On Trusting and Order: a response to City Pages

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Recently, there has been heightened attention paid to issues of equity in education, and closing what is commonly referred to as the “achievement gap.” Most recently Susan Du wrote an article for the City Pages which illustrates the fundamental failure of this discourse. The article examines the current tensions and conflicts arising from Saint Paul Public School’s attempt at achieving racial equity, specifically the new suspension policy. The article relies on racist norms, while centering the feelings and intentions of white educators, blaming a culture of dysfunction for the problems plaguing the school district.

How Do You Know It’s About Race?

Let’s get the most basic element out of the way: this is entirely about race. As is the modus operandi of racism in the 21st century, explicitly racist language is avoided, substituted for language that pathologizes culture. So, while the article never says “Black boys are the problem,” Du makes it  clear that they are the subject of this particular examination. In fact, the very first lines of the article primes the racial imagination of readers: “A student walks down a Harding High hallway wearing headphones, chanting along to violent rap lyrics… The kid stares at [the teacher] with chilling intensity. He points at the older man, fingers bent in the shape of a gun, and shoots. Then moves on.” The reference to “violent rap lyrics” quite clearly invokes a Black male body. Even if the reader doesn’t picture a Black male walking down the hallway, Black men are still responsible given they are the overwhelming practioners of Hip-Hop music. Add to this problematic anecdote the insinuation of natural violence, and the atmosphere is perfectly set for Black bodies to be the main culprit in their own oppression.

Later on in the article, Du abandons the racial ambiguity all together and directly names the source of tension: “The district also shifted its thinking on discipline, influenced by data that showed black kids being suspended at alarming rates.” These suspension rates, and resulting education debt were the impetus for SPPS hiring Pacific Education Group to conduct racial equity training in the district. It is these trainings, more specifically the perceived failure of the trainings along with the suspension policy, that has lead to the tension in SPPS.

While Du is attempting to give voice to teachers, and express valid frustrations, she falls into the trap of thinking in binaries: “this or that” type of problem-solving. We are supposed to decide if the teachers are right in (largely) opposing the policies, or if the district is right in implementing these policies. Du also positions education in  a vacuum free from the influences of the larger society. She attempts to fight for teachers by painting them as the victims of random acts of violence, “intrusions,”  of students “barging in,” and even of death threats. The reader is supposed to feel sympathy for the teachers and contempt for the students causing this chaos. The language invokes the historical stereotypes of Black males as violent, lazy, and animalistic, in need of being trained and controlled. All the while the real concern that whiteness has an objective, tangible, and damaging effect on schools is trivialized.

Whose Culture is the Problem?

A reasonable response to Du’s article would be horror at the working conditions of teachers. These poor people, these award winning, kind-hearted people are being taken advantage of by the race-baiting superintendent, and victimized by students who need to be “tamed.” I have no doubt that these teachers are indeed kind, that they love their students, that they are “good” teachers, and that their intentions are well-meaning. Those things, though, don’t matter; they certainly don’t matter as much as what impact they are having on the life chances of their students. It is here that Du, and many, many others have missed the ball. Instead of suggesting that society and structures are the issue they have placed blame on the students, and by extension their families.

The articles states: “Harding isn’t much different than most big city schools. It squats in St. Paul’s most economically depressed zip code, where 83 percent of kids receive free or reduced-price lunch.” But this fact isn’t mentioned again throughout the article. Nowhere are the consequences of poverty, or of being a person of color in this society, discussed. In favor of discussing these issues Du relies on the default: cultural pathology. She leaves in place the overly simple equation that poor students, especially students of color, are inherently broken, in need of fixing, which is the job of the school. This analysis perpetuates the white savior mentality that pervades too many schools, and encourages defensiveness at the idea that whites may have some cultural work to do themselves before being effective in the classroom.

That is not to say there is no validity in the frustration of the teachers.

Yes, and…

Too often in this discourse we are left choosing: teachers or students of color. As a teacher, for nearly a decade, I categorically reject this binary. In the article, a teacher, Becky McQueen, stated: “There are those that believe that by suspending kids we are building a pipeline to prison. I think that by not, we are…I think we’re telling these kids you don’t have to be on time for anything, we’re just going to talk to you. You can assault somebody and we’re gonna let you come back here.” There is truth in the idea that school is a place to teach social norms, and that there should be accountability; however, the question that needs to be asked is, whose norms are being taught?

