Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Is it Cool to Be Black AND Smart?
I'm home today cleaning the house. (Boxes everywhere, kitchen to be renovated and therefore in disarray, furniture strewn about without order - THIS MUST CHANGE TODAY!)
TangoMan posted a few days ago:
I'd be very interested in reading your thoughts on whether you think it is possible to fully embrace African-American culture and still excel academically. How is culture shaped, if not by one person, or one family, at a time? Can certain practices or beliefs be abandoned without feeling like it is a rejection of heritage?
Sadly, as an African American woman I have NO good answer to this question. My only way to approach this is to look at an extreme. Take one family member who is a brilliant engineer. I watch him manage how he is perceived. He works HARD to be perceived as cool in settings of African Americans (my perception). And I can think of several others who do the same. Interestingly, he also works very hard among non-African Americans, but the strategy is different. He takes the subtle insults or assumptions (that's more common) and skillfully turns them around with ease (with both groups). He has obviously learned that its important to do this. On the other hand, it doesn't necessarily help if you are a complete dummy. There is alot of pressure to 'fit in'.
What concerns me is how we teach children to deal with this reality. They won't feel like it is a "rejection of heritage" on their own. Others will tell them they act white (or sound white, or is their boyfriend/girlfriend white etc.) It will be consistent and upleasant over a long period of time. At the same time not all, but some white Americans will reject them as well. LO's Montessori school director, pulled me aside a few months ago. We received the brochure, we got a tour, we got the costs and decided to physically sign LO up. She carefully wrote down an itemized list of all preschool expenses because she said she wasn't sure of my "financial situation". (BTW, I don't think I'm so scary looking, but it WAS a bad hair day.) Not good and not so uncommon. AND SHE'S RUNNING THE SHOW. But she is a human being living within the institution. On top of all that, it is an unwritten social rule that you are not supposed to talk about race in polite conversation, except for the most benign references. But NO EXCUSES - it is what it is and I'm obviously still learning how to manage it all as we go.
My hope is that LO will learn to be confident, smart and kind in spite of all the things he will have to encounter as a human being in this world. It is yet another reason to homeschool part-time or full-time to really make sure your kids are prepared with LIFE SKILLS. Quite frankly, that's why I am working so hard to make sure LO is exceptionally prepared, and that's why I'll work so hard to make sure he has ample exposure to his community. And that's also why I'm spending way too much time thinking about it. I'm a mother after all. And he's my baby.
Dr. Ben Carson's site
Hope this helps!
What's cool though? I think I know but I'm really too far removed from the situation to be certain.
Is it within your power to create within your family a definition of cool that is supportive of success and a celebration of intellect that may be at odds with the definition of cool that is predominant in the African-American community?
Your Little One, can he become The One, to stretch a metaphor from the Matrix, can he earn respect with his African-American extended family and peers that doesn't involve him having to change to meet their terms but them accepting his "odd" values? Can he become a virus of sorts that shows it's OK to have a different value system?
Look, you probably see me dancing around the issue so let me be more straightforward. On this particular question I think that African-American community values, or customs, are a problem for young boys. Obviously this isn't an original insight but it's not often talked about in polite company - however your son's future is at stake and that's certainly more important than social nicities. Now, the problem is what are you going to do about it? Can you moderate just slightly without making any hard decisions and hope that all will turn out OK? Or do you need to do something that insures a wide margin of error in terms of changing the culture, or environment, your son is raised in as well as changing the values he drinks in every day? How much of the decisions will involve a direct rejection of the values that you picked up?
We could be talking minor points here, like those mentioned in the NYT link I dropped a few days ago, such as how White families tend to read more to their young children while Black families tended to emphasize singing songs. Sure, it's minor, but at such young ages brain development responds differently to different types of stimuli. So does personality. Or it could be more major value changes. Everything one does in life has an effect of some sort. Perhaps it might involve selecting your son's peers for him at this early age, with an eye to children you see who can reinforce the lessons and values that you're stressing at home. Child #1 has less playtime because he has to go and read a story to his parents before dinner isn't as much fun as the child who can play longer because he has no such duty. If all your son sees is other children who have these uncool chores to do, LOL, then his peer group tends to shape him and he doesn't feel left out. However, as parents how important is it to you that his peer-group be reflective, either in whole or in part, of his cultural heritage?
