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

I acknowledge my privilege. Why can’t white people?

I recently read an article about a “white privilege” essay contest that caused a bit of controversy in Westport, Connecticut. According to The New York Times, this wealthy coastal town is over 90% white and has an average salary of $150,000. While most of the students did not have a problem with the question, many parents were outraged. The question asked:
“In 1,000 words or less, describe how you understand the term ‘white privilege’. To what extent do you think this privilege exists? What impact do you think it has had in your life—whatever your racial or ethnic identity—and in our society more broadly?”

The question sparked outrage by some parents who called it “race baiting,” “offensive,” and “divisive.” As a diversity & leadership educator, as well as an upstander, I encounter comments like this across the country as well as internationally when the topic of white privilege is raised. The idea for some white people that their incredible success could not be derived from anything other than their Protestant Work Ethic mentality that says essentially that “I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps” and nothing else is impossible to conceive. Rather than become offended, I think it is important to acknowledge that most of us have some form of privilege and part of the path to making our privilege irrelevant is to acknowledge it.

I am a black man living in inner city America, I am not wealthy, and I don’t have a “common sounding” name that allows me to easily blend in. I have experienced my fair share of racism, stereotyping, profiling, you name it. Despite this, I have to realize that I also have my own bit of privilege. I am a man living in a male dominated society. My gender provides me with the privilege of not needing to be engaged in certain conversations that disproportionately affect women. For example, I can, if I choose, completely ignore conversations relating to sexual harassment and assault, because this issue generally affects women more than man. If I indeed fall victim to a sexual assault, no one will blame the clothes I was wearing that day or accuse me of seducing my attacker or look at my body development and say “well what did he expect to happen?” That’s privilege.

Being a man also allows me to generally choose any career that I want and not have to worry about passing “my time” to advance my career to the fullest. For example, I have female friends who work for the State Department and the Foreign Service in general. One friend told me that she and her female friends have to decide if they are going to start a family young and risk not receiving certain promotions because of maternity leave for example, or forgo starting a family in order to rise through the ranks faster. I have yet to speak to a single man in the foreign service who has had that problem. It’s still a problem for younger generations too evidenced by a survey I took of my American University students. I asked them how many feel as if they have had to plan out the stages of their lives since the age of 10 with set deadlines based on their age. Only the females raised their hand. One male student was shocked because, as he said, “I never had to think about” an age limitation. That’s privilege.

I also happen to be an American passport holding citizen. In most places around the world, simply showing this passport affords me a certain level of privilege than someone from my parents’ home country of the Congo. This has become even more evident in a Trump administration where even green card holders are no longer guaranteed entry into the United States. As stated previously, I face many forms of stereotyping, racism, and profiling, but generally speaking, my nationality has served as a net plus in the more than 20 countries I have visited to date. That’s privilege.

At the end of the day, if we think hard enough, we can all realize that there are some privileges we do enjoy over others because of our education, race, gender, zip code, nationality, etc. For the people of Westport or other well-to-do white neighborhoods, no one denies that you have worked hard for what you have. But it is also important to know, as professor Tim Wise points out in his film and book “White Like Me” that this government has been set up over a period of centuries for the advancement of white people. We can go back as far back as Slavery to programs of the last century such as the post-World War II GI Bill that provided white military veterans with more opportunities for education and homeownership over black soldiers. Opportunities such as these gave many white families a head start on opportunities to build wealth. There is a racial history of privilege in the very zip codes that most of us reside in and the schools our children attend. To ignore this basic fact is to simply ignore reality.

As Georgetown University professor Dr. Michael Eric Dyson stated, the concept of white privilege is at the heart of many of the challenges we face in America today. White privilege keeps white people who are not part of the upper echelon arguing against their own interests and failing to realize they have more in common with marginalized communities of color. Denial of white privilege allows for those white people who make up the majority of upper class America to deny that they or their forefathers may have had access to opportunities that were often (legally) denied to other communities, thus limiting their pool of competition. I recently came across a picture that shows the difference between equality and equity which is shared below:

The picture says it all. This is a country who, for almost 400 years has never fully approached equality and therefore not even come close to equity. Taking the bold step to acknowledge our privilege will get us closer to equity, if we would only be honest with ourselves, equally.

Why this Bostonian didn’t root for The Patriots in the Super Bowl

               I am a proud Bostonian who will never forget the first time The New England Patriots won The Super Bowl in 2002. I remember the intense debates over whether then second string quarterback Tom Brady, who took over for the injured Drew Bledsoe, should start in the Super Bowl after Bledsoe returned from injury. #teambledsoe lost but I remember thinking “At least he got a ring out of the deal!” I remember my older brother Pata dropping to his knees yelling out “The Patriots won the SUPERBOWL!!!!!” in complete disbelief. I remember seeing one of The Patriots making snow angels on the field. I remember driving with my younger brother Simba in my first car, a forest green Mazda Protégé, all the way up Massachusetts Avenue and around Fenway Park as he hung out the sunroof high fiving everyone in sight. Being in Boston for that win was one of the best memories of the first quarter of my life.

              Over the years, The Patriots would continue to assert their dominance at the same time the Red Sox, Celtics, and Bruins were starting to flex their muscle. As sports fans, we were on top of the world and the Pats ushered in the greatness of the new millennium. There was a bit less excitement after subsequent championships because I moved from Boston in 2003 and never fully engaged in many sports activities because I could just never recreate that buzz from the first win, though I always rooted for The Patriots. This year that all changed. Though I couldn’t bring myself to root against The Patriots, I just couldn’t root for them.

