Black by Default

It’s hard being black. Especially when your degree of blackness is often quantified by other black people–who consider themselves blacker than you.  Frankly, I am not sure how the levels of blackness are measured. Growing up, I was told by other black children in the neighborhood that I sounded white, in other words, spoke as if I were a white person. Yet, I lived in their same Brooklyn housing project, attended the same inner city school and played in the same local park.

My mother was well read and kept her bookshelves stocked with a diverse collection of books. The manner in which I spoke was not due to an effort to sound white or even proper (another misconception), but the result of being immersed in a print rich environment with a parent whose advanced use of language was gained by the wonders of reading. Based on recent statistics on the achievement gap of black children, it would seem  that reading and the acquisition of a broader vocabulary is the 8th wonder of the world. The truth is, the more educated you become, the better grasp you have on what is known as Standard American English. The same SAE that is spoken in the professional world and taught in the American school systems. The same English that is read in most books, newspapers and magazines.

Ebonics is not good English

The stance that education holds the key to success is a mantra that African Americans must embrace and hold dear. It is the catalyst that will open doors of opportunity and unlock keys to a world that too often is a challenge for people of color to navigate. In this world, being able to communicate in the language of   what is deemed white america is not only necessary, but indicative of an educated person. Ideologies of people like Erika Gallagher,  a “white passing,” University of Wisconsin-Madison research student, become traps that prevent people of color from advancing in a white dominated capitalist society. According to Gallagher, the English language is racist and discriminatory towards blacks who speak Ebonics –a so called African- American vernacular. In her misguided research of 3 people, she determined  that being forced to speak SAE was “overwhelming and disingenuous” to black people. She concludes that institutions of higher learning and the overall educational system needs to overlook the deficits in the way African Americans speak to avoid the discomfort of code switching.  However, code switching is not a concept exclusive to people of color, marginalized folks or the like. It is a skill, if you will, that persons with an understanding of language in formal and informal environs adopt to adapt to the situation at hand. It would be unreasonable and unprofessional to go to a job interview and say, “cash me ousside, howbow dah?” the trending phrase of Danielle Bregoli–a white passing person- whose failure to enunciate simple words intelligibly has gone viral. What words of wisdom does Ms. Gallagher have for Bregoli whose behavior is often described as acting “black.” Is she also guilty of speaking Ebonics?

Black by Default

It is not uncommon for certain behaviors and speech nuances to to be associated with black culture. But too often those connections are negative portrayals that diminish positive and empowering influences that more accurately depict the black race. Even representatives like Rachel Dolezal, who identifies with being black, trivializes the black community. Yet for her, being black proved to be advantageous. So much so, that she gained a full scholarship to Howard University because as her father says,”she sounded black on the phone.” Her situational blackness is clearly a case of cultural code switching disguised as: relating to and supportive of the black community.  Her ability to sew in weaves, teach Black History, date black men and bear their children is merely a social experiment. But there are many who defend her actions and embrace her “blackness.”  But are you black by default? Does experience or upbringing determine the level of one’s blackness?

Despite being raised by a white mother and grandmother in the cozy isle of Hawaii, former President Obama is considered to be the epitome of blackness. His swag, penchant for hip hop, and basketball prowess exalts his status in iconic black culture. But it’s his upbringing and education at universities such as Harvard and Howard that aid in Obama’s ability to code switch. Imagine if President Obama applied Gallagher’s theory to avoid code switching because it’s too hard? His rise from lawyer, president to public speaker in demand may not have been possible or as easily embraced.

On an unlikely field trip excursion, I escorted a group of teenagers, pursuing their high school equivalency diploma, into the upper echelons of Manhattan’s business district.  Some had never ventured beyond their Bronx neighborhoods. Even the event’s coordinators were surprised to see these young people in attendance.  As I explained who we were and why we were there, I code switched or rather spoke as one professional to another. The students were amazed. “Miss, you speak white?” they asked incredulously.  It was a teachable moment that demonstrated how I, an educated person, aware of my environment and audience, can speak in a language that articulates my intended message without compromising my identity. I’m black simply because I am and  speak Standard American English simply because I should.

Combating Racism and Stereotypes with English

As an educator, it is my responsibility to teach and model the English language properly. Erika Gallagher’s lofty goal to encourage teachers to “accept any form of English that students are comfortable with,” will not equip young African American children to actively engage diverse groups of people in environments where Ebonics is not the norm.

