Internalized Racism and Positive Praise

My passion in life has intersected in a major way with my actual life lately: I’m trying to reconcile my passion for high quality, unsegregated education for all children with my acute need as a mother to find high-quality, unsegregated education for my son, who will be eligible for preschool next fall. This has been incredibly frustrating, as I have not been able to find schools that meet the performance standards that I have as well as the diversity levels that I crave.

I came home today, having been dazzled by a fantastic school, only to see an article about internalized racism on my Facebook newsfeed. A report by California’s Assembly Select Committee on the Status of African American Men and Boys found that by kindergarten, 1 in 4 African American boys believe that they will fail school.  By kindergarten.

Internalized racism is real and is something that we, still, as a community and a nation do not want to talk about. Young boys, from the beginning of their lives until the time they start schooling are hearing such negative language around their own potential education that a quarter of them have given up before they’ve even begun. At least, in California, but you and I know that if those numbers are in California, they most likely hold true (or worse) in other communities around the country. 

I was outraged when I read the article, which is only a snippet of the report. There are even more alarming statistics, but we won’t know about them until later this week.

And in my outrage, I thought about my sons and I thought about the school that I visited. I remembered something interesting that I remarked on to both my tour guide at the time and my husband later in the day: The lack of constant positive praise in the classrooms that I visited. Teachers acknowledged accomplishment, but there wasn’t a lot of congratulations or “good job!” or “you did it!” whenever children were looking for praise after accomplishing a task. Indeed, teachers commented “I like your use of color” or “I see that you did that!” but not the positive praise that I was used to in my own former classroom or what I say to my sons when they do something. I was told that this fosters more intrinsic value for the work that students do: They learn to do things for their own growth and attainment, less for the extrinsic positive reaction or reward given to them by adults. Adults are not the authority in education, they are the guides. It was a very interesting thing.

Thinking of these two major concepts in my day, I came to an epiphany: The language that we, as adults, use about educating children of color in this country is appalling. Even the most well-meaning leaders, up to even the Federal level of government, use such negative language about the education of young children of color that we ought to be ashamed. I’m even guilty of this: I used to say that same thing–“You are so lucky to attend a school like this instead of a school where, statistically, you would have failed otherwise.” Etc etc. When you see the national news or hear reports out of conferences and symposiums, talk is always about the great rescue out of the “poverty cycle” or the  cycle of undereducation. That we are going into these neighborhoods and uplifting with our work, because otherwise, these children are practically guaranteed to fail.

Even we as mothers do it. “You are going to do better than I did. You are going to make better choices than I did” or “I’m not going to let you get into trouble like I did. You are going to get your education. You are going to appreciate it and do well, better than me.” I’ve heard it time and time again. Either in teacher conferences or in casual conversations between parent and child in various settings. I even heard it from my own parents, both college educated and sending me to one of the best public school districts in the country: “You, as a Black child, must work 3 times harder at everything.” The 3-times rule was something myself and of my peers of color heard.

So you are either told you’ll fail by default, you’ll fail without being rescued, you’ll fail without extra effort.

So much negative language. Each well meaning, trying to uplift, but with such pressure and negativity.

Success, for children of color, is not normal, not expected. Suburban white children never hear this sort of thing. Success and successful language and expectations are default in white households. So much so that there is no language around successNo parameters, no milestones in the way that there are in households of color. That’s extremely powerful. Success as default means silence around it: it’s expected. It’s not demanded, it’s just normal. Success receives a shrug. Indeed, there are suburban white households that are actually concerned about the ramifications of too much positive praise, so much so that teachers are trained at elite schools, like the one I visited today, not to praise kids.

That’s deep.

So what are my take-aways from the day? I spent my morning wondering (out loud) if my son would be the “token” Black kid at an elite private school. I’m going to bed wondering if I’m the one who will deliver and perpetuate the tokenism.

I wonder also how we, as mothers to children of color, can provide success as normal. Is it responsible for us to be silent about success? To not overly praise when we see success? Should we not put on a pillar the highly successful among us if we understand that the potential consequence could be the stifling of their own journey right at the gate? Do we take away the intrinsic value of success and learning by pushing our children to “beat the odds” not become a “statistic” and whatnot? What then does positive praise look like for the young child of color? Especially young boys of color?

2 Comments Add yours

  1. IzzieJ says:

    Good insights! I hope you can connect with cultural supports for your children. -Izzie J

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