Thursday, June 10, 2010

Judged Not By the Scent of Their Hair...

You may have heard that, recently, an 8-year-old biracial girl was removed from class because the smell of her hair made her white teacher sick. As far as has been reported, the teacher did not contact the parents (who did know the teacher had allergies) to use a different hair moisturizer, but simply singled the girl out-- the only "brown" student in her Accelerated Progress class-- and sent her to a lower-level class (which, incidentally, had more Black students, whattaya know).

According to Charles Mudede, the girl's father,

"If a white teacher—a person who is supposed to have a certain amount of education and knowledge of American history, and who teaches at a school named after the man who successfully argued before the court in Brown v. Board of Education for equal opportunities for racial minorities in public schools and went on to become the first African-American Supreme Court justice—removes a black student from a predominantly white class because of her hair, it is almost impossible not read the action as either racist or expressive of racial insensitivity, which amounts to the same thing for someone in that teacher’s position."
(read full statement here on Racialicious)

I'm absolutely appalled to be reading about a case like this in this day and age and supposedly civilized society, which just goes to show that racism is nowhere even close to dead.

Of course, maybe the removal wasn't really racially motivated-- not consciously. Still, the implications are very clear, especially when we consider that the 8-year-old was singled out and then sent to a lower level class instead of transferring her to another Advanced Progress program, if the school had one. And if not? The student should not have been removed; the teacher could have spoken with the parents to solve the problem.

I've studied quite a bit of African American literature, as well as taken a class on race and urban education, so I feel like I've seen what's going on here before.

Andrea Plaid at Racialicious breaks it down better than I could, however:

"The teacher employed, according to what Mudede’s and Drake’s daughter said, a very gendered racial rhetoric, namely the Delicate White Woman Frightened by the Negress’ Physical Being.  In stating to the daughter that 'she’s afraid and it’s [her] hair' evokes the stereotypes that:

"1) Black people (including mixed-race people who self-identity as Black—though, in this case, it’s the father who states his child is Black.  No reports so far say how the child identifies herself) are a constant physical threat to whites—like all we think about is how to inflict maximum bodily damage to them.

"2) that Black people (as well as other people of color and white ethnic people) smell bad, especially because they use “cultural products” that white USians aren’t used to.

"3) Black people’s hair is in a dormant or active state of 'fright wig,' which dovetails into the idea that Black natural hair is inherently ugly and the people possessing it as inherently unattractive, especially if the possessor is female.


"4) the teacher implicated herself in an insidious stereotype about white women, namely that of a frail femininity that must be protected from any 'offending coloredness'–in this case, a Black girl with some hair-care products for her naturally curly head attending an accelerated class at a school named for a staunch legal defender of civil rights."

I think what we have here is furthermore a prime example of how racism damages "minority" students in the American educational system. We have a system where, unfortunately, a majority of the teachers are White, middle-class Americans who are already trying to overcome cultural barriers in trying to understand races and socio-economic classes they're not familiar with (socio-economic class not necessarily applying to this case). We have teachers who are taught, through their own experiences and sometimes the poor examples of their mentors, that students of color are less capable than White students, thus they treat them as such.

When I did classroom observations for my urban education course, I saw a population made up of 95% ethnic students and 100% white teachers. I saw White students being praised for their precociousness and a Black student yelled at for daring to read ahead. I was told that the English class I was observing was "the bad class" in front of the students, and that I might want to see the "better" class instead-- which was, by the way, far more White than the "bad" one. 

I heard a story in my class about a very young Hispanic boy who was misbehaving being told he wasn't going to go to college anyway.

I go to a college that runs a middle and high school of mainly "minority" children and has a nearly-100% graduation rate: far higher than most schools in the country. It's a school full of teachers that believe in these kids and empower them without giving a second thought to the color of their skin, if they come from the ghetto, and what is expected of them.

Children are impressionable, and when you throw them into a system that encourages the failure of students of color-- that genuinely believes in allowing "difficult" students to fall to the wayside rather than learn to relate to them-- you are going to get failure. If you tell a little boy from a young age that he won't go to college, and keep telling him and telling him and pointing to that glass ceiling above his head, you will likely get a kid who doesn't go to college. He won't even see it as a legitimate option. 

And you know what else? He'll hate school. He will see it as a place he does not belong, as a place where people are out to get him.

Our educational system is oppressive, and I truly believe that. I don't believe that the 8-year-old girl here was the only Black girl capable of being in an honors class. Perhaps if the students in the lower-level classes were held to the same standards as she was, told they're smart, forced to figure it out instead of being dismissed, they too would be in honors classes. Maybe then the teacher wouldn't have been so able to single out this little girl for her afro, for the thing that makes her different. 

Thurgood Marshall didn't want "separate but equal. Integrating Black students, no matter how goddam right it was to do, seems to have magnified the racism and hatred that exists within our teachers and our system. People aren't born more or less capable due to the color of their skin, but we treat them as if they are. And the longer we allow our educational system to treat them that way, the truer it will appear.

But it will never be true. 

Unfortunately for this little girl, this awful early experience with discrimination may shape her relationship with school forever.


Sarah_J_Evans said...

What a horrible thing to have happened especially in this day and age.

Having trained as a teacher myself and worked for many years that is simply not something I or anyone else I can think of for that matter would ever ever do.

If a childs smells for whatever reason and it's sufficiently noticeable you might take them to one side, speak to them about it, maybe speak to parents about it. If there is then no improvement and the smell is causing a) discomfort or b) any kind of reaction/bullying towards the student then you may think of taking things further.

A totally alien reaction if you ask me.

It is interesting what you mention about teacher training enforcing stereotypes: during my training I read (as I had to - they were part of my assignments) a number of articles and studies which seemed to do just that. Black boys are underachievers and less motivated. Girls are more self-deprecating. Boys will blame anyone but themselves for a bad result etc etc. All from the viewpoint of preparing the teacher to plan for these differing students but still. There is that air of self-perpetuation about all of this I always feel.


Anonymous said...

Oh wow..That's just terrible.
I can't believe she was trained to be a teacher. She should have spoken to the child's parent if she was truly allergic, instead of making the little girl feel bad amongst her mates.


Zmaga said...

I cannot believe something like this actually happened today, when we pride ourselves on how tolerant we are.

Rachel Elizabeth said...

Ugh, I don't even know where to start with this. The only thing I can really think to say is that its appalling.


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