by Terry Heick
Ed note: This post has been updated from a post in January of 2013 that no one read, so we revised it some–edited some for clarity, added a revised conclusion–and reshared it, primarily due to our desire to contribute to the dialogue about race and learning that we all can be too hesitant to have.
School is made for people, but it is strangely inaccessible for so many of them.
By design, it is a place of practice and self-improvement. This necessitates just-out-of-reach goals and the subsequent constant struggle.
But this isn’t just a pedagogical thing—it’s first and foremost human. The human element of teaching is hard to discuss because you come off sounding like a hippie that wants to stand on your desk and burn (already bubbled) scantrons in a rebellious and colorful effigy.
Teaching is incredibly personal, if for no other reason that it starts with “I’ve watched you and know you’re deficient here, and I want to help you.”
There is a lot of vulnerability in that, like having someone clean your house, do your taxes, or wash your underwear. That vulnerability extends from academic performance to value systems, ethics, recreational trends, and communication patterns—what anthropologists call “culture.”
So it makes sense then that the African American Male may not always feel entirely at home at school. According to a 2011 study by the Center for American Progress, 83% of the teachers in the United States are white, while only 56% of the students are. In West Virginia, 98% of the teachers are white. In Louisiana, 46% of the student population is African American, but only 19% of the teachers.
None of this means that African American students “require” African American teachers. It is simply a matter of observation and confrontation and opportunity—having divergent races—that sometimes diverge culturally as well—work together to heal their mutual vulnerability–one to reach, one to be reached.
This naturally creates some differences.
The Absurdity Of Race
I grew up in racially and socioeconomically diverse neighborhood.
It was rough, but not crackhouse-and-meth-lab rough. My car was broken into a lot, I’d sometimes find strangers sleeping in my front yard, and the local basketball courts would have the nets stolen as soon as they were put up. I got in a lot of fights, and saw some crazy things.
But I also was close to my father, and so I’d read him my undoubtedly awful poetry, and we camped and played chess and flew airplanes. And it was in that mature and healthy mind-state that I discovered hip-hop–and the powerful African American male as a potential role model.
Tupac Shakur, Michael Jordan, Russell Simmons, Ralph Ellison, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, Chuck D, Rakim, Jimi Hendrix, and dozens of other African American males were–and are–deeply influential on me as a person.
When I watched “White Men Can’t Jump,” I wanted to be Wesley Snipes, not Woody Harrelson. (Which is itself a related issue–the African American male athlete and entertainer rather than African American educator, artist, academic, and professional as role model, which can confuse charisma and likability with leadership and character, and introduce the concept of “broken and flawed” personas as martyrs worth emulating, another conversation entirely.)
But back to Muhammad Ali and Rakim–confusing the comfort of spectacle with a parallel experience is nuts. Saying that because I grew up poor and listened to hip-hop makes me “get” what it means to be an African American would be both incorrect and racist, just as an African American can’t “get white people” by watching American’s Funniest Home Videos.
What does it mean to “be white”? I’m not sure I know. To “talk white”? That’s a problem too. How about to “act black”? Certainly there are trends, but what is “black music”? Black food? What would “African American instructional strategies” look like?
Does this make anyone else uncomfortable?
I worry that the ease in which Hollywood and comedians characterize race (e.g., “black parenting styles” vs white) might lead us as educators to do the same. And I just now realized I’ve only (really topically) discussed race, and haven’t even gotten to the “male” part. I’ve struggled to say anything substantive beyond my personal experience in part because that’s how we make sense of things. Our memories are both a matter of sequence and our schema. I’m also not sure America’s really ready to confront the terms and scale and shifty visibility of its own racism, and we’re all complicit in that.
The best advice I can give (if I am qualified to give any) for reaching the African American male in the classroom is really no different than I’d offer for any other student or gender. Use the natural vulnerability of learning to expose the fiber of the student as a human being. Then, use the complexity and diversity of your own experience as a framework to understand theirs.
Agitate them cognitively so that they tend to first study themselves, not others. Help them see who they are. Their identity. Their worldview. Their self-image. Their value system. The tone of their interactions with others. Their goals. Their arc. Their self-knowledge.
Teaching Ellison or Malcom X or through hip-hop? Fine, as long as teaching Dickinson or JFK or through Linkin Park is a way of “reaching whites.” Nuts enough? It may be natural to initially connect through stereotypes and topical thinking, but we understand one another through shared struggle and mutual vulnerability.
You don’t have to deeply understand the nuance and complexity of their experience as a African American, or the social pressure—and often stifling and conflicting expectation–of being a black male. Like every other gender, race, sexual preference, socioeconomic status, and religious believe, it’s your job to help them find their own answers. The only real “truth” here is that it’s endlessly complex and evasive and will challenge everything they think they know about themselves and the world.
That’s why they’re in your classroom; that’s why they come to school.
Using Masta Ace (he’s a hip-hop artist from Brooklyn, New York) to teach tone or Public Enemy to teach about social justice or or Big L to teach metaphor or Martin Luther King, Jr. to teach public speaking isn’t going to make you a hero to African American students. By all means use cultural artifacts that help students make meaning, but how do you know that hip-hop is culturally relevant to them? And who are they?
We might consider, then, turning away from content to wisdom and knowledge-seeking to solve the challenges and meet the opportunities they have in front of them in the here and now, not as a member of a race or gender, but through a more human scale: One person–one life–at a time.