After COVID-19 School Dismissals, Let’s Stop Pathologizing Boys of Color

I am an aunt to mostly boys of color, four so far. I am a godmother to two boys of color. My partner is a man of color who was pathologized and living that reality until I helped him create a new one. In my district, we have been flagged for how we pathologize Black boys. I read this quote this week in a Medium article and it got me thinking about interrupting this practice:

Strategic equity leaders build the competencies of others to interrupt status quo ways of doing things that perpetuate inequities. Hugh Vasquez, Senior Associate, National Equity Project

I would like to return to school systems that no longer pathologize boys of color, and I have a very personal reason for that desire.

As a school principal, I served as the gatekeeper to the systems that would pathologize boys of color. In fact, I received a lot of negative media attention for my focus on boys of color. Somehow I became a communist, a reverse racist and Bill O’Reilly dubbed me a pin head on his show. I don’t regret the work I have done for boys of color because I have seen the impact on the boys of color (now men) that I love.

I made my first White, female kindergarten teacher cry when I wouldn’t allow her to refer a Somali refugee boy to be assessed for emotional disturbance. This woman referred kids for Special Education and retention as a Tier I intervention. She had a long career, twenty plus years, through which she had been allowed to pathologize children of color. Since her practice had never been challenged, she had no reason to think I would challenge her. She asked me to observe the boy, “Mohammud”, during recess so I could witness how violent and out of control he was. I did so we could have a conversation about this referral she was adamant about. During my observation I notice a White boy, “Aiden”, be much more violent and out of control.

The teacher couldn’t wait for our discussion but she walked into something much different than she was expecting. After I listened to her rationale for referring Mohammud, I told her I would accept the referral only if she also referred Aiden. The teacher was shocked. She asked me why she would do that. I listed all of the behaviors that concerned me about Aiden, several which were worse than Mohammud’s. She emphatically told me that Aiden was “quirky”, “imaginative”, and “overly enthusiastic” but definitely NOT emotionally disturbed. I challenged her on her language and whether race had anything to do with the language she chose to use for each boy. White fragility activated. Mean Latina makes good White teacher cry. Neither boy was referred because neither needed to be.

The desire to stop the pathologization of boys of color goes beyond professional, it is personal. One of my godson’s has needed my support throughout his schooling. Don’t get me wrong, the boy has done some pretty stupid shit but the consequences have not matched his infractions. When my comadre reaches out, I shake my head and roll my eyes before telling her what her next steps are to address the situation. Luckily for my godson, he enjoys several privileges:

  1. He has a godmother who holds a PhD in education. Minor having been in educational leadership.
  2. His mother holds a Master’s degree in Special Education, has been a self-contained behavioral teacher and she knows her rights as a parent of a child with specific needs.
  3. White skin privilege. Had my godson been darker skinned, we might not have been as successful in our push back.

The desire to stop the pathologization of boys of color is about to get even more personal when my nephew, Kaleb, enters pre-K in the school year 2022–23. Even before COVID-19, I wanted to find a way to address the pathologization of boys of color because of Kaleb. I didn’t notice as much pathologization of the two nephews before him but I definitely notice it about him. Kaleb is slightly darker skinned. The family was giving him a nickname that pointed that out but I nixed that real quick. Colorism is a real think in the Latinx community y’all.

As I watch Kaleb develop, I can predict how the school system is going to pathologize him. Kaleb likes to crawl under furniture. He just crawls under it and stays there. I think it is a self-soothing, self-regulating behavior. If he engages in this behavior in school, a referral will soon follow. Perhaps for autism or for some behavioral issue. So, Kaleb needs to be taught to self-sooth and self-regulate in ways schools find appropriate.

Kaleb under the couch, reaching for a ball.

Kaleb is a very active little boy who has a definite disregard for personal safety. He just goes for it because fear hasn’t been deeply embedded into him. His attention span is minimal, except when YouTube baby nursery rhymes are playing on the television, then he is mesmerized. However, I’ve already heard that maybe he has ADHD. No, no, no, no. I have already looked up the DSM criteria for a diagnosis and he doesn’t have the required six symptoms for this pathology.

Something about YouTube nursery rhymes. Very animated, bright colors, big eyed characters and repetition.

Recently, Kaleb has taken to needing to organize a menagerie of plastic animals. They must be in a particular order and way that only he knows or he throws them and gets upset. He does this over and over throughout the day. My sister wonders if he has OCD. If he were in school, this behavior may also lead to some type of referral. I say, Kaleb can control his menagerie but he cannot, at 19 months, control much else. He doesn’t know why he is stuck at home day in and day out. Maybe he wonders why his grandparents haven’t taken him to the McDonald’s playground in weeks when he used to go pretty regularly. Maybe he wonders why his cousins and aunts no longer visit him. Kaleb isn’t very verbal yet so he cannot process any of this verbally but he can focus on his animals and how he displays them.

Organized on the rug before him as he watches television.
Helping his dad clean the truck.

So far, the pathologies that could possibly be applied to Kaleb include autism, ADHD, OCD and potentially some behavioral pathology. That is not what I want for this little boy or any other little boy of color who will enter our system this fall and beyond. Nor do I want it for boys already in our system.

What if instead of pathologizing behavior of boys of color we instead look for the root cause of their behavior? Then once we identify the antecedent for the behavior, work with the young scholar so he knows how to engage in pro-school behavior. Which, by the way, is steeped in White dominant norms and expectations. Even better, what if we create environments that foster belonging and acceptance?

No matter what I am able to accomplish in my professional setting, Kaleb will have a strong advocate throughout his schooling. His nana will hop on a plane or be present via FaceTime, phone or however to interrupt any attempt to pathologize him. I will ensure that this little man has every opportunity to be affirmed that he is enough, is brilliant and that he is not problematic.

Dr. Gutierrez works as a Director, Educational Equity & Access. Originally from El Paso, TX, first gen, child of immigrants, author, racial equity focused.

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