How to Have 'The Talk' With Your Black Students When They Return to School

Eric Holder stated that in his version of "the talk," which he hoped to not have to “[hand] down,” that “as a father who loves his son and who is more knowing in the ways of the world, I had to do this to protect my boy.” "The talk” is often defined as the dinner-table conversation that takes place between Black parents and their sons and/or daughters. It is the heartfelt and protective advice given by parents on what to do when encountering a police officer. While "the talk" traditionally occurs in the homes and neighborhoods of Black families, it also, unintentionally or intentionally, occurs within educational settings. As an African-American history teacher, my responsibility is to give a very long-winded version of "the talk.” My job, my responsibility and the reason why I strive to serve well, is to provide students with the ability to be problem solvers and give back to their own communities despite ongoing oppression. However, all teachers—not just those that teach African-American history—have the responsibility and can and should be held accountable, regardless of what curriculum he or she teaches, to at some point have a “talk” with students of color. The challenge is that for many educators this talk is given without possessing the necessary cultural competency to have a conversation that makes students feel safe and supported. I've seen teachers give their mini-version of the talk. Most redirections we provide to Black students about behavior are our personalized adaptations of "the talk.” Every time a teacher addresses a Black student in the hallway about their uniform or in the classroom about the curse-word they just yelled, the teacher is adding to the story of this racially concerned conversation. My concern is that when teachers ask a Black student “why are you late?” or to “take those headphones out of your ears!” they are unconsciously “talk"-ing at the student, without the required racial competency to have the conversation. These discussions require racial sensitivity, patience and preparation. As I prepare for a new class of students in a few weeks, here is what I will do, and what I advise every other teacher to do to support positive racial identity development in our students. You don’t have to be an African-American history teacher or one of the rare “minority” teachers to have your own racial “talk” tool-kit. You too can participate successfully in the conversation and help further protect and empower our students.

5 Tips on "The Talk” and Positive Racial Identity Growth

  1. When re-directing Black students, provide the explanation. Our students might want to engage in some behaviors when we don’t want them to, and our students want to test the limits (a natural and healthy part of human growth and development). Explain to students the impact of their choices and the reasons why you are asking them to change their behavior. Students are more likely to cooperate when they have been “explained-to” not “talked-at.”
  2. Growth Mindset is a must. Every time I get frustrated with a student, I check myself on a student’s pre-determined oppression circumstances. It’s not about just them. It’s also about me, and a particular institutionalized microcosm at that moment, and whether or not I can remain positive enough to get past my own frustration. There’s always another solution, another conversation, another intervention, that may help you be more successful with the student.
  3. Develop a racial positive affirmation with your students that you say regularly. Cheesy I know, and yet in my classroom we say before each lesson, “I am my present, my past, my future.” You don’t have to teach African-American history to say those words or develop an affirmation that routinely brings students together and supports a positive racial identity.
  4. Stop blaming the family all the time. This one is huge! And is more about that “talk” you have with yourself or another co-worker. Often times, as teachers, we say “well, she didn’t even get her cell phone taken away,” or “Can you believe he got suspended 2 days ago, and showed up to school with a new pair of sneakers this morning!” Remember, our families, our communities, quite often face oppressive circumstances. Many are truly looking to us as educators for guidance, support and meaningful partnerships, and most of all, solidarity in this struggle.
  5. Beware of the elephant. Don’t avoid acknowledging your privilege. Recognize how you, as a teacher, have had advantages that your students did not. How are your students’ experiences different from your own in high school? What implicit bias do you have that is holding you back from truly having a “talk” with your students of value? Even as a Black teacher, I work on this one every day.
Ultimately, as educators, we do have the responsibility to participate in “the talk.” The question is: Are you doing so in a productive way that supports positive racial identity growth?  For Black students, “the talk” is a part of their education and if educators could also be co-parents in the “talk,” think how much further students of color would be uplifted.
An original version of this post appeared on Philly's 7th Ward as The Talk Every Teacher Needs to Have With Black Students.
Abigail Henry
Abigail Henry is a secondary African-American history teacher at Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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