Recently, over on Twitter, I asked a question about the new vocabulary people are learning in order to see what parts of my own lexicon has changed. While I limited it to new words in the last 5 and 10 years I hadn’t expected the responses. My assumption, and I did make one, was that these words would come solely from educators, my biggest community over there.
Surprisingly, lots of other people joined in and it turned into a learning environment where people asked for clarification, ideologies were explained, folks dropped links to definitions and stories where their word was used, and all kinds of personal growth that comes from the fluidity of language coupled with dominant socialized identities. I offered up “settler colonialism” as an example of something I hadn’t been taught explicitly in school nor did it come from anything I’d learned as a classroom teacher. It simply became a word I’d begun to see once I expanded who I was following on Twitter:
Native Americans and Indigenous peoples.
Sometime in 2017 I began to wonder what it was that I had to learn and unlearn and my feed has been more rich and affirming because of that small change. Once I followed people like Dr. Debbie Reese, Dr. Adrienne Keene, Kaitlin Curtice and a man who goes by Big Indian Gyasi (aka Breakdances with Wolves, a fabulous name), the recommended ‘people to follow’ began to change.
One of my other learnings in the last 5 years has been around the phrase “macro affirmations”. It’s hard to find much about it online and it’s the kind of granular terminology that makes its way into the anti-racism work I do currently. But there’s not a lot written on it. If I’m wrong and academics use it, then that’s another story and probably a condemnation of the Academy as gatekeepers.
In September of 2016 the Yale Child Study Center came out with a report on the emphasis of bias in pre-school teachers who are looking actively for disruptive behavior in Black children (mostly boys). The study, and visibility of the lead researcher Dr. Walter Gilliam, made its way into the mainstream in a way that studies like this rarely do. The implications confirmed that Black children are hardly seen as innocent or developmentally appropriate. As a former teacher and middle and high school administrator, nothing about this study seemed new. We have a plethora of studies on bias and exclusion that pull the thread from pre-K through higher education. It’s common to hear about the over 80% of teachers who are white within the system of education.
Yet, it was what the study didn’t show that piqued my interest. The question that haunted me was what doesn’t this study show?
The conclusion I came to was that it didn’t show macro affirmations.
Following a natural conclusion of the results that pre-school teachers tended to more closely observe (and thus, “catch”) the behavior of Black children which points to the rest of the K12 systems doing the same, I wondered about what that does to the white children in schools. Black students, as well as other students of color, have reported incredible amounts of micro aggressions within school and other parts of society. So, I wondered, what is on the other end of that spectrum?
How do white children, starting from pre-school, get an uneven amount of affirmations in the school setting? They’re told they belong, that every story centers them from the preschool bookshelf to the posters displayed on the walls to the songs they sing to learn. White children see themselves in history books as the victors. They never wonder the race of characters in stories since curriculum choices favor them and relegate the stories of the “other” in small units or months of celebration. Presence, as they understand it, is theirs. Constant affirming of their belonging and being and ways of living are simply…normal. The norms of what they see and how they experience educational settings give them a barrage of messages:
you are welcome here
everything about you is normal
this is all for you
you can see yourself everywhere
When educators talk about bias we mostly come at it from the perspective of a bias against. Often, we fail to discuss that we have a bias for a group. Even as a biracial Black woman, I have recognized that my socialization has been to have a bias for white people as those messages have also affected me. [Thanks, Project Implicit!] It’s not only jarring to see my own results, it’s devastating to consider how much this informs my own biases.
The macro affirmations that white children get throughout their educational careers is astounding. I want the study that tells me what that does to them.
Or is that ‘study’ already living out before our eyes?
Do I really need a study to tell me that white children are hurting from these macro affirmations when they find themselves in a world that doesn’t center them? Is it possible that a formal study would tell us that the macro affirmations for white children are leading them to high rates of suicide and violence? Would a study explain why the domestic terrorists we see in the news, a news that centers them, refuses to even name them as such?
Some would say this is debatable (as “whiteness” is fluid thus the data set keeps changing) yet the over 70% of gun violence exacted by white boys and men in schools, churches, concerts, mosques, temples, movie theaters seems to point back to that pre-school study of who we’re not watching in the classroom.
If teachers overwhelmingly indict Black children’s developmentally appropriate behavior starting in preschool, what’s happening to the white children who rarely, if ever, get reprimanded for the same thing? I wonder how that socializes them to see some children get in trouble for things they’re doing. I am curious about how the macro affirming messages get deep into their bones and guide their interactions with people who don’t look like them and what it is they make of those subtle stereotypes that turn into ingrained beliefs about themselves.
I wonder what it is we’re missing in schools when we macro affirm white children to the point of not seeing their behavior as errant.
If the Yale study taught me anything, it’s that there are crucial questions we aren’t asking and threads we aren’t pulling from research that literally kills us.