Respectable Me: Education, Race, and Dignity

Thanks to my friend Rod Thomas that has an amazing new post on this very topic and who has taught me so much about this subject.

Yet, knowing about Respectability Politics is one thing, experiencing it is another. Rod shared a story a few weeks ago about his experience while at a memorial for victims of racial profiling and police murders. I attended this event with Rod, along with three youth (Jamaican, bi-racial, and Mexican)  from a program that I run in the community. After the service, we went to get some pancakes at Old South Pancake House, and this is where the fun begins. We all started talking about the service, and Rod inquired the youth on their own reflections. Rod, like myself, is loud and when he started talking many white patrons in the restaurant turned and started and it got very quiet. I thought for sure that these teenagers would be embarrassed, but they LOVED IT! They loved Rod, asking me the next week if they could hang out with him, because “He’s loud” and “like what he had to say”. Rod was openly discussing the problem of white supremacy, justice, hoodies, police brutality, and old candles. In public. At a pancake shop.

Another eye-opening night with Rod was when we went to a local brewery and wore hoodies the entire time we ate and talked. We received horrible service and were not talked to like other patrons, but the next time we went a few months later, we wore more “respectable” clothing and were with another white guy, and we received better service. With a smile.

The last experience was going to a high school football game at a private school in uptown Dallas. It was a mildly cool night, and I decided to wear a hoodie to keep my bald head warm. I really couldn’t understand why I was receiving smug looks and nervous behavior, until I realized I was wearing paint-stained jeans, with a black hoodie. I wasn’t wearing hipster clothing or frat boy attire.

As I have reflected on these experiences, I have come to understand only in a small way why Respectability Politics is so detrimental to any person of color, but especially youth. The three youth that I spoke about loved what Rod represents, a young black man, whose funny,  intelligent, outspoken, and who respected their opinions. He didn’t need to be whispering quietly in a mostly white restaurant about white supremacy, he shared his opinions loudly and openly. Rod didn’t need to wear a suit and a bow-tie to gain the respect of them or anyone else, he simply wore his Marvel Avengers’ t-shirt and jeans. That’s why I wanted them to meet him, an inspirational leader not afraid or in need of anyone’s approval, just comfortable and proud of who he is and what he believes in.

More youth of color need to hear and experience that. They need to hear that they are not only accepted, but they are important and vital to the community. Not the future them, or the version of them that Respectability wants them to be, just them now. However, they dress, however, they talk, however they act, they deserve to be valued, noticed and heard.

White supremacy invades the sacred spaces of people of color and tells them if they want to be worth anything that they need to measure up to the standard of white culture.

White supremacy has invaded school systems as well and perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline. Students (largest % racial minorities) that are sent to alternative schools or in school suspensions are more than likely to be put forced to wear uniforms of khaki pants, white collard polo shirt tucked in with a belt, and if it’s cold a grey sweatshirt with no hood.  The end goal is to steal away individuality and force upon them some privileged idea of what a respectable person dresses like while at school. Knowingly or unknowingly, these sorts of reforms by school systems prepare students for the feeling of incarceration. These types of school also follow such rules as walking in straight lines (some schools even practice this over and over) as a group on certain colored tiles, isolation for the “worst” students, earned points for good behavior and release for good behavior, with full-time police officers patrolling their behavior. Schools districts also hire monitors with little or no power to instill fear in students, wearing (security guards) attire that resembles a patrol officer.

The last point might be the scariest and also the greatest example of policing students and conditioning them to a police state mentality. Protecting a school from violent threats is one thing, but calling in a police officer to handle a verbal exchange between a teacher and student or to “scare straight” a student is not necessary. Also, tasing and pepper spraying students while in school? Yes, it happens. Our first line of defense with at-risk students has come to threatening them with a police officer. Teenagers will be teenagers, a good reading from any child/youth development book can help anyone understand the behaviors of any teen, not just an at-risk teenager.

Respectability Politics coupled with White Supremacy wants the youth of color to talk white, dress white, act white, and learn white. Yet this standard still isn’t enough, Even pre-kinder students of color are suspended at a higher rate than their white classmates.

So are all teachers racist?  Are all administrators purposely making the school like prison? No, because these are examples of asking the wrong questions. The right question would be: how are our finest institutions (public education) complicit in systematic injustices? The answer must first be voiced by those that have been affected the most, young boys/girls/teens of color that can share their stories with us. We MUST listen to their pain, frustrations, and anger, as well as keenly listen for the positives they have experience from society and school and build upon those.  I am willing to bet those young people will talk about positive interactions with teachers, mentors, coaches, or police officers that have treated them with respect when they dressed, talked, and acted like themselves. Without having to change or be someone who they are not.

I am not saying young people don’t need direction or guidance. What I am saying is that young people of color need to be valued first for who they are, where they come from, what they’ve been through, and where they want to go.

I work alongside youth on a daily basis, the majority of which are racial minorities. I’ve found that an effective program is 99%  just showing up, listening, and giving guidance if asked for help. This is done by creating a space that values their individuality and accepts them into the “Family”, as they call it. The family is very accepting and values new family members, although new members might get roasted on at first as a sign of love and acceptance, and as a way of showing how lighthearted their space is. Expectations are made by them: try to make good grades, act right, no cursing. I’ve not set a rule yet, that they haven’t made first and initiated.

How can schools reduce suspensions and discipline problems? (Hint, it’s not by changing the students first.) Districts must hire principals, teachers, counselors, aides, secretaries, and janitors that exhibit qualities of understanding the dynamic of community and belonging. Research studies show that creating a good school environment helps reduce behavioral problems. Of course, this requires a paradigm shift in the current education mentality of hiring someone who can prep for the standardized test. Hiring militant admins can produce prison reform tailored schools, but do they produce well-rounded and confident students? Is our end goal of education to produce another cog in the system that acts respectable according to white cultural standards?

How can communities reduce arrest rates and imprisonments of our youngest of color? (Hint, it’s not by changing young people first) Communities must realistically look at programs that might target racial minorities, the poor, and any marginalized groups. If there are a lack of safe spaces for them to gather, spaces must be created. All communities that are intentional and real about valuing youth of color, must have youth-led councils and committees that make decisions in the community.  When youth voice is valued, then misunderstandings of respectably by those in power are open for debate and change.

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