Gallagher’s research is rooted in racism and perpetuates the illusion that her experience and findings teach society to be more tolerant and accepting of African-Americans. “Just because you speak a different way doesn’t mean you’re not smart,”she says. Fortunately, black folks don’t need her help to realize how smart, capable or accomplished we are.  Young black people need more role models like President Barack Obama, educated and well-spoken, or Oprah Winfrey– educated and well read.  They need teachers and communities that refute the narrative that says, “feel oppressed by standard, grammatical English,” because only white people speak well.

Demanding that minorities speak Standard American English in formal settings is not biased or discriminatory.  Schools should not make accommodations for black students that do not meet universal standards of excellence. Teaching should be rigorous and learning met with robust challenge– without apology. Standard American English should be expected and not excused for people of color. Anything less is an insult.

So, Ms. Gallagher, how about that?

Seen But Not Heard

I miss Malcolm X. Sure he died before I was born and I only know of his exploits from movies, commentary and the bevy of speeches he left behind. But one thing I know for sure, the African American community needs a Malcolm X today.

In the eulogy delivered by Ossie Davis, Malcolm was described as “our own black shining prince.” Malcolm’s voice spoke volumes and his message provoked others to listen. He is the embodiment of the current cry “black lives matter,” and his actions, words and deeds sparked change that is desperately needed in African-American communities.  I mimic Oprah Winfrey’s comment in response to the public’s reaction to the Ferguson decision, “I think it’s wonderful to march and to protest, and it’s wonderful to see all across the country, people doing it, but what I’m looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, ‘This is what we want. This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes, and this is what we’re willing to do to get it.” There was a backlash surrounding her statement. But considering that she is a media mogul, her response is the most honest.

During his heyday, Malcolm X was the 2nd most sought after speaker in the United States as reported by the New York Times. Malcolm did not use the media as a medium to be seen. It was a vehicle to be heard and promote his cause. He took command of his interviews and engaged his critics and commentators. He was eloquent, charismatic and articulated his ideas with clarity and a quiet strength that empowered black people to rise above circumstance and as he stated “control their destiny,” with “economic, political and social” power.  With Malcolm, there was a decrease in crime and drug abuse in black communities and an increase in self-confidence, prosperity and hope. “He expelled fear for African Americans,” said Sonia Sanchez. His ability to mobilize, organize and transform the mentality of Black people was single-handedly a threat to the norms that were oppressive to African Americans.  There was a reverential fear within society when he proclaimed by any means necessary, “That’s why we loved him. He said it out loud, not behind closed doors. He took on America for us.”  Fast forward, post Malcolm there is no reverence, black people are just feared and understandably so. The media images that plaster the television screens and dominate social media portray a race and class of people prone to destructive behavior. After the Ferguson decision, looters and rioters were seen destroying businesses, burning cars,  creating chaos and wreaking havoc and mayhem  within their own communities in a failed attempt to express their frustrations and denounce injustice. But as the world watched, there was no compassion for the underlying cause just disdain for their reaction.  Malcolm understood that “our communities must be the sources of their own strength.” Unfortunately, the participants in these scenarios were seen but not heard while Officer Darren Wilson was given a media platform to recount his version of the Ferguson incident.  It is likely that he garnered sympathy in the process for his role in the tragic events that resulted in the death of Michael Brown.  I miss Malcolm X.

With instantaneous social media pictures, postings and videos and newscasters more interested in sensationalized “news” stories that are derisive and inflammatory, it is imperative that African Americans take the time to be proactive instead of reactive. It is painfully obvious, that in order for that to occur a magnanimous leader must take the helm and be willing to  “work with many organizations and many people,” to continue the work started by Malcolm X in “regaining our self respect, our manhood, our dignity and freedom…”

Only then will the pattern of being seen but not heard end and the truth that black lives matter manifest.

malcolmandmedia

Learn more about Malcolm at:

1) http://www.blackpast.org/1964-malcolm-x-s-speech-founding-rally-organization-afro-american-unity#sthash.V00KyEvv.dpuf

2) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/malcolmx/peopleevents/e_autobio.html

The MisEducation of American Youth

As an educator in the American public school system, I want to see the silver lining, the light at the end of the tunnel, the rise of the best and the brightest. But on the other hand, as a parent, I have the right to rant and rave about the ills of public education and say that I am disappointed, discouraged, dissatisfied and oftentimes downright disgusted with the educational system. So how can I expose all that I feel the system is not without betraying the very profession that gainfully employs me.

