The weight of our Assumptions

As is my usual routine when I’m driving or writing, or doing almost anything, I have MPR (Minnesota Public Radio) on in the background. Late last week, I heard the snippets of a conversation in which a middle-aged African American male shared his story about being placed in special ed. I tried to find the story on the MPR website without luck. So what I share is from memory. My mind was drawn back to his story as I again had a thought-provoking conversation with Cierra.

But first, this man’s story. He shared that he had struggled with learning and that adults around him worked to get him help. He was eager to learn and when those adults made the decision to place him in special education programs, he thought that was a really good thing. He was special, he had always been told, and he thought being placed in a special education program would be better than what he had been experiencing and that the special ed environment would provide the opportunities he needed to grow and learn. What he experienced, however, was something completely different. Being labeled special ed brought with it assumptions about intellect. If you had special educational needs, it was assumed that you were, therefore, stupid and incapable of learning. Consequently, the education he was offered was substandard and minimal, guaranteeing that he would live up to the assumptions placed on him.

His words came back to the forefront as Cierra and I talked this week about the beginning of a new school year and her transition to high school. In an effort to prepare her and myself for the move, I did some basic research about her new school. As I talked with her, I shared that her school had lots of diversity, with 73% of students identifying as students of color. She was interested in the breakdown of the racial groupings and as I shared those, I noted that there aren’t any categories for mixed race and wondered where they had placed her. She quickly responded, “I know where they put me; they put me where they always put me. They identified me as African American, even though I am as much white as black.” She went on to say that really didn’t bother her, but what did bother her were the assumptions that teachers made because of her skin color. From her experience, most of her teachers, make assumptions that because her skin is brown, she comes from a poor and uneducated household. She noted that they talk to her differently than they do white students, even when they are wanting to be supportive and encouraging because they assume that color = poor. All of us draw the wrong conclusion on occasion, but I couldn’t help wondering, about the consequences of these kind of assumptions. Does assuming that a student is poor because of the color of her skin lead to beliefs of inferiority, both her beliefs and ours? Does assuming that students of color come from uneducated households foster convictions that those same students are incapable of academic success? Do our assumptions as educators preclude students from thriving in school?