It Was Racist

by Guest Contributor M. Dot, originally published at Model Minority

I was reluctant about today’s class going in.

We read Mary Waters’ Ethnic Options and her book Black Identity. I reviewed Black Identity which focuses on the process of West Indian Americans coming to identify or avoiding identifying as Black.

The book contained lots of qualitative interviews with West Indian  folks talking about why they don’t like African Americans,  why they are Black, but not like Black Americans, that Black Americans  are lazy, expect handouts etc.

I had no idea how the class was going to react to this.

Fascinating stuff, though, right?

Especially when you look at the presence of African Americans vs. West  Indian Americans on four year college campuses and in graduate,  law and business school in the Northeast.

The book is awesome in how it gets at how first generation verses second  generation West Indian immigrants deal with assimilation, with proving  that they are not Black and also with identifying as Black. The most  fascinating part for me was learning that women who worked as teachers  and nurses in Jamaica, came to the Brooklyn, worked as teacher and  nurses yet, class wise their lives were not the same.  The material difference is the on their salary in Jamaica, they were middle class,  so they could afford nannies and house keepers, and their housing was more  spacious and safer. In the US, housing was more expensive, there was more  opportunity for jobs and education for their children but the housing dollar  didn’t go very far.

Which brings me to my classmate.

Jamaica’s system is based on the British system*, which means that children are tested and tracked at a very young age. They either go into vocational track or academic track.

Apparently Germany and much of Europe is the same way.

My Black classmate said, that he agrees with this.

I responded saying that standardized tests are measures of familial wealth, not student aptitude. And the aptitude of a four year old cannot be measured because they have only been on the earth 48 months. He responded saying  that the British system is better because it separates the students early  and that there are some who shouldn’t be in school and college.

I said that this was racist. We do not know what children are capable of at 4.

They responded saying that it wasn’t racist.

I said, it was both racist AND classist because of the disparate  impact that the same policy has on Black boys in the US. Ann Fergusons’ Bad Boys talks about this at length, if you want to read more about it. It’s an awesome study on a public elementary school in Berkeley, and it hones in on the ways in which school policy and teacher subjectivity  impact how Black boys are disproportionately disciplined and placed in special ed classes.

I asked him how he reconciled his approval of early testing and prediction with the fact that standardized tests measure familial wealth not student aptitude.

He responded saying “Yeah, tests are culturally biased but math isn’t.”

My eyes rolled. That did NOT refute nor address my argument.

Another classmate, a white woman who is in marketing asked, “Isn’t it better for us to assess the children at 4 rather than at 12 so that they don’t languish in the system?”

I responded no. The issue isn’t when they are assessed the issue is creating a system that serves their interests, not the interests of school administrators or corporations. We need to move out of binary modes of thinking and ask ourselves whose interests are served by that.

She said “Aren’t all children about the same at four?”

I said no, all children are not the same. Each child’s education attainment is related to how much money her parents  earn and how much social capital her parents have and lastly how much  intergenerational wealth a family has.
I only wish that I asked them, “What would you do if your child tests into the vocational track at 4?” I imagine, I hope the responses would have been more compassionate.  It isn’t lost on me that these people will be future professors,
bureaucrats, marketers, political advisers, researchers etc.

I see it as my job to say something.

I was proud of myself for calling a spade a spade, at least I was earlier, this evening. As the night has worn on I am tired. School is awesome,  but in some ways the more I learn the more it appears that racism is manifested on a civilizational level.  In some ways, this experience showed me the racism runs on a deep civilization level. I take this term from the paper “Coloring Epistemologies: Are Our Research Epistemologies Racially Biased?”

In the paper, James Sheurich and Michelle Young lay out three levels of racism.

I list them below:

The first is institutional racism, which exists when institutions or organizations have standard operating procedures, intended or unintended, hurt members of one or more races in relation to members of the dominant race.

The second is societal racism exist when prevailing societal or cultural assumptions or norms, concepts or habits favor on race over one or more other races. For example, the OJ trial revealed societal racism.

The third is epistemological racism comes from or emerges out of what we have labeled the civilizational level, the deepest, most primary level of a culture of people. The civilizational level is the the level that encompasses he deepest, most primary assumptions about the nature of reality (ontology)…

On one level these experiences remind me of just how privileged I am, and have been, on another it reminds me of how other children get screwed by bureaucrats on the regular.  It reminds me of how the teachers who stepped into my life when my city, Oakland, and my family were both submerged by the crack epidemic.  It reminds me of how these angels saved my academic life.

I hope I can be an angel for someone else.

The social costs of being a model minority, of being a Black women are taxing.

I hope I don’t go crazy trying to make sense of it all.

Pray for me.

* Editor’s Note: The idea of the “British system” was disputed in M.Dot’s comments section – ultimately, she was referring to an academic test based system. – LDP