Home Career Black students don’t need your “tough love.” They need compassion.

Black students don’t need your “tough love.” They need compassion.


In the first person, Chalkbeat features personal essays by teachers, students, parents, and others who think and write about public education.

It is time to address a harsh reality that most prefer not to discuss: More than a century and a half after the abolition of slavery, the dehumanization of black children continues in classrooms across the country.

It’s not only that low expectations stereotypesand black youth adulthood which undermines their physical, emotional and academic well-being. A large gap in empathy also threatens their lives.

White children are generally treated with more trust, compassion, and less discipline. Black kids are usually confronted strict discipline, observationand aggressive enforcement cast as “tough love”.

This empathy deficit is not only due to white teachers who, through implicit and explicit biases, believe that black children need an aggressive hand. Black teachers sometimes give harsher warnings to their students of color to teach them to survive, the result of hard-won lessons passed down through the ages.

We have seen this reality time and time again, both as longtime social workers and educators, and in our own lives. But we’ve learned that black kids don’t need “toughness.” Many of them already have a difficult life. They need an abundance of love backed by empathy and compassion.

Dr. Barbara Milton: When I was growing up, my mother and grandmother were serious and with the best of intentions about making sure I succeeded in the dominant white culture. At the first sign of tears I was scolded: do not cry! Tears show weakness! You can’t be weak in a white world!

Another warning: never look white people in the eye. It’s too risky and can cause trouble. And no matter how hard he worked, he heard: Don’t be lazy! Black people have to work twice as hard! Show them you can handle any task!

They thought this tough love would give me the armor I needed to persevere and overcome the many racisms that would try to hold me back. It worked, but the cost of emotionally hardening and following these rules was too high. I took on an identity that wasn’t me.

Now, as an adult, I have had to unlearn the hard lessons of love and find the tender love and compassion I need to heal and be resilient in a world where racism continues to try to destroy the power of hearts, minds, and souls.

I am grateful for the way my mother prepared me for a difficult world. But now I know there is another way to uplift black youth. I use empathy and compassion strategies not only in my personal life, but also professionally in my work with youth and families from marginalized communities.

My clients have often commented that their encounters with me were different because they felt seen, heard and valued as people. I knew that my position in working with them was in stark contrast to their encounters with other, mostly white, professionals. Love and respect have become the cornerstone of my work with black youth and families.

Dr. Deborah Brooks Lawrence: I was one of the few black kids in my school. For the most part, everyone left me alone, and that was fine with my fifth grade. For a class assignment, I made a painting that caught my principal’s attention. He saw this and asked, “Who did this creative work?” I said, “I did.” He argued suspiciously, “That’s fine, but I don’t think you did it because you’re uncultured.” My teacher didn’t say a word.

When youth of color fall, schools can’t catch them, instead doling out tough love.

While the language may be different today, versions of this script still work for black youth. When teachers don’t believe in their black students, it’s frustrating and debilitating.

If we want black children to be able to process these experiences, they need to feel the safety of comfort and compassion. When it happened to me, my mother said, “You have to get used to it and just get on with it.” But compassion is what helps build that resilience.

Dr. Milton and Brooks Lawrence: Often, black youth create a tough facade in response to the misunderstanding of their lives and the racism they face in and out of school. At the same time, as they watch black people being killed by the police, they get the message that it’s safer to be invisible.

Like our educators, well-intentioned black teachers mentor youth of color to protect them from the cost of challenging or “offending” white authority. It’s a tightrope walk, and many young black men lose their balance somewhere between hyper-vigilance and inner turmoil. Yet, unfortunately, when youth of color fall, schools fail to catch them, instead doling out tough love.

It is time for all educators to treat black youth humanely. Look into behaviors and attitudes that at first glance may seem arrogant and even antisocial, but are most likely manifestations of abilities that do not have an easy outlet.

Using Ghana’s Sankofa, which means “to go back and offer something useful,” working with struggling students of color. Listen using patience, not punishment. Help them build on their inherited wisdom and resilience. If you do, you will change a life and maybe even save one.

Dr. Milton and Brooks Lawrence are the authors “Inherited Wisdom: Drawing on the Lessons of Formerly Enslaved Ancestors to Uplift Black Youth” Cognella Press.

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