Anyways, I've rambled on enough.
"Now, the problem is what are you going to do about it? Can you moderate just slightly without making any hard decisions and hope that all will turn out OK? Or do you need to do something that insures a wide margin of error in terms of changing the culture, or environment, your son is raised in as well as changing the values he drinks in every day?"
O.K. All I can think to do is expose him to variety of environments and put forth 'rules' that together instill the cultural values I want him to have. No one environment has even half of what I want for him. (Is this typical for a mother)? It's an important point though because it implies that I have to define the key lessons/values I want for LO - which is what I should do if I REALLY care about long term parenting. Let's see.. I want him to be grounded (i.e. comfortable in his own skin), kind, smart, and global. By that I mean someone who has seen the world and is comfortable in lots of cultures. It gives you something that makes you a better person I think.) I'm trying to do that with the volunteerism, exposure to other ethnicities, and strict homeschooling (for now). The jury's out as to what the model will look like in a year or even a week from now. I'm open.
OK, now which of the values in your home and in your culture are aiding in these goals (no change needed,) are value neutral (conscious decision is needed on whether to change the value or not,) or are hindering your goals (change is called for)?
We know from the pyschological literature that people have a tendency to procrastinate, especially on long term issues. It's simply easier to put off for another day the hard choices. Yet, from the neuroscience literature we know that brain development starts early and it's difficult to overwrite development that's already taken place. As for culture, values are picked up early in life, and then reinforced throughout the later years.
I think back to that "Carleton" quote and think it speaks to the issue, even though it caricatures the problem.
I'm reminded of a study that looked at two categories of children raised in alcoholic families. One group of children conciously rejected those values and didn't drink at all. The others drank, and a good many themselves were alcoholics. Now what the study found was that those who never drank had a hard time fitting into social situations that involved drinking. They felt uncomfortable and ill at ease and like outsiders because they didn't relate to the changing consciousness going on around them. Even when they were with the same social group and everyone was sober, the drinking culture infused the personalities of the social drinkers and they felt a bit like odd-men out.
The children who didn't reject that lifestyle fit right into the social scene, and had good feelings of identity. Of course they had to contend with the problems that their drinking brought into their lives, but in terms of social connectedness they related very well to other drinkers.
Now, if I recall correctly, there was an ethnicity component to this study, where the drinking was integral to cultural identity. The children who were drinkers had deep ties to the ethnic networks. The children who rejected the alcoholism of their parents had a very high out-migration rate from their ethnic networks and they sought new networks and cultures to consciously adopt.
Now, I wouldn't be surprised if they did a follow-on study looking at the next generation of children and found that the children of the out-migration group had lower incidences of alcoholism and lower feelings of social outcastness because they would be in a different group with different cultural values. These grandchildren, so to speak, would have benefited from the hardship their parents endured by breaking the cultural cycle that they rejected and starting a new one.
The grandchildren of the traditional group will probably continue the cycle with the exception of the few out-migrators in the new generation.
Something's going on with black male culture - that's no secret. Sure it could all discrimination from the dominant culture but I've got loads of studies that say that that's not the sole cause. I don't see how one can have it both ways, you know, embrace the culture and have little risk of picking up some of that negative vibe. Those out-migrators in the study had a generational hiccup. They made their choices for themselves and endured the hardship and cultural dislocations, but their children, I would think, would benefit from those decisions and sacrifices.
Anyways, I through that out. I don't know really how relevant it is but it is one data point to consider.
I teach future teachers about race, class, equity. Most of the future teachers are white and middle-class, and I am always a little surprised about their lack of knowledge about race and class. BUt I will say that most come into Ed SChool with really good hearts and desires, and really intending to do good work. They want to find ways to educate all kids of all races, even those who are more challenging than your LO.
What I learn from reading your writings is that you struggle too on the other end. And when I teach next semester, I may use some of your writing in my class to try to get my students to be in your head. I want them to look out their first classroom of kids from all races, and realize that they should assume nothing, but realize that there is race in the class.
It's hard to explain in a comment. But keep writing, please. And remember that many white people are not sure what to do either. Not because they are evil, but because they are ignorant about race.