Too often the dominant society escapes examination, especially when we talk about schools. In a racist, classist, and sexist society it is more than understandable that marginalized students are not eager to buy in to their social training.  Eric Brandt, another teacher cited in the article, begins to approach the necessary analysis, yet still defers to the idea that the job of students is to learn how to behave: “There is a sizable chunk of students that — for a variety of very complex reasons — don’t know how to behave in a decent, sociable way with other people in a school setting.” It would be better if Brandt focused more on those complex reasons and less on how students respond to those reasons.

So What Now?

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It is foolhardy to believe that one year of racial equity training is going to result in significant gains, or that there would not be pushback to an attempt at creating equity. This work is hard, and painful, and takes a long time, but it is work that must be done. This can only happen with a strong critique of society, and an understanding of the structural causes of inequality. It will not happen by instituting harsher, more severe, more militant discipline. However, it’s a win-win situation, this approach actually builds the necessary foundation for real accountability. It is actually counterproductive to fight efforts for racial equity.

As a classroom teacher, who has been in some of the most difficult environments Minneapolis has to offer, I can tell you that the students are not the problem, nor are their families. They all come with a context, they are all products of our society.  When you acknowledge this point you create the space for a respectful and healthy culture to develop in your classroom. This culture allows for true learning, dialogical learning, that values the wealth of knowledge and experiences the students bring with them everyday. If we are to take racial equity seriously we must take this cultural exchange seriously. This starts systemically, by districts requiring cultural study for their teachers, especially the Euro-American teachers. How to best facilitate the cultural evolution necessary should have been the focus of Susan Du’s article, not pitting teachers vs. students with the district as proxy.

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15 thoughts on “On Trusting and Order: a response to City Pages

  1. There’s a lot to rebut in this rebuttal, let me start with these two points:
    1. In response to “The reference to “violent rap lyrics” quite clearly invokes a Black male body. Even if the reader doesn’t picture a Black male walking down the hallway, Black men are still responsible given they are the overwhelming practioners of Hip-Hop music.”, most of us who spend our days in a high school in St Paul or Minneapolis know that kids of all races listen to rap and hip-hop. So that’s not “code” for young black male, it applies to students of all races and genders. I believe your reaction is the one that shows stereotypical thinking in action.
    2. This is the 5th year of PEG’s lucrative association with the St Paul school district. Not the first, as you apparently assume when you talk about the “one year of racial equity training” not being enough.

    1. Tiliana, thanks for your comment. I would like to push back a little: you are ignoring the context hip-hop stems from and my argument of association. Also, you should read my bio I am born and raised in Mpls and spend everyday in a mpls school.

      1. Okay, okay, okay, you are a phenomenal racially aware teacher. Give us concrete examples of what you do in class. Put on a workshop.

  2. I worked in an after-school program in North Minneapolis (dealt with kids in 6th thru 8th grade). The author of this rebuttal makes some necessary points yet (as always seems to be the case in these discussions) does NOT ever define what “cultural competence” re:communities of color (especially the African-American community) is and HOW white/European-American teachers lack it. He seems to dismiss any concerns about students who curse out others, use the n-word, disrupt classes and even physical violence. Of course. students’ CONTEXT is important! But, HOW does it HELP the most disadvantaged kids to NOT BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE for their own ACTIONS—-that if one does not see/care that they are depriving other students of an education they are ALSO depriving themselves on one! Why isn’t it reasonable to ENGAGE WITH PARENTS about their children’s behavior issues? Wasn’t that the case for all of us growing up? Are those who (seem to) say it’s racist to be concerned about African-American students who are rude to others, often fail to be on time or come to school at all, disrupt or act out violently saying these behaviors are “part of African-American culture” or “side-effects of poverty” that should be ignored? Yes, teachers & staff have to GET TO THE ROOT of why student is “acting out” but, the current idea that pointing out the problems is racist is NOT helpful to the very kids we are all concerned about! NONE of these behaviors will serve them well in life, on the job or in social relationships. Much of the behavior problems described were things I had to deal with from my students. The bullying, name-calling & aggression were RELENTLESS. Teaching kids respect for themselves & others was Job 1 BEFORE any work on creative writing & arts could be attempted. It made doing the work very very challenging & I did NOT have the pressures that regular classroom teachers have! But, it sure gave me a glimpse into the CONTEXT of teaching today. Being concerned by am African-American student who bullies other kids, calls other kids the n-word and/or is physically aggressive is NOT racism. PRETENDING that no students of color act in these self-and-other-destructive ways is.

