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Combatting the Racism of Low Expectations

"Give 'em hell." That was the encouragement my grandfather gave me on the way to any task ahead. Embedded in his words was confidence in his son and a fear of a world indifferent to the brilliance contained in Black bodies. A war veteran, my grandfather knew firsthand that your contributions to society all come with an expiration date. Black folks were suitable for war yet not supported when the war ended. The same holds for Black and Brown children in classrooms all over these yet-to-be United States of America.

While I spent the morning being encouraged and fueled by my grandfather's words, I would spend the next 6-8 hours bombarded with messages regarding my lack of belonging. I attended classes within a gifted and talented program. The demographics of my hometown were diverse, but Black and Brown representation within the honors and AP classrooms was lacking. Being the only Black male in the class and one of four Black persons in the program communicated something about belonging that I could not put my finger on then. Being handed explanations of 'exceptionalism' led me to believe that there was something different about me that my counterparts lacked. I was 'one of the good ones' whose home life and disposition got me accepted.

The flawed understanding of the 'gifted' designation is brought to bear in the example above. How we define our students has a significant influence on their destiny. Teachers must reject the ways we've been conditioned to spot intelligence. If we interrogate these supposed markers, we'll find that we classify students on meaningless grounds. The entrance fee into many of these accelerated programs hinges on ways of behavior, reasoning, and familiarity with specific authors. One must have enough money, literature access, and assimilate into the dominant culture. The cost for many of these programs is the relinquishing of cultural expression for the safety of acceptance. The racist aftershock of these standards is visible in schools full of Black and Brown young people who are competent yet not selected. Educators justify this inequity with statements like:

  • "They weren't bright enough."

  • "They have the wrong attitude."

  • "They won't get the support they need at home."

While many mission statements declare that all children can learn, the not-so-subtle racism reveals itself in who is selected to learn 'best.' Any system built on this hierarchy of intelligence and excellence, particularly on the grounds suggested, is racist. We must dismantle the outworking of this racist selection process.

However, this work begins with a mindset. Educators must interrogate their expectations. When working with students of color, particularly Black students, teachers lower the rigor of assignments, ask fewer open-ended questions, and assign worksheets instead of group assignments, according to a new study out of New York University. When teachers are asked about their expectations for Black students, non-Black teachers were 30 percent less likely than Black teachers to say they thought those students would earn a college degree. This statistic is damning when the majority of public school students in the US are non-White, but the majority of teachers are not. Implicit bias affects our expectations and, eventually, our reality.

What recourse do we have? How can we right the ship? The obvious answer is to dismantle and rebuild. We need better ways of witnessing intelligence. We require better frameworks to deal with complexity and nuance. We need inclusive ways of knowing, methods of teaching, and better expectations for all our students. This work will be met with opposition. However, failure to act will add our names to the proverbial death sentence assigned to Black and Brown youth all over our county. I believe we also need to work for change by creating safe classroom environments and committing ourselves to activism. But how? Let me offer three suggestions.

Engage Authentically.

Schools should create space for small groups that meet regularly with a trained leader to discuss selected books or listen to speakers. The small group setting should help educators be vulnerable and commit to critical reflection. We must invest in unlearning and engaging authentically with Black and Brown scholarship. Without summoning our inner lawyer, we should ask ourselves:

  • Do we ask the Black kids the easy questions without realizing it?

  • Do we refrain from calling home when concerned about a Latino student because we assume she does not have a functional, literate family who can respond?

  • Do we assume higher levels of understanding from Asian students (model minority myth)?

  • How can we change our assumptions and practices?

Engage Verbally

We must bridge the school-community divide. Engage in meaningful dialogue concerning racism and its presence in our schools, cities, and states. Through discussion, we access the power of the story. Doing so will enable us to reexamine learning, partnership, and success more robustly. When educators engage with families - in their community, homes, front porches, and meeting spaces - school can transform into a place where real exchanges happen. Students will feel a sense of belonging, and community members will become valued members of the learning village.

Engage Actively

Educator, what will you do with the call that rests on your shoulders? For too long, schools have maintained the 'not-so-subtle' assumption that achievement is synonymous with White. The belief that only White kids are gifted tailors our definition of giftedness to White culture. Teachers and school leaders must reject this false assumption and be willing to speak loudly and clearly against it. Educators tend to want 'comfortable activism' that happens secretly and costs nothing. We either add our name to the silence that fuels the racism of low expectations, or we use our voice and advocate for systemwide and nationwide change toward a more equitable system.

We must strive with collective hope for what education could be without letting the grim reality stall our efforts. We must read with eagerness to unlearn. We must engage in meaningful dialogue and refrain from quitting when things tense. We must diversify our understanding of intelligence. When we do, we promote inclusive spaces in our classrooms and school buildings.

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