I believe in my heart that this can be helped. Thanks.
grown up more as you wish.
I believe Thomas Sowell made the link-up to the old white redneck culture here. Because there "book-learning" was also ridiculed. They didn't call being educated "acting white", of course, but generally there was the idea that someone was getting above everybody else, or thought they were better than where they came from. I grew up in the South, and there are plenty of people who still have this attitude. So most of the learned people leave that area and go on to life elsewhere.
It's tough for kids. I was lucky in that I didn't care at all what the other kids thought, as all I cared about was my parents' approval. But my sisters got hit harder. The popularity and acceptance game is one that you just can't win.
No, it's not easy.
Anyway, I'm going to add you to my bookmarks. I'm also in NYC, and we're homeschooling our kids (note that the older one is 2, so this is normal for this age). I'm interested to see what kind of things you do, so we can get some ideas from you.
I find it interesting that we are all so interested and concious about race and who is cool, and awareness of cultural values. I find it interesting because I am now VERY aware of these issues, and am trying to raise my children to be conciencious and comfortable in a variety of environments as well. Yet I look at how I grew up in a small town in Canada. In my school (both elementary and high school) we had one african canadian in the town. He was smart and he was one of the most popular, well loved, friendly guys in town. My group of friends included a child who was Asian, adopted by white parents, east indians, italian, filipino, and russian. I never thought this was unusual, and never gave a second thought to it, until I was 20 and in university where I found out this wasn't normal. I look at my child who is in school with a boy from isreal, sri lanka, korea, japan, the pacific islands, and iraq. She thinks this is normal. She doesn't look at these children any differently, (other than asking a quick question about the bindi). So why and how does the association of black/white, you/me, us/them become an issue? I have never gone to school in the USA, though having lived there I am aware of the cultural divide and the history behind it. However, I dare to say that in not recognizing difference through classification/race, but in that we are all different, you deny an important part of cultural understanding and history, but is the conciousness of difference worth it? Could we not then remove ourselves from being classified and having to stand within a box of preprescribed notions, and just get on with being who we are?
It would be so great if I could start a(n affordable) school here in New York. Just between the taxation and regulation, I don't see it happening. Perhaps I could start out with some kind of homeschooling co-op around here? I don't know.
Anyway, Vernice, I'll be reading you. As your son is older than my daughters, I'm hoping you come across helpful resources, homeschooling groups, whatever before I do. I've had a tough time finding stuff, as so much is centered around the public or private school systems.
By the way, I'm a die-hard math person, and would love to turn more people on to math, so if you have any questions about various math topics feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org). I know all sorts of fun math books, about non-traditional math subjects... logic puzzles, geometry, etc. Perhaps above where your son is now, but you know -- that doesn't hurt. My dad gave me math books well before I was ready to fully understand, and I did what I could when I could. I learned most of my math at home with Dad, though I went to some excellent public schools growing up.
As for anonymous...I don't know what to say. I think the whole race thing has a long and painful history in the United States. It would be great if all Americans could grow up in the enviornment you did in Canada. It would solve alot of the problem. Unfortunately, the vast, majority of Americans don't. That kind of environment would go a long way torward breaking down barriers.
I think the site is a great resource for parents. Of course, I'm neither a parent nor a mathematician; I just hang out there because it's a fun & informative place to discuss math and math education. Thus far, I haven't been kicked out yet.
Lots of parents think they want gifted kids, but they really don't. A genuinely gifted kid has unique needs that the school system generally can't/won't provide. Feeding a gifted kid's brain is WORK. Most people just want to SAY their kids are gifted.
I spent my entire childhood struggling to understand why I couldn't be both popular and smart. It never occurred to me to hide my abilities, even if other people thought it made them look bad. Now I've come to the conclusion that you can't have both without compromising your integrity. Better to be smart and genuine than popular and fake. "Man looks on the outside, but God looks on the heart."
I see a lot of myself in my oldest daughter. But because I homeschool her, I find that she's much less concerned about others' opinions of her than I ever was. (Well, for now, at least. She's only 6.)
Since I became a Christian, I've abandoned all kinds of mainstream beliefs and practices. Homeschooling is only one example. Is that a rejection of certain societal values? Yes, of course. But which is better to pursue -- truth and virtue, or culture?
