When a misunderstood photo launches debate about what it means to be a ‘student of color’

An interesting thing happened the other day after my recent blog post on boys of color and the gender gap was shared on an African-American news site. The post sparked a debate – not around the article itself – but about the photo that accompanied it. The photo featured an Indian woman, standing in what looks to be a lecture hall with other Indian and Middle Eastern women. Several comments pointed this out and seemed to be confused about whether I, the author, was black.

To be honest, I’m not sure some of the commenters actually read the article since I think it was pretty clear that my kids and I are black. My photo is at the bottom after all. But given that my post specifically talked about black and Hispanic males, and I am a black woman, I agree I would have chosen a different photo.

However, what struck me the most was that folks started to debate what a “true” person of color is and how that impacts education and achievement. While some noted that the woman in the photo is still a person of color who will likely face discrimination, others were adamant that the photo was inappropriate because an Indian boy would never experience the same challenges as black boys. Their point was, while an Indian person may have dark skin, when it comes to inequities in education, it’s the culture that makes a difference, not just the skin color. In other words, all people of color are not treated the same.

I think this is unfortunate, but true, especially in our schools. Subtle, everyday cultural biases in classrooms have been shown to significantly impact academic success for students of color – and I do mean ALL colors.

My husband and I visited a suburban New York school the other day where we are considering enrolling our kids. When we asked about the amount of homework students are given, the administrator giving us the tour said they do get some homework, but “the Asian parents often say it’s not enough.” She was quick to say she didn’t want to single anyone out, but explained there is a cultural difference in how much homework is considered too much.

Um, ok? Sure, there is certainly anecdotal evidence about super-strict Asian parents, like the Tiger Mom. And Asian countries do dominate in global education rankings. Presumably, that’s not because Asian kids are playing video games when they get home from school every day.

But still, that’s a pretty dangerous over-generalization (especially for an educator to say to a parent out loud!). And what exactly was her point? It made me wonder how far those types of opinions extend and whether that school had different expectations of some kids, based simply on their ethnicity.

Cultural biases like that – when educators expect higher performance from certain students because of their race, income, or other factors – unfairly confine students and can be just as toxic as the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that many black and Hispanic children face. Study after study has shown that even when students had equivalent abilities, teachers consistently had lower expectations for black males. And report after report shows that stereotypically smart ethnic groups are plagued with higher suicide rates because of the unmanageable pressure placed on them.

Many teachers don’t even realize they are treating their students differently based on race or think anything is wrong with that. They don’t see it as discrimination, but rather, tailoring their approach to individual students. The problem occurs when their approach is based on preconceived notions about students’ abilities that keep high-performing kids from reaching their potential.

There are teacher training programs that are beginning to address this very issue. For example, Teach for America, which trains and places college graduates in some of the nation’s most troubled schools, has a program focusing on cultural competency. They know that even the most well-intentioned teachers carry unconscious biases, but the key is to prepare them before they even set foot in the classroom.

We also have to push for schools to establish and be held accountable to high standards for all kids. I’m not talking about Common Core and testing. I’m talking about student-focused curriculums, where we instill a desire to learn, support their social and emotional growth, and provide them all with the resources they need to be successful in the future. Every child is entitled to those standards, regardless of what they look like or where they come from.

Also, while diversity often feels like an empty buzzword, educators and parents cannot allow this to not be a priority. My husband noticed there were no African-American teachers on staff at the school we visited.  Unacceptable. This is not just important for the black students, but for all of the students. If children are to be exposed to different types of ideas, they need to be exposed to different types of people. It’s not rocket science.

So, despite the fact that most of the conversation around my previous post was generated by an unrelated photo, I’m glad it opened this dialogue. I agree, the experiences of black, brown, and other people of color are not all the same, but our children are all subject to implicit biases. It’s our job as parents and educators to keep this issue at the forefront and make sure it doesn’t negatively impact the way our children are taught.

As a parent, I will continue to make sure my sons’ teachers are looking beneath the surface to engage, motivate and challenge them in the way they deserve.

What do you think?
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Marisa Grimes-Galiber

Marisa Grimes-Galiber

Marisa is a public relations executive and mother of two boys, ages 6 and 3. She has lived for 15 years in Westchester County, New York, where she is learning to navigate the education system to ensure her sons and all children receive the quality education they deserve.

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