Stop talking as if my people are the problem, and you’re the solution
January 29, 2016
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by Malaika Hankins

Years of ribbing by older cousins has given me a thick skin that helps the daily work I do with middle school students. But this thick skin, my shield, has a few weak points.

As a New Orleans native and educator living in North Carolina, I take hits to my armor in the form of poorly-written, misinformed opinion pieces about “less fortunate, urban” children in the states that I call home. When I happen across a tilted article about my people, it triggers a cascade of frustration, anger and hurt.

At the beginning of this New Year, however, I am starting to realize that my coping strategy isn’t working as well as it once did. It is becoming increasingly hard to ignore the hurtful language I read from people with whom I intellectually agree. So, I have decided enough is enough. I am taking a stand against the racist prejudices that undermine narratives about my community, my students, and our schools.

Let’s start with a piece in the EducationNC Weekly Wrap-Up entitled “UNC Grads Teaching, and Learning, in New Orleans.” The author is Dr. Ferrel Guillory, the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC School of Media and Journalism, and the Vice Chairman of EdNC. He not only shapes the news through his weekly columns, but also through his instruction of a whole generation of media personnel at my alma mater.

Sadly, Dr. Guillory’s piece highlights two of the worst sins of education discourse.

First is the deficit-centered, family-blaming description of black and brown students. He describes the central problem of American education as the combination of “poverty, fractured family-life, ill-educated adults, crime-prone neighborhoods [that] add up to students arriving in school with burdens and issues that bear down on educators”.

Let’s ignore for a second the notion that the problem with schools is that children are bringing in too many issues. For a moment, let’s focus on the words used to describe these students.

Dr. Guillory doesn’t even need to explain that these are students of color, that these are kids living in an urban district for us to paint a mental picture of those kids. The racially trained brain fills in the gaps. Without prompting, the reader creates their own Freedom Writers montage.

Describing my communities like that is an overplayed characterization that perpetuates all the worst stereotypes. Discourse about education in this country cannot move forward if we continue to use victim-blaming language or policies to describe students and families. We can’t continue to automatically know that those kids are black and brown.

Let’s resolve to not talk about student or community deficits without at least acknowledging the systemic racism and historic disenfranchisement that perpetuate inequities. To not address these realities is at bare minimum lazy, but more often belies racist undertones.

The second sin is the myth of the white savior teacher. Dr. Guillory’s piece is centered around four white Teach for America teachers working in New Orleans. The story outlines many of the issues in New Orleans’ education landscape, but ends with an uplifting note. We focus back on our heroes, our defenders, our liberators. He writes “their desire for and commitment to service to students in need of sound education and a lift from economic distress make them precisely the emerging talent our state and nation needs.”

Let’s start the slow clap now.

In 2016, I’d like us all to stop the valiant liberator narrative so closely associated with teaching. No doubt the teachers profiled in the article are changing the lives of young people. But let’s stop kidding ourselves into believing that the most important part of these teachers’ work is that they are white and that their students are black; that they alone are lifting students from poverty; that poor black and brown kids are indebted to their white saviors. I don’t think this idea needs any qualifications or compromises. It’s 2016, let’s just stop doing it.

These writing sins are frequently committed by both reformers and non-reformers alike. It is easy to recycle phrases we’ve used in the past, to paint the same pictures we’ve always seen, to take the easy route. But if we want to be better people this year and move closer to change, we have to value words more. We must acknowledge their power and use them more carefully, recognizing that their impact reaches beyond our screens and into self-narratives, perceptions, and policy. Even with the best intentions in mind, we cannot ignore the racist undercurrents in our progressive beliefs. Those of us with privilege have the responsibility to do less harm.

Let’s make 2016 be the year that we avoid played out education clichés and we tell true stories about students, families, teachers and schools without coded language or overused tropes. Let 2016 be the year that we hold authors, critics, and the media to higher expectations as well.
I’ll start first.

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