    1. Lydia, thanks for your reply. I understand your frustration and I think you missed the entire point of my article. You are saying that folks are simply pointing out the problem, I am saying you need to get deeper as what you think is the problem is actually a symptom. Also, if you re-read what I said you will find I never advocate for not holding students accountable for destructive behavior. I advocate that there needs to be a level of cultural competency and dexterity present in the classroom. You are right, I don’t detail what that looks like because there is already a body of work and myriad ways of going about doing this work. For example, requiring Critical Whiteness Studies, having Ethnic Studies requirements in the classroom, but mostly, as I say in the article it is individual cultural work. That means thinking about ourselves as Euro-Americans as cultural, not as the norm. Even just that simple step would do wonders.
      Thanks for engaging in dialogue.

      1. Indeed, Lydia may have missed the points that you wanted to make. So… put down the broad brush and paint a finer picture with concrete examples or your points are no better than the journalist you are criticizing.

  3. Thoughtful and valid points made Ryan. I work as a School Social Worker in St Paul at a school I believe is at the forefront of closing the achievement gap. I appreciate you stating that making this a binary discussion – a “teachers vs students” piece is not helpful. In my role, I am an advocate for students and families, not a classroom teacher. However, I also have to support and engage teachers to create the positive and culturally open learning environment needed to close the gap. Behavior and discipline are always going to be part of a discussion about how ANY school, serving ANY students is run. My take on this is that IF urban schools such as St Paul could/would look at a more effective management policy for the chronically truant kids who wander hallways and buildings creating chaos (in a school of 2,000, usually about 50 kids) they would then gain the CREDIBILITY needed with some teachers to address classroom-based learning gaps that are often related to the way academics are taught and learned. The Euro-centrism of the traditional school pedagogy could be more closely looked at.

    However, it IS true that we may find in many buildings, a large chunk of these 50 kids are students of color. That shouldn’t stop us from looking at and addressing this PIECE of the problem. The damage done (by the 50) in perception and sense of safety/control that school staff have, creates a distorted sense that students of color “are the problem” when a majority of students of color in those buildings behave and manage themselves just fine. I THINK, though can’t say for certain, that if you polled students of color in my building, they would agree that they are frustrated with this small minority of kids who are creating building “chaos” by being in hallways perpetually.

    Having said this, I can state that some of these chronically truant kids are kids of color I have worked with over the years and they have many barriers to learning. It is the job of school staff to figure out WHY these kids aren’t engaging the classroom, but those students can/do often require substantial support and have a “fight/flight” nature that makes a traditional school day very difficult for them. This group of kids often also have defeated parents and partnering with them is then difficult. Bottom line is that by not addressing this group of students who roam hallways in some more effective way, we allow many other racial stereotypes to perpetuate themselves when really what we are talking about is effective behavior management.

    Peace

    1. Thank you for giving me detailed examples. You have hit on at least one of the tipping points–one that could and should be examined to construct a creative solution:

      “Bottom line is that by not addressing this group of students who roam hallways in some more effective way, we allow many other racial stereotypes to perpetuate themselves when really what we are talking about is effective behavior management.”

      The tone of your response does not put you above the rest of the teachers who are in the forest doing their best every day.

  4. This rebuttal seems to me to repeatedly deeply inaccurately characterize Du’s article. It is simply untrue, for example, that “[n]owhere [in the article] are the consequences of poverty, or of being a person of color in this society, discussed.” To the contrary, there is an extensive section of the article that delves in some depth into particular “consequences … of being a person of color in this society.” (It may also be worth noting, though you don’t, that Susan Du is a person of color.) Your intimation that Du’s reference to rates of free and reduced-price lunches is the only mention of poverty (and of its effects on the Saint Paul Public Schools) in the piece is also simply false.

    You assert, for example, that Du “falls into the trap of thinking in binaries,” that she intends for readers “to feel … contempt for the students causing this chaos,” that she “ha[s] placed blame on the students,” and that she offers “the overly simpl[e] equation that poor students, especially students of color, are inherently broken [and] in need of fixing[.]” All of those assertions strike me as, at best, extraordinarily tendentious readings of Du’s article, if not flat-out falsehoods; in any case, you have not come close to substantiating those readings with direct analysis of material from that article. (Most strikingly, your claim that Du “positions education in a vacuum free from the influences of the larger society” is mystifying; it’s difficult for me to understand how anyone who has actually read the article could say such a thing. Nearly every word in the article “positions education” in precisely the opposite manner.)

    Your analysis of the fundamental issues facing the Saint Paul (and other similar) School District(s) may be entirely cogent, but it’s difficult for me to credit your analysis on at least the foreground points presented here when your account of Du’s piece seems to me to diverge so significantly from what that piece actually states—and when you haven’t made much of an attempt to state a case for why she deserves to be convicted of the transgressions you accuse her of. At a minimum, an attempt to pin a “‘white savior’ism” label on a journalist who is—ahem—not white must necessarily, I would submit, show its work rather more carefully than this post does.

