Elevating the Black Male: Strategies to become a more culturally competent teacher

As I look back at my days as a Boston Public Schools student, and as I look at the multitudes of black male students still being excluded from the educational process today, I’m left to believe that we are dealing with nothing short of a tragic epidemic. As a seventh grader in the early 1990s, I remember a white male teacher dragging me to the office telling me: “Do you think I’m gonna put up with your s_ _ _ all year you f_ _ _ _ _’ punk?” Fast forward to 2009 and I’m speaking to a black female principal in DC. She sees one of her students from a distance and says: “He’s really gonna make a great prisoner one day.” Here we have 2 different cities, over 20 years apart, 2 different races, and 2 different genders, but one overwhelming similarity—low expectations towards black male students.

My belief is that if you develop strategies to reach your black males, you learn techniques to reach all of your students. Below are some strategies that will assist you in improving not only the participation of your black males who may be struggling, but ultimately give you a diverse range of tools to pull from in order to make for a dynamic teaching experience for all of your students!

  • Have high expectations for all of your students and communicate them. Many teachers fail to communicate that they expect all students to succeed in class. By default, there are students who are going to feel as if they cannot succeed. Whether it’s by their placement in the back of the class, their watching the same students get chosen to speak, or even the different levels of discipline for different students, your message will be communicated one way or the other. If you truly believe everyone can succeed, show them!
  • Increase your knowledge about their history. One game I play when I conduct my trainings is asking teachers to name 10 black male famous athletes, actors, and musicians. In less than 30 seconds, we have the answers. However, when asked to name 10 famous black male (living) doctors, scientists, or authors, the list often is never completed. If you widen your knowledge of black male success, you will not only develop a better picture of what is possible for your students, but you will also help them craft an image of themselves that is greater than what society tells them they can be. What you know is what you’ll show!
  • Utilize a wide range of equitable practices in order to involve all students. Rather than calling on the same students, utilize random calling popsicle sticks drawn from a cup so every student knows they could be called upon at any time. Students are more likely to be prepared if they believe they’ll actually be asked to participate. You can also have random grouping so students do not get comfortable with the same students. Lastly, remember that every student does not always learn solely by written exams. Develop additional ways that students can present their knowledge be it through oral presentations, musical interpretations, or group projects. Much of these practices can be found in books like The Skillful Teacher by Saphier, et al.

If you make a dedicated effort to utilize the steps above and just have a mindset that, as Donna Graves states, there’s not an achievement gap but a teaching gap, you will turn yourself into a teacher with the ability to incorporate not only your black male students, but all students irrespective of race, creed, color, gender, or religion! Teach on!     

The New Struggle (lyrics)

I didn’t live at the time of martin & Malcolm
Read about their struggles kept wonderin how come
How could one deny another’s human rights?
How could you lynch a brother right at first sight?
I’m like damn, is this what we call human-ity?
Surprised more didn’t die from insanity
But now in 2017 I see history rhymin’
Everywhere I look I see my civil rights dyin
Tryin to keep a positive outlook
But then I turn on the news see Sandy hook
Go and talk to a school and they got no books
Tried to see my man Malik but his visa’s took
Hate crimes on the rise, I close my eyes
In my minds the only place they care for black lives
Cause alllivesdontmatter when our blood gets splattered
Whether we got phds or homeless clothes tattered
They buck is in the head spillin out our views
Then they broadcast it on the nightly news
Remindin you and me they don’t care about us
Declining youth jobs, jails disappearin us
Mr. President I heard you wanna drain the swamp
But it’s the little fish every day getting’ stomped
You and your boy bannon got eyes like they cannons
Shootin down our dreams but you’re not understandin
I used to believe in the public schools
Despite its flaws knew it could be something new
But under Betsy let’s see I think what’ll be
Is the death of the system for you and me
They wanna privatize schools privatize our lives
Prolly privatize air we breathe before our eyes
While they keep lyin’ with #alternativefacts
Trump sotckin up his staff with alternative blacks
Oil pipelines they wanna shove down our throats
While his cabinet gets richer man we better stay woke
Cause why we sleepin they creepin into all we do
Kickin’ out immigrants even legal ones too
But if it’s gonna change its up to me and you
To get up and resist whether muslim or jew
Republican, democrat, black or white,
Hetero to homosexuals let’s do what’s right
We must never give up we must always fight
In the courts on the streets and hell yes on the mic
Time’s always right to do right so said mlk
So we gonna keep marchin cross the USA
Gonna keep fightin for that equal pay
Gonna uplift our own hombre it’s a new day
Don’t think for a second that we gonna give up
Cause on shoulders of the ancestors where stand up

