I’m guilty of saying Black boys and girls are failing in school—a good chunk of us are. Going forward, I’m committing to correcting that language and mindset because I’ve realized how dangerous and damaging that deficit based thinking is—especially when it’s internalized. And if you claim to be an advocate for Black kids, you should too.
I’ve frequently used data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to highlight the fact that there are indeed gaps between Black, Latino and white students, intending to shame the system for its failure to provide our kids with a high quality education but sometimes and unintentionally framing it from a deficit based and possibly demoralizing perspective.
So when my sis, Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, interjected in a team conversation about these gaps with, “This data makes me cringe—why do we continue to compare the achievement of Black students to that of white students as if white achievement is the standard?” That was a revelation! I know I’ve heard this plenty of times before and probably in many different ways but in that moment, it really sunk in—and she’s absolutely right.
Yo, it’s absolutely critical that we consistently and unapologetically tell the truth about and work to eliminate the obstacles Black students face. But, we must be careful and mindful of how—in the process of speaking facts—this reality can diminish their self-determination and brilliance. Because to be clear, Black kids aren’t failing—a system that was never designed to nurture or grow their talents is failing them. A school system that upholds this notion of white superiority with blatant racism.
But if our kids are constantly hearing they’re the problem from us—even if that isn’t the intended message—and the public school system, they’ll start to believe it. So here’s how we gotta flip the script.
Black people and allies, the most important thing we can do is make sure we’re positively affirming, investing in and uplifting our kids every chance we get while, at the same time, fighting systems that want to tear them down. And they must know that whiteness is not a standard of excellence—that they should set their own degrees of success outside of the world’s construct of supremacy through skin color. Point, blank, period.
We also have to abandon this “savior” complex because it perpetuates this position of superiority and privilege, which are the very things we’re fighting against. A major key dropped by Conan Harris in the film, Black Boys, was “These young people don’t need saviors, they need believers.”
And he’s right. Because Black boys and girls don’t need saving from themselves—they just need to be rescued from this awful ass system.
Secondly, we have to stop and push back against the use of the word “achievement” when referring to gaps in academic progress and replace that with “opportunity”. Because if anything, Black students are the victims of divestment.
When you look at the fact that many school districts with majority Black kids receive significantly less funding than those with majority white students, that’s an opportunity disparity in itself. Obviously less funding means less access to essential resources—they’ve been armed with a knife and shoved into a gunfight.
Also when you consider the abandonment and mass closure of schools in Black communities, that's opportunity impediment.
I mean, if the signs weren’t clear before that Black people are being strategically pushed out of the city with undertones of “y’all don’t matter,” this is a whole ass, neon-lit billboard telling us what the deal is. We have to take heed and fight for the investment in and overall sustainability of our neighborhood schools and communities.
Another thing is, we definitely have to do away with curriculum and narratives in schools that depict Black people as innately uncivilized and inferior.
This deficit based mentality is fortified when teachers assign them less challenging coursework, school resource officers dehumanize them because of the color of their skin, and administrators suspend and expel them at higher rates. Who can believe in themselves or even survive under these conditions?
Look, every day the whole world is telling our kids they ain’t shit. Whether it’s coming from the media, someone in or outside their communities, the police, schools, whoever, they’re hearing and seeing it. We cannot afford to have them growing up, believing that they aren’t enough and conforming to stereotypes and standards white supremacy has set for them to actually fail.
I want to leave y’all with this message in a tweet from Matt Story. He said, “Imagine where we could all be had we decided to amplify Black excellence instead of exploiting it. Well what if we collectively decided to make that change today? Who is with me?”
Black excellence does exist and it lives in our kids. In a dark world that constantly seeks to dim their light, our advocacy should make it shine brighter and our love and affirmed belief in their ability to succeed have to be the fuel that also gives them the power to fight. So, who’s with us?
Zakiya Sankara-Jabar is the former National Director of Activism at brightbeam, the parent organization of Education Post. She is the co-founder of Racial Justice NOW! and most recently served as the National Field Organizer at Dignity in Schools Campaign. Zakiya came to organizing, advocacy, and policy work organically as a parent pushing back on harmful school discipline policies that ...