Confronting the Unruly Black Student Stereotype

When I transferred to a specialized high school the quality of my education improved, but racism toward me and other black students did not.

by Dominique De Castro

Lagos Techie, Unsplash

Four years ago, about a week after Hurricane Irma hit my home in Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands, my mother, two younger siblings, and I were evacuated via helicopter to Puerto Rico. From there, we traveled to New York, where we joined my grandparents for good.

For the first two semesters of high school, I went to Thomas Edison Career and Technical Education High School, which is mostly composed of Black, Hispanic, and AAPI students.

I hated walking through metal detectors guarded by security officers. They’d yell, “Single-file! Put your bags on the conveyor belt! No jewelry, empty your pockets, and take off your belts!”

This ordeal felt unnecessary. This was a school, not an airport. I felt nervous about being stopped and searched on the off chance that I’d accidentally brought one of the many forbidden items such as plastic eating utensils or permanent markers.

After two semesters at Thomas Edison I was able to take the specialized high school admissions test (SHSAT), and I got into Brooklyn Tech. Brooklyn Tech doesn’t have metal detectors, though they have twice as many students and there have been issues with student drug use and students vandalizing property.

Brooklyn Tech is majority White and AAPI. Thomas Edison has a large Asian population as well, but unlike Brooklyn Tech there were many Muslim students. So I wonder if the heightened security was partly due to Islamophobia.

Additionally, Thomas Edison is across the street from four high school academies where a third or more of the students are Black. So I think the criminalization of Black students could be another factor for the security measures. Reporting from WNYC supports my theory: they found that 48% of Black students go through metal detectors at NYC public schools each day, by far the largest demographic.

Racism Shrouded in Coded Language

Even though the quality of education is better at Brooklyn Tech, I noticed that the way teachers spoke about students from other schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods was often shrouded in racially coded language.

One day during my sophomore year, my White chemistry teacher told us about a predominantly Black school she taught at and how the children there were often violent and there were high rates of teen pregnancy. “Students at Brooklyn Tech are good students. You all are lucky to be in a school with the smart kids,” she said.

At first glance this appeared to be a harmless statement. Of course Brooklyn Tech kids are smart, but what irked me was that she used a school of predominantly White and Asian kids to juxtapose the supposed inferiority of Black kids in another school. To me, this was a subtle way to invoke negative stereotypes about those Black kids. I was the only Black student in that class.

It’s stressful having to be hypervigilant about my behavior and how it might be perceived by others.

After that I felt less comfortable speaking up in class and seeking help. I forced myself to do it, though, because it was a challenging class.

Negative stereotypes of Black students as violent, lazy, and unruly, is one I feel I must constantly fight against. Even though I’m technically included in the “good kid” category, I fear it wouldn’t take much for teachers to change their tune and view me differently, too. I feel constant pressure to avoid appearing like any of these negative stereotypes.

I do this by changing how I speak to sound higher pitched and peppy, by changing how I stand to look non-threatening, by going above and beyond in assignments even if it may be unnecessary. It feels like I have to walk on my tiptoes and make sure to present myself perfectly at all times. It’s stressful having to be hypervigilant about my behavior and how it might be perceived by others.

“It’s such a bad neighborhood and the kids are so violent.”

Fast forward to my senior year of high school last year, during the pandemic. In AP psychology class, on Zoom, my teacher began talking about her husband who worked in a high school in Mount Vernon. My ears perked up at the mention of the majority Black town where my mother grew up.

“My husband has a hard job,” she said, “He works at this high school in Mount Vernon and the kids there are so violent. They have to put bars on the windows at the school. It’s such a bad neighborhood. They’re pretty bad, so you should consider yourselves lucky to go to Brooklyn Tech with all the smart good kids and not those kids.”

I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Again, a seemingly innocent comment meant to shroud racist stereotypes. This time, it felt more personal though. My mother had grown up there and I imagined that at one point, teachers at schools like Brooklyn Tech had inadvertently spoken about her this way, as “one of those kids.”

Until now, teachers and others had made racist comments like this, but none had been specifically directed at me. But then in my precalculus class during a breakout session on Zoom, an Asian student did not understand a certain math concept and I decided to help him. “Hey, it’s surprising that the Black student is better at math than the Asian student,” he said.

No one spoke up although one girl laughed nervously and mumbled something that sounded like, “That’s not very funny.” It would have been nice if someone had said something more, but instead the virtual room filled with awkward silence for a few seconds. 

It felt like he’d said an unspoken belief at Brooklyn Tech: that Black students at the school are viewed as less intelligent than their White or Asian counterparts. I felt as though my intelligence was undervalued due to a stereotype. In the moment, I ignored the comment, but I did not offer to help other students after that. I didn’t want a repeat incident and I also didn’t want to seem overbearing. 

I will probably continue to ignore racist comments if they’re not egregious, like at KKK-slur levels, because I don’t want to become stereotyped as aggressive or the angry Black woman. It doesn’t help me demonstrate that I’m intelligent because “angry Black women” are pegged as the opposite of intelligent. This is something I’m cognizant of when speaking to people, especially non-Black people. For example, when I pitch up my voice, and watch my tone even when I’m annoyed or upset.

These changes in my behavior don’t come without costs of course. When teachers use coded language to describe students in class, Black and marginalized students can’t help but internalize the meaning behind those words. This is also true when students themselves invoke harmful stereotypes. Just as I felt uncomfortable asking for help from teachers or giving help to students after hearing these comments, I imagine other students of color feel similarly. The result is that many Black students and students of other marginalized identities like me withdraw from expressing themselves fully in the classroom which can negatively affect their education.

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