    1. Thank you for your comment Rieux. It is entirely possible I am off base with my analysis of Du’s article; could you cite, as I did, the pieces of the article that support your position, as you only reference the article?

      It is also worth pointing out that the melanin level of Du has no bearing on her ability to perpetuate the system of thought and its corresponding norms, only on her ability to benefit from them. Whiteness, as I have wrote on extensively, is much more than melanin level.

      Thank you for engaging.

      1. “[C]ould you cite, as I did, the pieces of the article that support your position, as you only reference the article?”
        It seems to me that the gist of my “position” is that you have provided significantly inadequate support for your characterizations of the article. The main thing I “reference” in making that claim is not Du’s article, but yours. I’d like to see you explain, for example, what specifically it is in Du’s article that leads you to assert that she intends for readers “to feel … contempt for the students causing this chaos[.]” I think that’s an awful calumny, one of several that you provide no support at all for in your post. I’d like to see the analysis underlying your (extraordinarily harsh) conclusions before showing you mine.
        “It is also worth pointing out that the melanin level of Du has no bearing on her ability to perpetuate the system of thought and its corresponding norms….”
        Indeed not, nor have I asserted otherwise. However, privilege (and specifically white privilege) being what it is, surely the fact that Du is not white is relevant to your accusation that she is pushing “‘white savior’ism.” It may not be impossible for a person of Du’s ethnic identity “to perpetuate th[at] system of thought and its corresponding norms,” but I hope it’s sufficiently evident that (1) she has somewhat less of an inherently vested interest in doing so than a white reporter would and (2) she is far less likely to suffer from the kind of race-privilege blindness that white people so routinely do—and, thus, that your surprising allegation that she is in fact pushing “‘white savior’ism” requires at least some kind of concrete support.
        “Whiteness, as I have wrote on extensively, is much more than melanin level.”
        Perhaps not—but your references to the “white savior,” coupled with (1) your failure to note Du’s actual status as a person of color and (2) the total absence, in your post, of any reference to the extensive section (it’s over 700 words long) in Du’s article examining the impact of current SPSD events on a particular group of communities of color, do not make for a pretty picture. Especially when, to my reading, the contents of that extensive section clash severely with a significant number of the ugly accusations (such as “Du also positions education in a vacuum free from the influences of the larger society”) that you level at the reporter. I would suggest that the troublingly binary analysis in this discussion isn’t coming from Du, but from you.

      2. Rieux, you claim, several times, that I am flatly lying in my analysis. You go as far as to claim that Du’s article directly discusses the things I claim she doesn’t. Now you are refusing to cite those passages? I am thinking specifically here where she discusses the influence of poverty.

        As far as your concern regarding the white savior claim, as it seems to be a deeply disturbing one to you, the fact that the teachers she cites are white, that she fails to cite the fact that over 90% of teachers in SPPS are white, and that she is advocating for a more strict discipline policy in order to protect those same teachers suggests, to me, that it will be white teachers that save the students of SPPS.

        I can only think that the 700 word section you are referring to is the section discussing the Hmong, am I correct? That section, as I read it, discussed why the Hmong are leaving SPPS not what it is like to be Hmong, or a person in color in general in SPPS. Do you believe that section illuminated the reality of students of color in SPPS, or how SPPS could move toward equity? I actually think there is an argument to be made that the Hmong section does more to stoke anti-black racism. It also borders on positioning Asians as the model -minority which is racist in and of itself.

        In reality you haven’t dealt directly, or significantly, with any of my claims: you quote my claims only to say “that’s not true” and that I misrepresent Du, but refuse to cite how I do that. Where they do that at?

      3. Ryan, After reading all of your rebuttals to Rieux I am left cold with your tone of superiority in trying over and over again to get your message out. The last comment on this page as of June 4th from Rich clinches it. We need a solution…talk about the solution. Tell me specifically how you are part of the solution.

  5. What we really want is a solution. Given that any group of humans large or small have a certain percentage that are not of the norm is what it is. Unfortunately adolescents do not have the ability to resolve their issues in an adult manner, which should not come as a surprise.
    The students and staff are all human beings deserving of respect. The students have needs and when we as teachers and parents better meet their needs the behaviors will decrease. The students need to feel valued and respected. All of this takes a considerable amount of time and energy, but the end result is a benefit everyone.

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