I never planned to go into the teaching profession. Although I started in the education program at my university, I soon realized that becoming a certified teacher in the state of Alabama was not a good idea…at least not for me! With careful research, I learned that I could concentrate on a particular subject and pursue alternative certification in practically every corner of the globe. My thoughts were that the education degree would limit and restrict my long term goals. Education degrees train you for one thing. I wanted to have options, options and more options. Thankfully, I have a rich and diverse employment history which I strongly believed laid the foundation for me to enter secondary education. I truly  enjoyed being a classroom teacher. The fulfillment that one receives from shaping and molding young minds is incomparable. The knowledge that you have the power and ability to groom doctors, lawyers, engineers and entrepreneurs is invaluable. So then, what is the Miseducation of American Youth From the Kat’s Eye?

Lack of boundaries- Children want discipline. They will respect boundaries once they realize that it is the standing expectation of the person in authority. Often times in the culture of education, emphasis is placed on building rapport with the students. Then as a result, some teachers cross the line from being friendly to becoming friends with their students. By no means do I believe a teacher should be personal friends with a student on FaceBook, Twitter, InstaGram or whatever the lastest fad of technology driven communication happens to be. Teachers at all times must maintain their professionalism when interacting with students. Using social media as a means of communication is a recipe for disaster and at the end of the day an invasion of the teacher’s privacy and a deduction of their superiority. In some cases, it may even prove to be an ethical violation. An even more obvious violation of the code of ethics are the recurring nationwide reports of sexual relationships that teachers are having with students. What a breach of trust and abuse of authority and clearly a lack of boundaries recognized and established by the teacher. This type of behavior tarnishes the pristine perception of a teacher’s role and may be the reason for the tainted pool of applicants who increasingly don the title of educator.

Lack of accountability– Tough times call for tough measures. Since elementary school, I have told my son that he goes to school for the three “L’s.” Listen, Learn and Lunch…anything else would be inappropriate and cause for discipline. My expectations are clear and concise and he is held accountable for any action that is outside the L’s. There was and remains, no cause for confusion.  The approach to teacher duties should be as simplified. Teachers go to school for the three ”E’s.” Educate, Enlighten, Empower…anything else would be inappropriate and cause for discipline. Tenure however, throws a monkey wrench in the efforts to quickly dismiss, remove and overhaul a system of ineffective teachers who go above and beyond in doing absolutely nothing. In their defense, they may have once been highly motivated and dynamic instructors; but then something changed. A responsible professional realizes their shift in passion and purpose and moves on. Students who are in the presence of teachers who have lost their zeal are doing them a disservice.  While teacher pay for performance plans have many “panties in a wad,” the concept behind the plan is rather simple once you shuffle through the rigmarole. Good actors and actresses are paid to perform. The more entertaining, endearing and effective their performances, the more money Hollywood pays them and the more fans adore them. They go to great lengths to perfect their crafts, to embody the persona of the characters they portray and to engage their audiences. They are often meticulous folk, highly critical of themselves and dedicated to their profession to a fault.  If I pay money to see bad acting in a bad movie, I am disappointed and a have lost a few dollars and a couple of hours. But when you have a bad teacher in a bad situation the loss is far greater. Tough times call for tough measures.

Lack of rigor in academics: Many states are now adopting Common Core Standards (CCS). The idea is to streamline the expectations of education across the country that will place all students on the same playing field. As a result, the students will be more equipped to compete in a global economy. The primary focus of CCS is college and career readiness. Recent studies prove that students graduating from high school are prepared for neither. This is disheartening news to a parent who sends their child to school every day only to learn that he or she will have to take remedial classes in college because they did not receive the proper rigorous instruction in high school to prepare them for post-secondary education. It’s frustrating to me when I set forth to help my son with an honors class assignment and he tells me that his teacher doesn’t expect “all of that.”  In a 2006 study called “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts,” 47% of students reported that the classes were uninteresting and 69% stated that due to low teacher expectations and academic standards they were unmotivated and/or unwilling to perform on a higher level.  This information is alarming but very telling of the miseducation of American youth. In actuality it is not the students who are failing but the educational system that they are thrust into that is.

As educators, parents and concerned citizens, we must demand of ourselves, the children we love, legislators, reformists and school districts, an environment that is committed to excellence, high achievement and performance; an environment that builds capacity for rigorous learning, establishes boundaries and holds all involved accountable for educating, enlightening and empowering this generation to enter the 21st Century workplace.