Thursday, August 23, 2012

Redirect, Deflect, Protect

I work in an educational setting, and had cause to be in a meeting today with someone who works directly with public school teachers. In speaking about the student population she serves, she said something that stung: "In these schools, 57% of the students are Black. The population we're reaching isn't the cream of the crop. They aren't engaged, they are struggling. So we're really making a difference."

None of the people in the meeting were Black, and I believe that had she known she was speaking to the parent of a young Black man, she would have chosen her words differently. Not the cream of the crop? What a peculiar and peculiarly white metaphor to choose! She thought that she meant that her program is serving lower-income and at-risk students, not students already receiving a premium education. But she equated that profile with race, and expectations around academic performance, and expected us to regard that as a non-problematic equation as well. Black = poor. Black = at-risk. Black = not the "cream of the crop."

As foster adoptive parents of a child who is clearly not our biological child, our public lives changed when we became his parents. I have been regularly taken aback by the things that people say when they think there is not a Black person represented in the room. I have seen this sort of commonplace stereotype have an impact on our son, first-hand. I've seen teachers and social service providers alike size him up and formulate conclusions before he's had a chance to establish himself on his merits. For example, just a few months ago, we and he jointly decided under the influence of his mental health provider to enroll him in a "full service partnership program" which is really just a sort of wrap-around service. It offered medical advocacy, job placement and independent living services and it looked like it might be beneficial. But the coordinator assigned to his case, upon first meeting, just assumed that T did not have parents or resources at his disposal, and spent the first meeting urging him to enroll in a food stamp program for homeless youth. At the time, we were covering room and board for him, he was far from homeless, and we were actively supporting him on a daily basis. Offering him food stamps was neither helpful nor necessary. It was clear in talking to the service provider that he had taken one look at T and assumed various things about him without delving deeper. As a result, T got the services that the provider concluded that he deserved, rather than the ones he really needed and had enrolled to receive.

We need to work harder to ferret out those pernicious stereotypes in schools, in medical and social services, and in workplaces. We also have to be on our toes to deflect, redirect, and protect our kids. The challenges facing traumatized kids only make them more vulnerable to stereotypes, assumptions, and substandard services. And those stereotypes and prejudices can arise in the most innocuous or unexpected settings, precisely the ones where you think people know better.

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