Earlier this year, I was invited to speak to a few hundred African-American male high school students in Jacksonville, Fla. The young people there were searching for answers in the untimely death of their fellow Jacksonville resident Jordan Davis, 17, who was shot and killed at a gas station in November 2012 after playing what perpetrator Michael Dunn called “loud thug music.”
Like the shooting earlier in 2012 of Trayvon Martin, another unarmed 17-year-old black male, this death represented a shocking example of some teens’ sense of being trapped by a new kind of racial optics, what I call the “hip-hop gaze.” This is when signs, symbols, and images in hip-hop (e.g., language, music, style of clothing), associated with urban youths in popular culture, unfairly convey trouble or criminality about black males to the mainstream public.
This term emerged from my previous research via a series of focus-group conversations with African-American male teens at a hip-hop-based youth center. The young students I spoke with felt teachers unfairly judged them with suspicion and fear based on the sagging of their pants and their wearing of do-rags on their heads, hoodies, and puffy “bubble coats.”
Ultimately, students argued that their sense of style and aesthetics prompted teachers’ overzealous efforts to suspend them even as they gave other students lesser punishments for the same offenses. After August’s deadly police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., legions of disaffected young people who also embodied a hip-hop style protested in the streets, facing off against heavily armed law-enforcement officers as the world watched. All of this suggests that these young people have perspectives we need to hear.
The tragedies of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Michael Brown remind me of what young people in places like the youth center in Jacksonville have been saying for years. They remind me that distorted racial representations in popular culture can influence a culture of punishment toward black males.
As a challenge to educators, I offer the following questions: How do we weigh hip-hop youth culture in relation to the punishment of young people’s identity? Where do we, as educators, learn the stereotypes, prejudices, and biases toward students that need to be unlearned? What proactive, practical strategies might we as educators take in writing new scripts for how we think about African-American males, different from what the mainstream media tell us? What is the role and critical awareness of cultural context in relation to lessening punitive practices against African-American males in K-12 schools?
Preservice teacher education programs might be a great place to start addressing these questions. I offer the following recommendations:
Distorted racial representations in popular culture can influence a culture of punishment toward black males."
• Study race and masculinity. The study of race and masculinity in relation to the punishment of black males must become an integral part of preservice teacher education curricula. There is a documented, patterned history in government, academia, and news media of developing racially coded narratives of black males being aggressive, dangerous, and menaces to society. These packaged narratives exacerbate negative practices toward minority youths in schools and the larger society.
Stop-and-frisk policies, stand-your-ground laws, and suspension and expulsion practices that filter students into the school-to-prison pipeline are examples of this. Subsequently, a historical analysis in the social construction of race and masculinity in relation to past and present punishment practices toward black males would give preservice teachers insights into the differential treatment of this population.
• Explore critical media literacy. A majority of the education students I teach at the university level come from isolated, segregated, affluent, white communities. Many desire to be teachers in urban school settings, but have had limited contact with communities of color. Subsequently, much of what they know about the black community comes from the radio, music, movies, or television. These media often provide a narrow characterization of black male identity related to crime, sports, and entertainment.
Therefore, teacher education programs should offer opportunities for students to engage in critical media literacy. Students should learn to examine how representations in the news and popular culture can intentionally or unintentionally reinforce stereotypical representations of black males as criminals in our subconscious. When preservice teachers develop the skill set for critically reading how the media as an institution possess the power to distort racial identities, they gain a new consciousness that counters the image of black males as thugs to humanize their perceptions.
• Pursue community engagement. Given the de facto segregated living conditions of many preservice teachers, social interaction with diverse populations becomes extremely important in urban teacher education programs. Unfortunately, the term “urban” has come to mean “black,” and the term black has come to mean all that is dangerous, poor, and dysfunctional. Therefore, schools in urban areas have come to mean teaching dangerous poor black children and teens. These cultural-deficit labels come to typify how black boys and men are viewed within mainstream society.
To counter these narratives, I have developed relationships with community leaders in some of the poorest areas of Pittsburgh and host many classes and community forums in these areas. At these classes and forums, black youths become “teachers,” sharing their experiences of institutional racism; the aftermath and effects in the trauma of poverty, violence, and racial profiling; and the impact of these challenges on their education experience in schools. Preservice teachers come away from these discussions developing empathy and understanding the emotions that emerge from institutional and societal neglect. These narratives become the unofficial curriculum to guide my students’ thinking in how to develop positive pedagogical relationships with urban youths.
• Engage with hip-hop learning communities. For better and worse, many students see themselves through the prism of hip-hop culture. To disengage with it is to disengage with the soundtrack to their lives. Hip-hop is a culture upon which the very best of the social-political tradition, rather than its gangsta proclivities, can be mobilized into an educational medium. Being socially and politically conscious means expressing discontent with institutional inequality; promoting peace and unity; and empowering youth voices for social justice.
When young people recognize that teachers know something about their culture in a way that does not denigrate or demonize them, an immediate pedagogical bridge is made in the teacher-student relationship. For example, I have invited socially aware hip-hop artists from the community into my classrooms and students from my classes into local hip-hop communities. These invitations create co-learning opportunities. The artists perform, relate their lyrics to contemporary issues, and discuss the music’s impact on urban education. These learning experiences open preservice teachers’ minds about innovations in teaching and how to make the curriculum relevant to the lived experiences of urban youths. They also increase these future teachers’ familiarity with the language, culture, community, and social and political context from which hip-hop emerges.
Moving forward, the challenge is to utilize contemporary events in popular culture as a canvas to educate preservice teachers about how race, representation, and masculinity in media can affect how we treat others, such as black males in urban education. When we do this cultural work in urban education, perhaps the Trayvon Martins, Jordan Davises, and Michael Browns of the world will not die in vain, and we will keep kids in schools rather than push them out.
A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 2014 edition of Education Week as Where Do Biases Start? A Challenge to Educators