Nine-year-old Kaedyn G. goes to a private school in New Jersey. Last week at school, Kaedyn wore a hooded sweatshirt with the words “black brilliance” plainly displayed on the front of her hoodie. She was not in violation of the school’s dress code and had not broken any of the school’s rules regarding appearance. Yet as she walked down the hall, a white teacher instructed Kaedyn to turn her hoodie inside out. The teacher told Kaedyn that her hoodie was “causing problems” and questioned the 9-year-old, asking, “How would you feel if I wore a shirt that said ‘white brilliance’ on it?”
What happened to Kaedyn illustrates a critical disconnect on both a cultural and emotional level between educators and many of the young people they are charged to instruct, support and protect. All children have individual needs, but black and Latino learners have a not-so-nuanced experience in educational environments that can often leave them feeling shut out, shunned or not as good as their white peers. Navigating this journey requires a sincere commitment from school administrators to invest in the creation and maintenance of culturally competent school environments.
Such an effort mean recruiting diverse staff and faculty, having student and parental input in assessing feelings of inclusiveness, and proper training. It is unconscionable that in 2016 a white teacher would tell a little black girl to turn inside out a hoodie with such a simple but empowering message. The teacher’s inability to recognize and suppress her own white privilege in that moment is deplorable, yet it is 9-year-old Kaedyn who will pay the price. According to her mother, “Kaedyn asked me why I would let her wear something that was not nice and that would hurt others,” which is what she had been told.
This is where many self-proclaimed “progressives” miss the mark: being oblivious to the effects of microaggressions that support culturally oppressive institutions of white supremacy, even in environments intended as “nurturing.” What exactly was the “problem” that the hoodie created? Was it her blackness, or the affirmative declaration of her own brilliance without the express approval of anyone but herself, that was the problem? An odd message to send barely a week removed from Black History Month and firmly into Women’s History Month.
John Henrik Clarke once said, “To control a people you must first control what they think about themselves and how they regard their history and culture. And when your conqueror makes you ashamed of your culture and your history, he needs no prison walls and no chains to hold you.”
Instances where black children are sent abhorrent messages about embracing their culture continue to occur around hair and personal expression. Culturally incompetent teachers who cannot recognize the importance of having black students embrace their heritage as a critical component of self-actualization have no place anywhere near black students. The psychological effects of processing that sort of rejection are harrowing in a way that threatens to scar their self-esteem long after any school has issued an apology.
Even worse, this sort of messaging isn’t limited to microaggressions. We continue to see physical and verbal abuse from those charged to protect our children while at school. We cannot forget the horrific incident involving the young woman at Spring Valley High in Columbia, S.C., that sparked a national discussion about the proper use of school resource officers; and we just recently witnessed a Baltimore school police officer physically assault a student, the act captured on a cellphone camera. In Georgia and New York, there were separate incidents where teachers were caught and recorded berating students with verbal abuse and insults. The compilation of these incidents should give serious pause to all stakeholders in the education community and cause us to wonder, “How many of these incidents have we not seen because they weren’t caught on camera and no one spoke up?”
While not every example cited involves a white authority, the students who are subjected to this sort of treatment are almost always black or brown. Race does matter here, even when it may not surface in the traditional context of white and black. The fact is, for whatever reason or reasons, the people who are taking these disturbing and abusive liberties target children of color as being the most vulnerable. School leaders and administrators must shoulder a significant portion of the blame for fostering environments where educators or other professionals who interact with students would even think of exhibiting this sort of behavior against kids. Whether it’s verbal, physical, micro, macro or mega, our kids cannot be subjected to this type of abuse.
The bottom line is that our children deserve better, and we must demand it. You cannot hold contempt for a people or their culture yet purport to have a genuine desire to educate their young. Put plainly: If you do not love our black children, stay out of schools and far away from trying to educate them.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a civil rights trial attorney, legal analyst and former Brooklyn, N.Y., prosecutor. He is also a professor of criminal justice at Berkeley College in New York. Follow him on Twitter.