The archetype of “the angry Black woman” is a caricature that Black women (femmes, non-binary) do not escape no matter their age. It shifts from childhood, adolescence, adulthood and into older age. So what happens when you break this stereotype? How do people, in particular non Black individuals, begin to alter their perceptions and behaviors towards them?
It’s September 2018 and I was responsible for teaching all freshman courses. This included team teaching to support students with an IEP (Individualized Education Program). This used to be called Special Education. Team teaching requires that two teachers, one general education and one special education teacher, work in tandem to develop all students skills. Not always the case, but I digress.
In September, before we have given enough work and had enough interactions with the students, I am asked to participate in an professional meeting. The focus is on a young woman I barely know. I go to the meeting as her English teacher and the only Black/Person of Color present. And while you might assume millennials are woke enough to advocate for people, they’re not. Not enough experience in the institution. To add to that, teachers recruited in New York for Special Education are not given enough education and resources around actually diagnosing and working with learning disabilities. They are taught to write reports for IEPs.
During this meeting, two history teachers (in the two categories) and I discussed our assessments. I made sure that I referred to her work. She wrote enough in her work to satisfy the writing prompt as well as include information about her own thoughts. However she was quiet. And I recognize this type of quiet. We called it shy for years. This is not a learning disability. Even if this young woman could test on the spectrum, that is not what was being discussed. The other teachers, both white women, used the term non-verbal to describe her.
I was surprised they went straight for such a serious diagnosis based on few classroom interactions. It can take months for first year high school students to become comfortable in a classroom space. I was open enough to believe they might “kick around” a few ideas. Brainstorm. This became a friendly debate. Imagine being ill-equipped to debate a child’s diagnosis, but confident enough to forge ahead.
They wouldn’t leave non-verbal alone and this was becoming problematic. Their justification was that the student didn’t speak in class. I immediately thought of myself in school. I was quiet unless I was around my friends. I became panicked when I knew the answer to a question and raised my hand. She’s speaks; just not to you. She’s not even selectively mute. If I allowed them to develop this background on a Black female student at 14 then I was endorsing their narrow view of disabilities.
Yes, she has learning disabilities. No, there’s no shame in that. It’s important to know. It’s also important to do our best to reduce the amount of misdiagnosis that occurs. Especially the misdiagnosis that stems from disrupting one bias and replacing it with another.
That same day our non-verbal student entered my class, first, and said “𝓱𝓮𝓵𝓵𝓸”. I said “hey [girl] how you doing?” She said “𝓰𝓸𝓸𝓭…HOW ARE YOU?” Well, batten down the hatches and clutch your mother’s farmed pearls.
No this isn’t the story of an angry black girl because that’s already been reported time and time again. A 15-year-old girl doesn’t logon during distance learning with a prior diagnosis of ADHD but because she’s connected with the prison system she goes to jail. We are traitors to our children and our future.
That’s a hard target. That’s structural racism. What I’m talking about is a soft target. And not many of us see it unless we are a part of that group. The micro aggressions and the implicit bias that suggests certain Black people do not fit the violent stereotypes our culture upholds, but an acquiescence and complicity. Someone you can take advantage of because they do not speak up for themselves. Someone you perceive as *being given an opportunity* to speak.
This student passed the state test in English a year before mandated. Confidence goes a long way; it should flow in many directions.