachers tend to anticipate failure at higher rates for students who have a “Black cultural style” of walking (Finnerty, 2017). Before any teacher learns anything about Black boys, they need to first understand themselves, their racial conditioning, and the bias that shapes the very lens they look through as they assess a Black boy student’s personality, misbehavior, reading level, and future potential.
Second: Respect the racialized context in which you are teaching.
The racialized context in which you are teaching is a context that neither you nor your Black male students can escape, no matter how much you each may want to. Respect the ways that your Black boy students’ opportunities are narrowly circumscribed by low societal expectations, stereotypes, and norms and sanctions around Black manhood. Also, respect the broad diversity and multiplicity of Black boys, their families and their experiences. Respect that Black boys are just as diverse as any other group and that they need different things, even as they usually get seen for their Black maleness first. They are sensitive, kind, loving, nerdy, athletic, clumsy, funny, shy, talkative, scared, and brave—often all at the same time. They are gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, gender queer. They are deaf, blind, differently abled, autistic, and gifted. They are atheist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist. They are raised in Black families, multiracial families, White families. They are raised by mom/dad parenting couples, by grandparents, by extended families, by lesbian moms and gay dads. They are raised by divorced parents and widowed parents. They are raised by transgender parents who birthed them in the context of a transphobic and racist medical system. Imagine the multiplicity of experiences that Black boys have, and how almost none of it shows up in the books or TV shows that teach them about themselves and about the world.
Respect the complexity and diversity of Black boys, and support them as they grow under the oppressive weight of society’s simplistic narratives for them. In The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys, one contributor shares a strategy for how teachers can rewrite the narrative they tell about individual Black boys in their classrooms. You can start spreading positive “gossip” and tell the Black boy student a different story about himself than most people tell, perhaps different even from how he would describe himself. Help Black boys create a new narrative for themselves individually, and spread it around the school, so that he is not limited by the one that developed organically before he even showed up, most likely heavily laden with stereotypes and assumptions (Williamson, 2017).
Connect with students and their families. Connect Black boys’ success or failure to what happens in the classroom. Connect the dots between a school system that was designed around the needs and concerns of White middle class learners, that was not designed with a vision of Black Excellence in mind. Learn about the concept of “undermatch,” in which college applicants are accepted to and attend colleges that are beneath their skill level (usually because of misleading advisement from school counselors or teachers or financial reasons) and how undermatched students tend to underperform at those colleges due to a lack of challenge (Smith, 2017). Learn about books and lessons that will help support positive racial identity development among Black boys (M. Michael, 2017). Learn about the transformative importance of study and travel abroad, as well as the reasons that many Black boys do not take advantage of these opportunities (Crushshon, 2017).
Recognize the dismal 3rd grade reading rates of Black boys compared to their counterparts of other races and genders, but don’t stop there. Recognize that those reading rates are a product of a complex system, a dynamic in which Black boys play only a small role, even as they reap most of the negative consequences that it yields. Black male success and failure in school is necessarily inextricable from the fact that they are going to school in a system that was not built for them. If we want to change outcomes for Black boys, we need new approaches that acknowledge systemic inequities and that work for the majority of Black boys. White educators, who make up 85% of the teaching force, can and must be part of this change.