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April 21, 2010 / Ben Chun

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?

4 Comments

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  1. david / Jun 18 2010 1:54 am

    this is a fascinating post!

    I have heard that a lot of black students are trying a lot harder now since Obama is president now, and their test scores have gone much higher now. I say it’s because Obama is setting up as an example for excellence for them to strive for. They can now use OBama as someone to set their goals for. Has this been your experience in teaching at Galileo?

  2. Ben Chun / Jun 18 2010 7:35 am

    There was talk about this “Obama effect” right after the election and inauguration, and a study done by Friedman et al at Vanderbilt showed an impressive impact: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/23/education/23gap.html

    There was at least one followup study that failed to replicate, and taking it all in the context of Claude Steele’s work (who coined the term “stereotype threat”) I would guess that the results depend a lot on how the fact that Obama is president is made salient. So the impact probably varies a lot from classroom to classroom, and school to school, based on what kind of priming happens. Here’s an article about the range of studies being done:
    http://articles.latimes.com/2009/aug/19/nation/na-obama-studies19

    In terms of the students I see every day, it’s very difficult to measure or sense how much of an impact something on the larger scale like a president has relative to the smaller-scale stuff like what happened at home that morning or where home happens to be or what your friends are doing.

    I think the Obama presidency is a great milestone for the US. I also think it would be too simplistic to say that having him as an example or a role model changes everything, or even that it changes a lot, on the day-to-day level in terms of student achievement. In the long term though, I hope it represents a turning point for race relations in American society and that in turn contributes to more a more equitable academic world.

  3. david / Jun 21 2010 8:36 pm

    It’s very clear and obvious that Obama is the reason why the test scores for black students are going up. Look at the recent report on testing in California, you noticed that black students increased their reading scores. and I agree with you, Obama is a great milestone for race relations and just shows that in this society race isn’t that important anymore. In the end, Obama’s final accomplishments during his term may not be great but him being in the white house is enough to show how far we’ve gone as a society in terms of race.

  4. Ben Chun / Jun 26 2010 2:44 pm

    I think it’s silly to say that any causal relationship between a particular politician and a measure of student achievement is clear and obvious, let alone such a relationship based solely on race. Test scores go up, test scores go down. It’s not a controlled experiment. There are many variables in play.

    I also strongly object to the idea that race is irrelevant in American society. Yes, we have made progress. We also still have a long way to go.

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