Communication Expectations: Language and Race

Statistics document the fact that African American children are disciplined more harshly than their white peers and is the result of different communication expectations. The statistics point out what every parent of color in the US already knows.  Our kids are treated more harshly than their white peers. If you are a parent of color with a child in kindergarten, but certainly by 1st or 2nd grade, it is a fair bet that you have already had to have “the talk” several times about why your child or another child that looks like your child has been treated more harshly than a white peer. It is happening everywhere, and the real question is not whether it is true or if it is only happening to poor students, but how to make changes that address this fact.

One of the reasons kids of color confront their teachers verbally is because they are defending their pride but the communication expectation based on white culture is to be self-effacing. However, in African American culture and many other cultures, the communication expectation is to verbally defend your pride. This is found at all socioeconomic levels. Remember the African American professor in Cambridge who was taken into custody for entering his own house when he tried to tell the police that he lived there. He was defending his name in front of his own house, but his communication style and racial identity were perceived by the cop as threatening and he was marched off to jail in handcuffs.  This issue is not just relegated to class but taps into communication style and purpose. Right now the expectation is that all children should conform to an indirect self-effacing communication expectation when dealing with authority.  Our children bring their culture with them to class and it is the job of the school to teach them and help them understand how to react in a way that keeps their pride intact and respects authority. For some students, they feel all they have to offer is their pride. When teachers confront them publicly or accuse them in a way that is perceived as unfair they will defend themselves to the death, unlike their white peers. (,  Stephanie Simon 3/12/12)

This conversation is particularly pertinent to me right now because I just had another “talk” with my daughter about the fact that she can not defend herself to her teacher in class when being disciplined.  Because of her racial identity and non-verbal language, she will be perceived as threatening and consequences will be harsh.  I’m not saying it is intentional, having worked in schools I know for a fact that sometimes it is not. I think part of the problem is communication expectations. The expectation of white society is that when you are accused of something you respond in a self-effacing way. In African American and Hispanic culture when you are accused of something it is your duty to protect and defend yourself.

Let me give an example. My daughter got in trouble in class because she was with a group of students who were talking. She said she was not talking. She got in additional trouble because she felt she was being unfairly accused and she spoke up to defend herself. The teacher called it back talking. I did too.  She was devastated. All she knew was the teacher didn’t understand that it was not her. I sided with the teacher because she has to learn that she cannot argue with the teacher. However, when does she get to express her knowledge that she was not the one talking?   When does she get to address a perceived wrong?  It felt very important to her that the teacher know that she was not talking in class. She has a lot of pride in being a role model in her class. She works hard to be one. Schools and society offer few mechanisms for students to address unfair treatment.

As a result of a conflict between communication expectations, African American and Hispanic students are often disciplined more harshly.  The question is not if there is a problem, but how do we address the different communication expectations in a way that teaches kids to show respect to authority, but which also leaves their pride intact. It should not be one style versus the other because both styles lack completeness. Being self-effacing lacks the ability to show pride in oneself while being direct and confrontational lacks acknowledgment of authority.  Teaching our kids, and learning ourselves a hybrid communication style which encompasses both respect for authority and allows for self-defense will improve self-esteem, as well as help society, continue to exist in a law-abiding way.

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