Schools need same “Zero Tolerance” for hate acts that they have for students of color

              Across the country, Trump supporters have been targeting people who look foreign, threatening their lives and attempting to bar them from entering schools and their jobs. Trump’s half-hearted request for his supporters to “stop it” while at the same time blaming the press for overblowing these racist and islamophobic incidents does little to help solve the problem. It is also true that there have been incidents of Trump supporters being attacked. Everyone who is found to be guilty of any crimes need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, but what about our nation’s students who are harassing other students? What should happen to them?

              From schools like Westland Middle School in Maryland to the Royal Oaks Middle School in Michigan, racist, islamaphobic graffiti has been painted on walls, students have barred Latino students from getting to their lockers and other students have chanted “Build a wall” in their cafeterias. Statements from school leadership basically state that investigations will occur and are fairly vague beyond that. If schools do not implement the same “zero tolerance” and “tough love” policies that they use to discipline students of color, the hypocrisy will speak volumes.

              It has been well documented that across the country, students of color are suspended, expelled, or disciplined in other ways often at 3-4 times the rate of their white counterparts and are disciplined more harshly for the same offenses, even in preschool. Everything from “talking back” to dress code violations have led students of color missing excessive time from school or being excluded from school altogether. Furthermore, Special Education has been seen in many schools than nothing more than a system that prepares students to do a bid in prison because they spend most of their days isolated from the general school population participating in non-intellectual activities. The Justice Department has indeed investigated several of these schools across the country and brought charges to some districts.

              If our nation’s (pre) K-12 institutions that have such a slanted record on school discipline, they must be even more vigilant in the face of intolerance we are seeing now at schools across the country. How can a student be suspended for a “menacing tone” to a teacher but not be suspended for threatening to deport their classmate? How can a student be given in-school suspension for violating a dress code but not for blocking a path for students to enter their school in hate-filled imitation of a wall? How can students be taken out of school in handcuffs for writing on a desk but not severely disciplined when they are found to be the ones who wrote hate-filled language on school grounds?

              President-elect Donald Trump is still receiving kid-glove treatment from the media. He is still has paid surrogates on our news networks spinning every question posed to them. We cannot treat students in our schools who are committing hate crimes or other violent and threatening acts to also be treated with kid gloves just because of the color of their skin or the socio-economic status of their parents. If this country is serious about healing, it starts at home but must spill over into our schools. Our youth need to know that we will move forward as a country with dignity and respect for our fellow man, woman, and especially the child. Too many black and brown students already feel ostracized from their educational enclaves because of the lack of culturally competent educators. They should not now be made to feel ostracized from their country simply by entering their school door. We can and need to do better.

 

I’m Black, I rap, I’m Under 40, And I Don’t Use The Word “Nigga”

              I haven’t felt as embarrassed as an African American as I did when I heard comedian Larry Wilmore call President Barack Obama “my nigga” at The White House Correspondence Dinner. Don’t get me wrong. There have been many moments that I have considered low points for our culture but this was the lowest. The only thing that is more offensive to Wilmore’s ignorance is the response by people who have no problem with the use of the word because it’s just “Keepin’ it 100” or “Keepin’ it real.” Yes, Wilmore kept it real—real stupid. For anyone who says that this is just a natural term for us to use and that we’re used to it,” let me explain the three reasons why they’re wrong.

