I’ve had teachers say it to me. Lots of my mentors said it. Once, a supervisor at work mentioned it. I’ve overheard folks telling their own children, educators telling other people’s kids, and I’m sure that I’ve even said it a time or two in my years of teaching. It’s a statement that’s meant to be empowering, and to serve the purpose of motivation, but does it really help our youth to tell them that they have to be better because they are Black?
I once taught a playwriting workshop at the #1 public high school in Philadelphia. The school was so good that the mayor’s daughter even went there. Students at this school were known for their stellar academic achievements, and went on to be admitted into top colleges. It was at that school that I stood in front of a classroom of seniors who refused to take creative risks. They wanted me to give them a formula for success, a rubric, or some sort of guideline for making sure they would “win”. I instructed on the things that were teachable like grammar and structure. I led them through exercises to help them generate ideas, but hit several brick walls with many of the students throughout the sessions. The biggest problem was that students didn’t want to take risks because they didn’t want to fail.
It makes sense when I think about it. These students were told that they were special, outliers, credits to their race. They were different than the other students in Philadelphia. They were promising. They had a chance to be somebody, despite the fact that they were poor and Black, as long as they worked hard to be better. But better than what? Better than White children? Better than their parents? Better than other Black kids who didn’t get the memo?
Look, I don’t have a problem with being honest with youth and letting them know, realistically, what they’ll be up against in society. It’s true that some folks, heck, lots of folks, will be prejudice against them because of their skin color. People will treat them differently, and they may even fail to recognize our Black children’s greatness. That’s not MY Black child’s fault, though, and it’s not her responsibility to be better so that ignorant folks won’t have a chance to mistreat her. Nope, I don’t have a problem with keeping it real with our kids at all. You know what I have a problem with, though? Placing the expectation on children to be better simply because they are Black.
When we indoctrinate our children into believing that they are different because of their race, it’s possible that our words can have the opposite effect of what we’re trying to accomplish. It’s already stressful enough to be a young person. Add to that the pressure of being responsible for how the world views an entire race of people, and it’s possible that some of our youth will crumble under the pressure. Fear of failure will hold them back from really being able to go for it, and to test out their impossible ideas. That could keep them from reaching a higher dimension of success than we can even imagine for them.
How Do We Push Black Children To Success?
I think that there are more effective ways of pushing Black children to success. Let’s take the time to educate them based on their individual talents and gifts, and encourage them to try new things. Let’s expose our young people to diverse experiences, travel with them, and expand their world beyond their neighborhood and their families. Let’s provide safe environments for them to test limits, and learn to deal with conflict by listening to them and asking what they think. Let’s teach them that failing doesn’t mean that they are failures, and that some of the greatest instances of genius often comes from mistakes.
Make no mistake about it, I’m not naive. I’m a African-American woman living in America, and I’m raising a little Black girl. She WILL be better than me, but not because I’m going to instill the theory of “gotta be better cuz you’re Black” into. It’ll be because she is creative, energetic, intelligent, and highly capable.
Parents, do you teach your children that they have to be better because of their race, gender, or other identifying trait? Why or why not?