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Cultural Diversity, Breaking Barriers, & Racist Micro Aggressions
The developmental need to explore the meaning of one’s identity with others who are engaged in a similar process manifests itself informally in school corridors and cafeterias across the country. Some educational institutions have sought to meet this need programmatically. Several colleagues and I recently evaluated one such effort, initiated at a Massachusetts middle school participating in a voluntary desegregation program known as the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) program. Historically, the small number of African American students who are bussed from Boston to this suburban school have achieved disappointing levels of academic success. In an effort to improve academic achievement, the school introduced a program, known as Student Efficacy Training (SET) that allowed Boston students to meet each day as a group with two staff members. Instead of being in physical education or home economics or study hail, they were meeting, talking about homework difficulties, social issues, and encounters with racism.
The meeting was mandatory and at first the students were resentful of missing some of their classes. But the impact was dramatic. Said one young woman, In the beginning of the year, I didn’t want to do SET at all. It took away my study and it was only METCO students doing it. In the beginning all we did was argue over certain problems or it was more like a rap session and I didn’t think it was helping anyone. But then when we looked at records.. . I know that last year out of all the students, sixth through eighth grade, there was, like, six who were actually good students. Everyone else, it was just pathetic, I mean, like, they were getting like Ds and Fs.. . . The eighth grade is doing much better this year. I mean, they went from Ds and Fs to Bs and Cs and occasional As. . . . And those seventh-graders are doing really good, they have a lot of honor roll students in seventh grade, both guys and girls. Yeah, it’s been good. It’s really good.
Her report is borne out by an examination of school records. The opportunity to come together in the company of supportive adults allowed these young Black students to talk about the issues that hindered their performance—racial encounters, feelings of isolation, test anxiety; homework dilemmas—in the psychological safety of their own group. In the process, the peer culture changed to one that supported academic performance rather than undermined it, as revealed in these two students’ comments:
Well, a lot of the Boston students, the boys and the girls, used to fight all the time. And now, they stopped yelling at each other so much and calling each other stupid.
It’s like we’ve all become like one big family, we share things more with each other. We tease each other like brother and sister. We look out for each other with homework and stuff. We always stay on top of each other ‘cause we know it’s hard with African American students to go to a predominantly White school and try to succeed with everybody else.
The faculty, too, were very enthusiastic about the outcomes of the intervention, as seen in the comments of these two classroom teachers:
This program has probably produced the most dramatic result of any single change that I’ve seen at this school. It has produced immediate results that affected behavior and academics and participation in school life.
My students are more engaged. They aren’t battling out a lot of the issues of their anger about being in a White community; coming in from Boston, where do I fit, I don’t belong here. I feel that those issues that often came out in class aren’t coming out in class anymore. I think they are being discussed in the SET room, the kids feel more confidence. The kids’ grades are higher, the homework response is greater, they’re not afraid to participate in class, and I don’t see them isolating themselves within class. They are willing to sit with other students happily. . . . I think it’s made a very positive impact on their place in the school and on their individual self-esteem. I see them enjoying themselves and able to enjoy all of us as individuals. I can’t say enough, it’s been the best thing that’s happened to the METCO program as far as I’m concerned.
Although this intervention is not a miracle cure for every school, it does highlight what can happen when we think about the developmental needs of Black adolescents coming to terms with their own sense of identity; it might seem counterintuitive that a school involved in a voluntary desegregation program could improve both academic performance and social relationships among students by separating the Black students for one period every day. But if we understand the unique challenges facing adolescents of color and the legitimate need they have to feel supported in their identity development, it makes perfect sense.
Though they may not use the language of racial identity
development theory to describe it, most Black parents want their
children to achieve an internalized sense of personal security;
to be able to acknowledge the reality of racism and to respond
effectively to it. Our educational institutions should do what
they can to encourage this development rather than impede it.
When I talk to educators about the need to provide adolescents
with identity-affirming experiences, and information about their
own cultural groups, they sometimes flounder because this information
has not been part of their own education. Their understanding
of adolescent development has been limited to the White middle-class
norms included in most textbooks, their knowledge of Black history
limited to Martin Luther King,Jr., and Rosa Parks. They sometimes
say with frustration that parents should provide this kind of
education for their children. Unfortunately Black parents often
attended the same schools the teachers did and have the same informational
gaps. We need to acknowledge that an important part of interrupting
the cycle of oppression is constant re-education, and sharing
what we learn with the next generation.
Reflection Exercise #12
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