Not being African-American, I have a hard time understanding why any culture's values should be swallowed whole. Is it part of the culture to be more loyal to the larger community than to one's own family? What I mean is, are there a lot of bright AA kids whose parents won't encourage them to achieve for fear of a backlash from the larger community?
I appreciate the honesty of your comments. I can feel that there is alot behind your words. Let's see if I can attempt to address some of your questions. I DON'T think cultural values should be swallowed whole, but at the same time, there is nothing like feeling rejection from your own culture, an identity group which also largely defines your experience in your own country. And invariably, you leave the safety of your family to go out into the world. To answer your last question, I don't believe most parents would actively discourage their kids from performing in school. It's much more subtle than that..
But I think the biggest point is that none of these issues can really be looked at in isolation. They are not mutually exclusive. They are all mixed up together: being smart, being black in America, not being mainstream, dealing with issues around class.
The BEST defense - I agree- is the strength of the extended family, faith and smarts to make the best of the world which IS NOT FAIR! As I mother, I tailor the protection, the armor, I offer my son to fit what I believe he will need to combat the struggles he's most likely to meet. And love him.
Thanks for responding. I'm sorry if I was rambling -- I had several hobbit-sized interruptions while I was typing. :-)
I think I understand what you're saying about feeling rejection from the very arena where you ought to feel most accepted.
I re-read your original post and I have a bunch of Stupid White Girl questions...
TangoMan asked about abandoning certain practices or beliefs while holding on to AA culture. It sounds like shorthand for a lot of things that you know intuitively, but just go over my head. I hear phrases like "culture" and "heritage" all the time, and they sound mysterious to me, as an outsider. Can you put more flesh on the bones for me?
You gave the example of your relative who was trying to be perceived as cool around other African Americans. Can you describe to me what that looks like? I mean, put me in the room with the guy and tell me what I would see and hear him do.
Here's another one that I just know I'm going to flub in print: What kinds of things are important to you as an African American that are different from mainstream white America? For example, "Whites tend to do A because they value B, while African Americans tend to do C in the same situation because they value D more than B." Does that make any sense at all?
Which aspects of your heritage are you striving to embrace, and which aspects are you letting go of? (If you've addressed this elsewhere on your blog, accept my apologies. I've only read one or two posts so far.)
If I sound ignorant, well, it's because I am. :-) Trying to remedy that.
Oh, BTW, I second Independent George's recommendation of Kitchen Table Math. It's one of my daily visits. There's no way they'd kick him out -- he's got too much to contribute. Except if he suddenly turns around and starts extolling the virtues of Everyday Math and Trailblazers, hee hee hee.
Another good place to go to discuss curricula is The Well-Trained Mind website. I post at their message boards regularly (http://www.welltrainedmind.com/activeboards.php). There are some very wise and experienced parents over there, and a few goofballs like me. :-D
As Gilda Radner would say, "Never mind!"
OK, here's another example. Let's say I moved to China and learned Mandarin. And let's say my accent, knowledge of modern sayings etc is "neo-native". Still, I never fit in. My body language, the way I smile, the way I interact or handle a crisis always give me away. And so part of what it means for me to 'live' in China is to feel VERY comfortable ALWAYS being an outsider. And that - eventually- does something weird to your psychie. I may even develop some skill around the comfort of being an outsider. At first, I might get mad when people look at me like I'm an alien, or as I wait extra long for service or become super proactive at forming relationships. Then I realize that makes things MUCH worse (since folks are afraid of me anyway.) Let's say I get soooo good at mastering the behavior and language that folks admire me. But maybe sometimes I don't want to have to try so hard for intimacy. Maybe, I'm longing to meet someone with whom I have some kind of instant connection I don't have to work for. Or maybe I just want someone to get my jokes. Maybe I want to remember what it's like to roll around the floor in hysterics or laugh with my feet up in there air.
So above I'm trying to imply the very subtle feeling of what I mean by African American culture. It shouldn't be foreign. It's partly about knowlege, and behaviors, really more about the more subtle experiences. I'm not sure if that helps. I've got to think about what part of culture might need to be 'let go' tomorrow.
It's late. Now I'm rambling...I'll be thinking more clearly tomorrow.