              There were many reasons for me to not support The Patriots this year. I never cared about Deflategate because I just felt it was really impossible to prove so I don’t know if Tom Brady’s suspension was justified but between that and Spygate, I was a bit disappointed with the overall shadiness that was emanating from my beloved team. I was annoyed that Tom Brady decided to not attend the White House Super Bowl ceremony when President Obama was in office but I still couldn’t root against The Pats. Lastly, I did not lose support for The Patriots when I learned that Patriots owner Bob Kraft, Coach Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady were all supporters of an admitted racist in Donald Trump and that Bob Kraft is friends with Russian dictator Vladmir Putin, who holds one of Kraft’s championship rings. I still put my love of my home team before these other issues. But there is one issue that led me to lose my complete loyalty to The Patriots—Tom Brady’s inability to speak out on issues of violence against women.

              Over the past three years, Tom Brady has had at least four opportunities to speak up on issue of violence against women and he demonstrated a level of cowardice that we would never see from him on the football field. First there was the 2014 Ray Rice incident, where then Baltimore Raven brutally assaulted his then fiancée (now wife) Janay Palmer. When asked about it, he said that commenting about this was above his paygrade. Then there is continued association with boxing champion Floyd “Money” Mayweather, whose history of domestic violence is legendary, yet Tom Brady still chose to attend the fight as Mayweather’s guest. He also replied “no comment” when asked about then Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy and his history of domestic violence. Lastly, there was Tom Brady’s decision to leave a press conference when asked about then candidate Trump’s “Grab ‘em in the pussy” remarks, which Trump referred to as “locker room banter.” The fact that one of the most recognized athletes in America who has a wife as well as sons and a daughter could be silent on these issues is just unacceptable.

              I respect an entertainer’s decision to remain apolitical but when you are pressed with questions regarding something as serious as domestic violence and sexual assault, you have to speak up. Lebron James, who has more global recognition than Brady, had no problems condemning Trump’s comments about women and I am certain that he would have expressed the same sentiment if President Obama made those comments. I keep find myself thinking that somewhere there is a man beating his wife up wearing a Tom Brady jersey, and though Brady wouldn’t be able to blame for it, he probably wouldn’t say anything about it. He has completely lost sight of his influence on others, highlighted by the comment made by one of my American University students who said that Tom Brady is so talented that he doesn’t have to speak up on issues of violence against women. This is the message that Tom Brady has communicated to his millions of followers directly and indirectly.

              While it’s true that my distance from Boston has complicated my ability to fully support my teams like I used to, many more things have happened since that 2002 Super Bowl victory. I am married now and have 2 daughters and a son. Every single day my wife and I do our best to make sure they are learning about respect for themselves and respect for how the opposite sex should be treated. It’d be great to at the very least find a PSA from Brady stating that domestic violence is wrong, even if he doesn’t condemn his friends acts (though he should) but it seems that it would be an effort in futility. My kids range between the ages of 10 & 2 so they are not yet at the age where they will start looking for entertainer role models outside of the home whose values they will seek to emulate. They are more interested in people like Kathryn Johnson of Nasa fame and Rosa Parks for now, but as they get more interested in sports and entertainers, Tom Brady will not be on my list of potential role models beyond his commitment to his craft. I just need more from the modern day athlete.

              At the end of the day, we can support our political candidates and have our liberal to conservative views on issues and we can support our friends on their endeavors, but we all must condemn violence against each other and condemn comments and actions that either endorse it or don’t condemn it. My hope is that Tom Brady will one day realize that taking a stance on violence against women would elevate him to a level of greatness that 5 more Super Bowl rings could never do. We don’t remember Muhammad Ali for his titles but because he was an upstander, not a bystander. While no modern-day athlete could ever fill his shoes because the challenges are not as severe as during his heyday, it shouldn’t be too much to expect all athletes, but especially the great ones, to speak up against violence against women, especially when he is part of a league with a deplorable track record on domestic violence. Until that happens, I just cannot support Tom Brady and The Patriots like I used to, though I still want to.

We Shall Not Be Moved! (a poem)

We ain’t goin’ back, said we ain’t goin’ back
We’ve come too far they tryin’ to set us back
Whether standin’ on the block or on Standing Rock
The world gonna know that we never gonna stop
Built their brand on phobias they think that they controllin’ us
Not to mention women hatin’ and the need for patrollin’ us
But we not gon’ allow misogyny to malign our progeny
The spirit of MLK be callin’ we
Whether you black, white, or burgundy
Urban or suburban we
Gotta come together with a better sense of urgency
To this emergency we gotta emerge-and-see
No time to be sleepin’ while they legislate our destiny
I write this in the spirit of a Birmingham jaila
Scrambling for a cure of what Roger Ailes us
From the Voting Rights Act they’re floating right back
Tryin’ to take us back to Defense of Marriage Acts
To McCarthy-style living and internment camps
To segregated schools maybe fountains too
But we gonna clamp down in the face of fascism
Hit ctrl+ALT-right+delete erase racism
Bannin’ Bannon-like thoughts from pollutin’ our nation
But we need YOU to join the fight without hesitation
Now ain’t the time to be silent pick UP the mic
Speak truth to power using all your might
We been through much worse but if we stick together
We’ll shake up the world again for the better!