Nigga is not a term of endearment

Let’s really “keep it 100.” I am a rapper. I also have been “hip-hop” since birth so I am no newcomer to hip-hop culture. It’s the soundtrack of my life and so I will always love hip-hop. Anyone who listens to hip-hop knows full well that in our music, the term “nigga” is used more negatively than positively. Even Tupac who stated that “NIGGA” meant “Never Ignorant Getting’ Goals Accomplished” rarely used the term “nigga” in an endearing way. Sure there are verses where rappers talk about rollin’ with “my niggas” or bringing their “niggas” through the door once they became successful. In reality however, the overwhelming use of the term “nigga” is negative as in “niggas hatin’” on each other or “killin’ niggas” as well as their kids and other family members. Whenever I hear a term like “brother” being used in rap, it is indeed use positively as it should be. We cannot believe the terms “brother” and “nigga” to be synonymous and anyone who says “nigga” is used as a term of endearment particularly in our mainstream hip-hop music is just wrong. Don’t believe the hype.

Acceptance of the term nigga is not generational

A few years ago, rapper and mogul Jay Z appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and they had an honest debate about the word “nigga.” Jay Z made the argument that many users of the word use. He said that it’s generational and that the overuse of the word has taken the power out of the word. He also said that the intent behind the word is important, a point to which I agree. The fact of the matter however is that many black people younger than Jay Z do not use the term “nigga” and find it deplorable. I am younger than Jay Z and Nas and many rappers who rose to prominence in the 1990s and the 2000s. I work with youth across the country and run into students from kindergarten to college who deplore use of the word. It is also clear by Wilmore’s use of “nigga” that there are people of Oprah’s generation and older who are quite comfortable with the word. To accept, however, that people of my generation and younger have just accepted the term is flat out wrong. I am a Jay Z fan and even wrote my doctoral dissertation on Jay Z but on this point, I couldn’t disagree more with him.

White people still own the word “nigga”

There is always a debate about whether white people can use the word but we cannot reclaim a word we never owned. The argument is a waste of time. Not only can white people use the word, they still own the word. Some believe that Kendrick Lamar’s explanation of “nigga” coming from “negus” in ancient Africa. Please. I doubt Master John was thinking about ancient Africa while whipping his slaves. White people still use the word on a regular basis. I am a professor of cross cultural communication at American University. When I discussed hip-hop and the term “nigga” to my 70 plus majority white students (many wealthy) I asked them if they repeat the word “nigga” when singing their favorite rap songs. They all honestly raised their hands. I was not mad because they were just being honest but it revealed to me that an endless debate over use of the word is pointless because we live in a society where historical context doesn’t matter and all students on college campuses hear the word every day in music or from their black classmates.

At the end of the day, we as black people have lost the ability to make a case for the termination of “nigga.” I’ve heard some gay people refer to each other as “faggot.” I believe that there are Jewish people who may refer to each other as “kikes”, Latinos who refer to each other as “spics” and maybe even some Chinese people who use term “chink.” The difference with these groups is that they have not mainstreamed the most derogatory terms into global lexicon. Rapper Drake is half Jewish but you would never hear him utter the word “kike” in his music. Michael Jackson, probably the most not-racist person in history had his album pulled and was roundly condemned by his “friends” like Steven Spielberg because he used the word “kike” in his anti-racist song “They don’t care about us.” That should have made the message very clear to black people: degrade yourselves all day but as soon as you go beyond the plantation, expect to be whipped back into form.

