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Years ago, my then-four-year-old son and I were watching Black-ish. As Junior, a character played by Marcus Scribner, was talking on the show, my son said to me, “Daddy, Junior is my favorite character on Black-ish. He’s my favorite character on all the shows.”
When I asked him why, he said because Junior looked like him. While my wife melted and hugged him tight, I smiled and was astounded that at his age, he recognized skin color and positively identified himself with a young black man on television.
My wife and I work hard to humanize his and his sisters’ blackness. However, I wonder if any effort is put into humanizing blackness for my children and other black children in our schools and early childhood facilities.
In light of the country’s current political climate, humanizing black people and their blackness is critical. Once black children step outside of the care of a parent or guardian, they will confront anti-blackness; they may even confront people who mean them harm. In my state of New Jersey, a former police chief, who said Donald Trump is “the last hope for white people,” is on trial for a 2016 hate crime assault against a black teen.
As a black parent and an educator, I am concerned for the safety of my children and other black children. Which is why all educators of black children, of all racial and ethnic groups, mustn’t be afraid to prepare them for the world that awaits them while simultaneously empowering them to thrive in spite of it. If we educators are to accomplish that, we should do these specific things:
1. Educators must understand how our children are viewed by some people. The hateful rhetoric we hear and the harmful acts we see are rooted in fear of demographic change as well as in anti-blackness. Anti-blackness is a part of our nation’s DNA, laid bare in public policy and public perception. For example, a 2015 study found that schools with relatively larger minority and poor populations are more likely to implement criminal justice-oriented disciplinary policies — such as suspensions, expulsions, police referrals and arrests — and less likely to connect students with psychological or behavioral care. Unfortunately, black children as young as pre-schoolers are disproportionately disciplined in school. Simply watching the news may help create stereotypes or reinforce stereotypical views of African Americans as criminals, and whites as victims.
2. Educators must recognize that all children see race. Research suggests that children not only recognize race from a very young age, but also develop racial biases by ages 3 to 5 that do not necessarily resemble the racial attitudes of the adults in their lives. Studies show that white children rarely exhibit anything other than pro-white bias, while children of color as young as 5 show evidence of being aware of, and negatively affected by, stereotypes about their racial groups.
3. Children learn best when educators, administrators and teachers alike are culturally competent. According to Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, the brain seeks to minimize social threats and maximize opportunities to connect with others in the community. The brain will not seek to connect with others if it perceives them to be threatening to social and/or psychological well-being based on what the people say or do. The more the brain has to focus on getting back to safety, the less capacity there is for learning and remembering academic material. Also according to Hammond, neuroscience research indicates that the brain feels safest and most relaxed when we are connected to others whom we trust to treat us well. The brain responds to connection by secreting oxytocin (a bonding hormone); fear activates the release of cortisol, which stops all learning for 20 minutes and stays in the body for up to three hours (whereas trust prevents the release of cortisol). Positive relationships keep our safety-threat detection system in check.
4. Educators must ensure that the schoolhouse is a space for the humanity of black children to be affirmed, protected and cultivated. Schools tend to be what Wendy Leo Moore calls “white institutional spaces” — social spaces in which the demographics and cultural norms privilege whites. Creating a humanizing space for black children starts with embedding culturally responsive norms and practices within disciplinary policies, hiring practices and curricular decisions. It also means accounting for the needs and uniqueness of black children. Schools should not only hire black educators; curricular materials must tell the truth about black people worldwide, and schools mustn’t enforce policies that disproportionately discipline black children.
Black children in America face unfortunate and daunting challenges. Learning in an anti-black environment should not be one of them. Recognizing how black children may be perceived, and understanding how this can affect all children in the classroom, can assist educators in creating spaces to help black children thrive in a society where their humanity is devalued. Despite the challenges black people face, we continue to remain optimistic about our future. That collective spirit of optimism is why we march on until victory is won.
This story about helping young black students thrive was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Rann Miller directs a 21st Century Community Learning Center in southern New Jersey, one of 63 federally funded after-school programs in the state. He spent six years teaching in charter schools in Camden, New Jersey. Miller is also the creator, writer and editor of the Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog.