Urban, Low SES & Black Male – The single story of African-American & Latino kids in US schools.

I teach in a school in a part of town that many people call “urban”. I teach in class setting that many people call “special education”. Most people don’t know these things about me. They just  know I am a teacher. They often assume that it is in suburbia and that my students are typical i.e. general education students. The reason being is that most of the time I talk about my students as individuals. I talk about the fun things my students do, the things we learned, how I rode my bicycle to school, and other random teacher anecdote type things.

When I tell most lay people (non teachers)  where I teach in a neighborhood in southern Los Angeles, people often gasp and make an interesting comment.

I have heard variations of, “It must be challenging,” or “Is it dangerous?” or just, “Wow!!!”

When I tell them I teach special education they say, “That is so nice of you to do that.”

These are the reasons that I never start off my conversation about the children that I teach with the neighborhood they live in or their ability levels. I know the single story story that has been told. I know that “urban” is just code for black and poor or Latino and poor. I know once most people hear “abc” neighborhood or “def” syndrome their filters go up and they no longer hear anything that you are saying except what they they already believe to be true.

I will not be part of this wink-wink conversation.

People say urban to quickly lump all the people on the “wrong” side of the freeway or the “wrong” side of the river into one quick little neat box.

The problem is the box is not neat. Adjectives that turn into tools of oppression are never a good thing. I think the term urban has outlived its usefulness in education.

My students are not all the same.

The neighborhood I teach in is just as diverse as the places that are written about in the Living section of the Los Angeles Times. I have students who live with both mother and father in a house that their parents own. I have students that live with their single mother in a condo that their mother owns. I have students that live in the projects. I have students that live in motel rooms. I have all kinds of students. That is  the beauty of America. You can find a variety of people in most major cities and some little ones too.

“Urban” neighborhoods are just as diverse as suburban ones.

I also do not use the term low ses  to describe my students. I feel that the spirit of the term is false. First reason I don’t use the term low ses is because all the  students at my school aren’t of low socioeconomic status. At my school we have several teachers, including the vice-principal who send their children to our school. Our school is mainly African-American and Latino, but not everyone who is black or Latino and lives in South Central or on the Eastside is low socio-economic (I live on the Eastside, I am not low ses)  just like everyone who lives on the Westside isn’t of high socioeconomic status.

Another reason I don’t use the term low ses as a flippant description is because of what it casually states.  It’s a quick and dirty way of calling someone poor, but with no political history attached to it.

I am not a social scientist. I am teacher of students. I am not going to assume my students’ economic situation and I’m not going to generalize all of my students in a way that makes it easier for people who don’t care and harder for them.

If you want me to talk about my students situation within the context of history (which I  will refuse to do without referring back to history) and the challenges that are related to that I’m not going to give you a polite acronym. I am not going to make it that easy for you.

My students are economically oppressed.

They grew up in a country where their parents or grandparents or great-grandparents were not allowed to live in certain neighborhoods, because of their race. In Los Angeles and in many other large metropolis there were racial covenants. Those racial covenants prevented people’s parents and grandparents from gaining access to certain neighborhoods. The same people who created those racial covenants also created restrictions on schools, placed restrictions on business loans, pushed indigenous people onto reservations, destroyed Los Angeles’ Chinatown, interned Japanese-Americans and made laws like the Bracero Program and more recently prop 209, prop 187, and prop 8. those laws were created  to specifically exploit and oppress the many African-American, Chicano, Pacific Asian Island, and Indigenous American students that are currently in our Los Angeles county school systems today.

I say economically oppressed as a way to be politically active in my description of my children’s circumstances to an outsider who isn’t involved at my school. I want them to feel the reason why I  have students that people call low ses. I want them to know why it happened. My students’ challenges are not random. My students’ challenges were orchestrated by laws that were passed by people who lived here.

Teaching at any school in a neighborhood you aren’t familiar is challenging. I don’t want anyone to speak to me and think: She has the key to urban schools, because I don’t.

The challenge you will face in any neighborhood will shift depending on the individual situation, just like in the school you went to.

My goal as a teacher is to empower my students.

My goal with being concerned with diversity in education is an equal outcome for my students. I want a good outcome for my students.

If I contribute to the single story, because it’s easy I am using my privilege as a teacher to oppress my students. When I make broad statements like urban, illegal, inner city, or black fe/male to describe 5 year old little boys and girls  I am contributing diversity to the conversation in a Gap commercial way. I am bringing up a topic that isn’t white and middle class, but I am oppressing my students by continuing the typical stereotypes.

If I make it easy for you I am oppressing my student by contributing to the single story. My goal as a teacher isn’t  to pigeonhole my students in your head before you even meet them.

There is no urban student. There is no inner city kid. There is no monolithic Latina or black “male” and anyone who tries to tell you there is, probably has a book deal, so good for them.

My goal as a teacher is to empower my students. It might take me longer to explain my students or make people wonder, “Why didn’t she just say disabled?” But hopefully my conversations online and in person will make people think a second.  Hopefully the people I interact with who maybe haven’t had the experiences with as many people as I have will have a sense of, “Maybe I don’t know everything,” clarity.

Maybe they’ll see a student of color from a neighborhood that is only written about in the Homicide Report of the LA Times and they won’t assume that they know them. They won’t assume that they know the music they like and that they understand their experiences. Maybe they’ll assume they don’t know this kid even though they read a book about people who fit his or her profile or a blog about people in that kind of neighborhood or a professional development they had once about troubled youth that had a lot of pictures of kids that look a lot like this kid.

Maybe before assuming they’ll ask that kid a question and listen to the answer.

-Thanks for reading. I hope you join #2sirchat a chat about the diversity of education at 4pm Pacific Time on Sunday. This Sunday’s subject will be privilege.

5 Responses to “Urban, Low SES & Black Male – The single story of African-American & Latino kids in US schools.”
  1. This is by far my favorite TED talk. Thanks for referring to it in this context. I used this with my students this year and it really stuck with them whether we were discussing the value of their own stories, Three Cups of Tea, The Outsiders or Reconstruction. My diverse classroom embraced this complexity of thinking and that is a key to empowering our students.

  2. 1635school says:

    It’s my favorite ones also. I have any adult who works with me in my classroom listen to this talk before they work with with me and my students in my classroom. It’s a good reminder.

  3. FreeYourMind says:

    “Adjectives that turn into tools of oppression are never a good thing. I think the term urban has outlived its usefulness in education.” How very privileged of you. If oppressed people only had the same privilege. Regular adjectives used as pejoratives are a tool of the oppressor but accepting the pejorative definition as the *single story* definition is a result of psychological and cultural conditioning. Freedom of mind is of equal importance as freedom of body. There’s nothing wrong with urban or Black or any other label unless deep down you believe there’s something wrong with it. Accepting the oppressor’s narrative as your own is the problem.

  4. 1635school says:

    I didn’t say anything was wrong with black. I’m sorry, but urban doesn’t mean black. Unless you’re trying to sell something.

    Urban is a term that some marketing genius came up with to lump all people of color into. Urban isn’t a regular adjective it’s code. It’s code like “states’ rights” or “libertarian”.

    If you accept urban as being synonymous with the entire African-American and person of African descent experience in the US you my friend are the one who is accepting the oppressor’s narrative. My nana didn’t call herself urban and neither did my mom. If you think of when the term urban started being used I don’t it’s too difficult to figure out who came up with it. My name isn’t Toby and I won’t answer to it.

    I choose to define white, African-American, Latino, Asian-American, and mixed-raced peoples on a case by case basis, not on using a broad generalization.


  5. Buzz Garwood says:

    Hi Lark,

    The other night, I responded to a tweet that was denouncing the term “illegal alien.” We had a brief exchange and then you indicated you did not wish to follow me anymore. I’ve had a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach ever since then and I want to know if there is enough common ground between us to hopefully mend this rift. Here’s a little background. I teach in a school with about 90% Hispanic where most of my students are on free or reduced lunch. Some of our students are homeless. Fathers in jail, mothers on drugs. One of my students witnessed her own father murdered in front of her last year in her own home, just down the block from school. I’m very emotional about my students and the care and love I have for them can not be measured. Whether they were born in Mexico, Egypt, or here in the U.S. I favor no one student based on their color, gender, race, religion, or the immigration status of their parents.

    That said, I don’t have a problem with the term illegal alien because today, there are “legal” means of becoming a citizen of the U.S. and there are “illegal” means. I have more respect for those people who go through the legal process of becoming a citizen than I do for those who seek citizenship outside the legal process. My best friend’s father waited seven years before he could become a legal citizen of the U.S. from Germany. Seven years. Should it have taken that long? No way. But I respect him for staying within the law and becoming a citizen. Similarly, I should not expect that any other country grant me the benefits of citizenship of their country simply because I managed to arrive there. Not when there are different kinds of visas, permits, and legal means of becoming a citizen.

    I love that the the U.S. is a melting pot, but I also believe that today, people need to work within the law if they wish to come here. Should EVERY illegal alien be deported? No. Although I said in my tweet that the term “illegal alien” should be defined as: “People who should be deported because they are breaking the laws of the U.S.” I didn’t mean EVERY one of them. Bottom line is: I had 140 characters to express myself and I realize it came across overly simplistic — even harsh and insensitive. The fact is, I’m open to other solutions. In fact, the notion of granting amnesty for some of those currently here illegally is something I would like to explore.

    Tweets and blog posts that are political in nature will fuel debate. Tweets can come across terse and overly simple when the problem is significantly more complex. And sometimes a person just can’t say all he or she wants to say in 140 characters, and perhaps shouldn’t even try. We as teachers want to be the most accepting, loving and nurturing people on the planet, but even teachers as loving and caring as we are have opposing views. I want to be open to you and I will continue to listen, really listen to you. I don’t believe we will ever see eye to eye on everything, but perhaps we can remain respected colleagues in the best profession on Earth.

    I hope you choose to follow me on Twitter, of course, it is clearly your choice. Above all, I want peace between us.


    Buzz Garwood

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