This post is by Regina Glover Johnson, School Leader Resident, High Tech High Graduate School of Education, and Principal and Executive Director, Legacy Academy.
Since graduating from a 96 percent Black university, I have approached many discussions around higher education as an advocate of multi-demographic segregation. Before I can unpack my educational theory, I am usually met with gasps and shocked expressions followed by platitudes on equity and access. Ironically, many do not recognize the implicit bias in the assumption that a majority Black school would lack equity and access, and this occurrence is a perfect example of how stereotype threat becomes palpable for minority students in majority presence. Now, don’t misunderstand me--the combined endowments of all 102 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the United States equals less than 10 percent of Stanford’s endowment, and that is indeed inequitable. However, the 14 percent of Black college graduates who attended HBCUs have produced 80 percent of the Black judges, 50 percent of the Black lawyers, 50 percent of the Black professors, and 40 percent of the Black engineers. An attempt to diversify or otherwise dismantle these institutions in the name of equity would be horribly misinformed and detrimental to the progress of Black people as a whole. Even with meager resources, there is something HBCUs have that Black students at predominantly White institutions are missing: the distribution of privilege.
The de facto segregation that exists in universities, politics, business, and every other corner of society often goes unacknowledged when we think about the privilege and security instilled in average American White men. The ability to exist in a space without the worry of offending someone who does not understand your style of dress, tone of voice, or hair styling does not exist for large groups of people. Majority Black institutions allowed me, a Black woman, to exhibit virtuosity through hard work and skillful application of my knowledge, instead of through an ability to reflect characteristics of another race, gender, or economic status.
K-12 schools socialize students into speaking, looking, thinking, and acting like people who will be respected, so educators have a responsibility to make sure that this socialization is not teaching students that their respectability stems from their ability to mimic and appease the majority and abandon their culture. Teaching minority students that they must constantly be on stage is a detriment to their academic and social development, but this is what many schools continue to do in the name of equity. Minority parents independently, and often secretly, bear the burden of teaching their children potential consequences of White dis-ease for Black lives. Though taboo, to counter the anticipated stereotypes of being a minority, we often lead interactions with persuasive and positively received cues such as a university sweatshirt, a softer voice, and relaxed hair.
Brent Staples, in his essay Just Walk on By, discusses how he found himself whistling Vivaldi as he walked past White people. He did this because he recognized that people would evade him, believing that African Americans are prone to violence. He recalled women running away from him: “Her flight made me feel like an accomplice in tyranny. It also made it clear that I was indistinguishable from the muggers who occasionally seeped into the area from the surrounding ghetto.” Staples goes on to describe how his hometown did not give him the same feelings of being watched or perceived as a possible menace. "...In Chester, Pennsylvania, the small, angry industrial town where I came of age in the 1960s, I was scarcely noticeable against a backdrop of gang warfare, street knifings, and murders. I grew up one of the good boys...” What he does not make clear is that Chester, Pennsylvania is now, and has been since the early 1900’s, predominantly Black. Staples describes the security of segregation from which minorities benefit. In a more than 80 percent Black town, dark skin is ubiquitous and not reserved for unsavory characters.
Staples understood that these same people who cross the street when they see his black face could be soothed by the sound of classical music when he started whistling classical tunes. He knew that passersby would identify his knowledge of European culture and think, “He couldn’t possibly be like the Blacks I ordinarily think of, even if he is wrapped in their skin.” Whistling Vivaldi in order to signal to white people “I am not like those other Negroes you think are scary” would reinforce racial stereotypes and internalize ideas about black skin needing to accommodate and apologize simply for being Black. Like the passersby Staples describes, educators of minority and marginalized students are influenced by their knowledge of local statistics to deduce that black students would benefit from re-acculturation. To combat this inequitable stance and practice, educators must reconsider how they approach student socialization in their schools.
To think about Black elevation is to consider how we can speak in terms of privilege instead of disadvantage. If we can name the ways that White-skinned people are privileged in everyday existence, we could then apply those concepts to Black lives. Educational academics and the American public have become more open to taking part in conversations about privilege, but fail to stand the same ground when applying those conversations to policy. The way we talk about race is part of a cyclical problem that keeps the majority of Americans, White Americans, distanced from the root of the issues. When we talk about our student’s progress and achievement gaps, we have to be willing to talk about racism and inequities in an honest and multifaceted way. If our goal is to close the equity gap, it is necessary that educators accept the burden to evaluate and alter their own perceptions about culture. Educators must purposefully refuse the associations of “smart,” “worthy,” or “safe to be around” with majority culture and reframe the conversation of minority progress in terms of privilege.
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