Singled Out: Why Are Teachers Using Humiliation To Guide Black Kids?

June 6, 2012  |  

If there’s one phrase almost any black child can recall being said to them during childhood, it’s you better quit doing x, y, or Z before I embarrass you. Nobody wants to be embarrassed, and when your parent gives you a warning like that, you know they’re going to make good on it. But for some reason that sentiment has seemed to tip-toe out of homes and into the classroom, with embarrassment tactics being the go-to solution for teachers, particularly when it comes to black students and it’s something I have a hard time accepting.

I should start out by mentioning I’m not a fan of negative reinforcement. I recognize for some people it works, but it’s an approach that has never sat well with me so I have an inherent bias toward some of the situations I’ve come across in the news lately. Two days ago, I wrote about Bria Persley and how she was told by a teacher to sit her nappy-headed self down. You can argue all you want that nappy was a descriptive adjective and one would only find it offensive if they had some sort of ill personal feelings toward having coarse hair but 99 percent of us know that no such phrases like sit your curly- or stringy-haired self down exist in the realm of English colloquialisms and that teacher said what she did to embarrass that girl. We’ve probably all heard someone tell another person to sit their black a** down and while the person referencing may have in fact been of that race, the word black was thrown in their not as a description but as a taunt. This is no different.

A few moments ago, I came across another story of ninth grader Dionne Evans who apparently forgot her binder for school recently. The teacher attempted to teach her a lesson by telling the student to come to the front of the class and she was asked if she’d ever seen “Bridesmaids,” after which the teacher reportedly began acting out one of the scenes from the film in which one of the characters tries to “knock some sense” into her friend by hitting her on the head. When the girl and her mother complained to the school, the teacher wrote a letter of apology, saying:

“I want to tell you how truly sorry I am. My intention was never to hurt you or embarrass you. Rather, I was trying to reach out to you and help you focus on your school work and motivate you.

“Even though I thought my intentions were honorable, they did not come out that way and for that I am so very sorry. Please know that I feel terrible about causing you pain and would like the opportunity to make it right.”

Teach needs more people. Though I can see her somewhat comically hitting the girl over the head, how she considers that reaching out and being motivational is beyond me. Where is the lesson in that? She knew it would be embarrassing despite backtracking and claiming that wasn’t her intent, and I’m sure she thought that the girl would never forget her binder again because she wouldn’t want to be shamed in front on another occasion.

From reading comments on each story, there seems to be two main responses—outrage over the teacher’s behavior or support for administrators because if these kids were somehow troublemakers they deserved whatever came to them. The latter I can’t get behind. Children most definitely should have consequences when they don’t handle their responsibilities in school. We called those demerits and detention when I was coming up. What bothers me is I’m not only finding these stories because I’m perusing black sites, I search MSN, Yahoo, and other mainstream outlets and I’m not finding instances of white children being berated like this to learn some sort of lesson. And though I’m willing to lend some of that tipped scale to the fact that black people can have a tendency to look for racism in things that might not really be an instance of such, I get the feeling when these stories hit that our children are being treated like this in class because they’re already thought to be throw-away kids. This theory supported by studies that already show minority students are given less feedback than others.

I may be a tad sensitive to these things, but in my opinion grade school and even high school are tough years and not periods where liberties should be taken to belittle student’s self-esteem. The hair comment in particular is wrought with all sorts of confidence-damaging implications that even most grown women can’t get past today. No one should be allowed to demean someone’s physical appearance because of any transgression they committed. The point of school is to prepare children for the “real-world” but no company in the world could get away with an executive speaking to an employee like that and it shouldn’t fly in school either.

I’m not saying that children don’t need to be taught lessons but the subtle and sometimes overtly prejudice ways our children are being disciplined is not acceptable. For Brea to be dismissed from the school because her mother complained about the teacher is baffling to me. Had her response warranted police intervention or something of the sort, I could see the expulsion being necessary but how could you not expect this mother to be irate at the teacher’s actions and the principle’s response about mean kids needing to be taught a lesson. If parents don’t stand up and advocate for their kids who will?

It doesn’t matter if kids used to be spanked, paddled, or put over one’s knee in front of the class to teach them a lesson. Those days are gone and the embarrassment tactics previously used shouldn’t be replaced with the one’s discussed here. I can’t imagine the stresses teachers are facing in with unruly students in overcrowded classrooms but at the end of the day, we are still talking about children. If these teachers can’t handle the pressures like an adult without resorting to demeaning tactics they are the ones who should be embarrassed.

Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.

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