As KRS-ONE so eloquently put it, “That mic you speak through/goes from here to Mogadishu/and how you represent us is the issue.” Across the globe, from Japan to Israel, we have made it acceptable to use the term “nigga” without providing any context because too many of us don’t know the context. I’ve been called “nigga” in Senegal and South Africa by people who thought they were being cool. I’ve watched Japanese sitcoms where they call each other “nigga.” At the same time the word becomes globalized, the #blacklivesmatter movement and the overall fight for black dignity has not. People want to dress in “our” clothes and play “our” music but take it all off when they go home. They want everything but the burden. All Larry Wilmore did was make the word acceptable for an entire new generation of black and non-black people to get comfortable with the word by referring the first black President in that way. There is nothing funny about that and as Joe Madison said, he tainted the legacy of the first black president and, as Reverend Al Sharpton said, it was at best tasteless. We can and need to do better.

Beyoncé the latest example of women held to a higher standard than men

It has been more than a week since Super Bowl 50 and the world is still taking about Beyoncé’s performance, which was captivating at best, or a slap in the face to the family friendly event at worst. From The Jacksons to former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the performance either made you proud, angry, or somewhere in between. As some prepare to boycott the NFL or Beyoncé in anger, it seems that there is one point that we are missing—Beyoncé was not the only performer on stage, but she was the only woman. The critique she is receiving is yet another double standard in the way women are treated harshly for their actions while men get a pass.

Starting with Beyoncé, I find it shameful that few people are mentioning the fact that Coldplay and Bruno Mars also performed. While many on social media jokingly thanked Coldplay for opening up for Beyoncé and Bruno Mars, the fact remains that it was Coldplay’s performance and they added Beyoncé. Since they clearly rehearsed for the performance, Chris Martin knew exactly what Beyoncé was going to do as it relates to her Black Panther attire. Should he not be protested as well? What about Bruno Mars? Was he not also dressed in the traditional black leather attire of the Black Panthers? I started to wonder how common situations like this occur and I instantly harkened back to Super Bowl 38. 

At the end of the halftime show of Super Bowl 38, superstar singer Justin Timberlake, ripped off part of Janet Jackson’s costume and exposed her right nipple. This event, commonly referred to as the “wardrobe malfunction” or “nipplegate” led to Janet Jackson’s music being blacklisted by Viacom, CBS, MTV, Infinity Broadcasting, and Clear Channel. Justin Timberlake received no such penalty. I then found myself asking—are the Beyoncé and Janet Jackson examples both sexist and racist? Miley Cyrus reminded us that it is not always about race.

In 2013, Miley Cyrus performed her hit song “We Can’t Stop” at the Video Music Awards. She invited R&B crooner Robin Thicke out to sing his new hit song “Blurred Lines.” During his song, Miley Cyrus bent over and “twerked” (grinding her behind against his groin region) while the crowd raucously applauded. Many on social media and in the press, however, did not applaud. Miley was roundly criticized for her raunchy performance and Robin Thicke got a pass, even though Cyrus claims that the move was Thicke’s idea, they did rehearse it, and he wanted her to look “as naked as possible” to reflect the women in his video. None of that mattered though. America sided with a then 36-year old married man who was somehow seduced by a teenage girl. America has a problem.

While the three events written about here represent mainstream pop culture, we can see every day how in 2016, men are still held to a lower standard than women. It is evidenced in Secretary Clinton being condemned for “yelling” though I’ve heard every male candidate in this election yell at some point with the exception of Dr. Ben Carson. It is evidenced in the continued praise heaped over the great American dance icon Fred Astaire while few struggle to remember the name of his partner Ginger Rogers, who did everything Astaire did but backwards and wearing heels, as President Obama noted. When will we wake up?

So as the protests against Beyoncé or the #beycott continue, Coldplay and Bruno Mars play on with no repercussions. We shame Beyoncé but do not shame an America for not knowing that the bay area where the NFL celebrated its 50th Super Bowl is the same place where the Black Panthers also started 50 years ago. We do not shame America for the sweeps of homeless populations living around the San Francisco 49ers stadium while those inside the Super Bowl ate hot dogs with gold flake toppings, celebrating American excess at its best. No. At the end of the day, we condemn the sole female performer who used her opportunity to shed light on a moment in American history that too many of us are either unwilling or incapable of studying and understanding and that is the real affront to American values.