Battling the Silence: What Happens When We Don’t Talk about Racial and Cultural Tensions in Education

Christopher Emdin, professor at the Columbia Teacher's College

Christopher Emdin, professor at the Columbia Teacher’s College

Earlier this year I was at lecture by Chris Emdin, who started out as a public high school teacher in NYC and is now a professor at the Columbia Teacher’s College.  He told us the true story about a group of policy makers in NYC schools who wanted to help close the achievement gap by providing struggling schools with an iPads for every student.  The idea was that more screen time at school–and at home once signed out–would translate to higher test scores.

The schools in question were comprised of mostly Black students.  Not that anyone one was going to talk about that directly.  Maybe they used words like “inner-city,” “at-risk,” “disadvantaged,” and “urban” to imply race without stating it outright. This was a poverty issue, said the administrators, nothing more.  And providing a wealth of technology was the answer.

But when iPads didn’t make a dent in school achievement, administrators were puzzled. Ultimately they reasoned that these students weren’t putting in the effort to make good use of the technology, that they weren’t holding up their end.  You can only do so much for “these kids” after all, they said.

Dr. Emdin, however, invited us to think about what exactly these students–yes, these Black students–were seeing on their iPads.  The answer:  the same, unchanged message that was in their textbooks.  One promoting white histories, white values, white culture.  Who even today, asked Chris, can name one other black scientist besides George Washington Carver? Or how about one of the many prominent black scientists alive today? Not to be found, not in print, nor on iPads.  Our country may no longer condone lawfully-mandated segregation, but off the books we are more segregated of a nation now–in terms of neighborhoods, schools, wealth–than we ever were.  For whether you are a student at a predominantly white suburban school or at a predominantly Black public school, you will likely be schooled in the invisible culture of white, middle-class values–except maybe for a week or two in February.

Dr. Emdin himself, a former science teacher, is personally invested in bringing hip-hop into the science curriculum by hosting inter-scholastic Hip-Hop/Rap battles on science topics. Even for teachers like me who are white as rice (my term, not his; and the statistical fact is that most teachers coming out of schools like Boston College are)–especially for teachers like me–he talked about how a respectable figure from “the hood” (his term now) could serve as a cultural broker between academics and students’ lived life.

Chris said that, one day, he saw his students just weren’t getting the concept of momentum, of how a marble ball will roll forever across a frictionless surface until it hits another ball, and at which point that ball will begin to roll forever.  “Because science is gangster like that!” he said to the students excitedly.  But their faces remained expressionless.  A community member in residence that day, however, knew right away how to explain momentum with a subway metaphor:  “You know when you’re riding the blue line and it stops all of a sudden, but you keep going?  It’s like if that were to happen forever.”  His actual reply was longer and I can’t recall it all, but after hearing the subway metaphor, students’ heads began nodding.  A barrier was visibly crossed.

Whether we’re comfortable admitting it or not, one’s zip code, racialized identity, and culture are often inextricably linked to each other, creating a tension between the desire to see students as merely individuals and as members of some kind of larger social group.  I think that too often we ignore the latter lens out of fear of playing into a stereotype of saying something “racist.”  But racism is the act of oppressing a people by imposing a culture onto them, a singular deficit perspective that that people did not choose.  But who says that a good teacher can’t tap into a frame of reference that Black students largely own?

Chris notes, for example, how he has seen community members lend teachers a hand in expressing content knowledge through a shared knowledge of Hip-Hop.  Ultimately, such co-teachers serve to instill in students a personal and cultural pride in science and in the power of a curious mind at work.  “Harriet Tubman,” Chris tells us, “was a brilliant scientist.  She used her understanding of astronomy to guide her fellow slaves toward the free states.  But nobody talk about her that way.”  Can you imagine the power in teaching kids that science is part of their collective story too?  That they can express it in a way that is meaningful to them?

Unlike tossing around money and technology, however, engaging students in a truly culturally relevant way demands that we break a long-held silence between schools, teachers, and communities.  This, I believe, is not so much a matter of progressive leadership as it is of brave leadership at all levels of the system.  Classroom teachers (and graduate students) shouldn’t be afraid to address culture in the classroom.  No, not the rainbow-colored word “culture” that can be found, and that I have found, in every graduate level textbook.  I mean a “culture” with edges, something tangible that confidently parses the merely negative stereotyping of a radicalized and minoritized group from a deeper knowledge of what that group shares proudly and collectively.

Nothing, I promise, infuriates me so much as the teacher from Freedom Writers who cold calls on his Black student during a Civil Rights unit and says with a smile, “And now, Victoria, can you give us a little information on the Black perspective?”  But just as one can hurl poisonous cultural generalizations such as “Black students can’t appreciate these iPads,” that same person can also claim that Black culture doesn’t exist and hide behind a classroom of strictly unique individuals, skirting around the fact that white culture, in all its monochrome glory, permeates the curriculum in schools all around the country.  Teachers and teacher educators talk all the time about the importance of “culture.”  Let’s instead start talking about breaking cultural tensions.

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About Joey Anthony

I like strawberry milk. I like June, both the month and the word. I like laughing and making other people laugh, though it doesn't always work.
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