What’s language gotta do wit it? Language and Racism:

Being African American, statistics that document the fact that African American children are disciplined more harshly than their white peers is no surprise. The statistic just points 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.

(http://www.vision.org/visionmedia/article.aspx?id=53532,  Stephanie Simon 3/12/12) One of the reasons kids of color confront their teachers verbally is because they are defending their pride. You are expected and verbally taught to defend your pride by peers and family in homes of color and many other cultures. This is found at all socioeconomic levels. Remember the African American professor in Cambridgewho 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 style 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 all they feel 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.

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. She got in additional trouble because she felt she was being unfairly accused and she spoke up. The teacher called it back talking. I do 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 in the moment with the teacher; however, when does she get to express her belief that she is not the one talking.  When does she get to address a perceived one?  It felt very important to her that the teacher know that she was not talking in class. She has a lot of pride around being a role model in her class. She works hard to be one. Schools and society as a whole offers few mechanisms for having unfair treatment addressed in a direct way.

As a result of a conflict of communication styles, African American and Hispanic students are often disciplined more harshly.  The question is not if there is a problem, but how do we address this communication style difference in a way that teachs kids to show respect to authority, but which also leaves self pride in tact. 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 acknowledgement 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.

Published by Kai Long

Kai currently lives in MA and is interested in collaborating with others to develop a deeper understanding of our speech and language needs.