Flipping the Power Dynamic
Last week, I visited a school on the bad side of town. In fact, it was so far on the bad side of town that it was in another town. (Literally. Not in San Francisco.) It reminded me a lot of the place I started my career: economically brutalized, culturally non-academic, racially non-white. This makes it a tough place for most teacher-types to work. And I can only imagine that it’s even tougher if it isn’t what you signed up for.
Ten years ago, the school looked a lot different because the town looked a lot different. But the teaching staff still looks a lot the same. So I wasn’t surprised to find that things aren’t going well. I heard phrases come out of people’s mouths that I haven’t heard for years. It took me right back to the frame of mind I kept when I worked in a similar school. Verbal challenges were a part of the daily routine. This post is about one of the most challenging statements I’ve ever encountered.
“I apologize for these Black people.”
Usually the phrase is deployed when a student realizes that an adult has taken interest in their group or its activities, which most likely means that they are doing something wrong. Preemptively, the “I apologize” gauntlet is thrown.
There are variations on the theme, adjusting exactly how the phrase is delivered, but you get the idea. I think this is one of the most difficult things that a young Black student can say to a non-Black adult. Lots of students enjoy saying difficult things — nearly every kind of kid everywhere will try to push your buttons somehow — to amuse themselves and their friends. But this statement is so problematic because most non-Black adults have difficulty even parsing it, let alone responding appropriately.
All at once, it calls out race as a salient factor in the interaction, implies that whatever the students are doing is a function of being Black, and frames Blackness itself as something to apologize for. It’s far more insidious than the usual, “We didn’t do anything!” or “You’re a racist!” because the person on the other end has to consider all of the foregoing instead of simply snapping to the offense or defense.
Kids like it because it works: Adult reactions range from confusion to fluster to dismissal. All of these are entertaining because they flip the power dynamic. The adult who ought to be able to tell the students what to do now suddenly can’t figure out what to say at all! And if there’s one thing teenagers are universally good at, it’s picking stuff up from their peers. I’ve heard this phrase all over the Bay Area, and almost never heard an effective response. There are so many complex issues bound up in it that an honest address would require far more time than the previously-planned, “Hey you kids knock that off!” would have consumed. More than that, it would require a conversation about race issues that usually remain undiscussed.
I’m not sure how conscious students are about the mechanism at work. I’ve never really deeply engaged a student after hearing him or her make the statement. I worry how much of it they’re internalizing. While it’s usually clear to me that they don’t actually believe an apology is in order, what about the other layers of meaning? Even if no individual psychological harm comes from it, which I find hard to believe, there is certainly a widening of the distance between people’s understanding in addition to the power play. Perhaps that needs to happen in order for us to start to admit to all the aspects of the interaction. But it still doesn’t make it easy to answer back.
So tell me, have you heard the phrase? How did you react? Does anyone who teaches in the hood still read this thing? Or have I drifted off entirely into computer land?