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Child Watch® Column: “'The Emotional Toll of Growing Up Black in America"

Release Date: August 29, 2014

Marian Wright Edelman

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn, a brilliant Black Ohio State University professor, recently opened the Educational Testing Service and Children’s Defense Fund co-sponsored symposium on Advancing Success for Black Men in College by sharing a question his 14-year-old son asked him: why did he get in trouble for speaking out of turn when he jumped in to answer his teacher’s question, but when his White friend did the same thing she was praised for being excited about learning? Dr. Strayhorn noted that many parents and grandparents and educators and policy experts are concerned about the same question: “There are lots of Black and Brown boys who are often penalized for committing the same exact act that non-Black and non-Brown, usually White kids, commit in school—and some students are praised for certain behaviors that other kids are penalized for. It sends a very mixed message, because my son is confused: ‘So what should I do? Not be excited about learning? What if you just can’t wait for the question? How do I signal to the teacher I’m not a rule-breaker?’” Dr. Strayhorn said these questions are something we’ve got to think about. 

Dr. Strayhorn highlighted a number of other roadblocks we must all be sensitive to and overcome to get all our children on a path of healthy development, confidence, and success. The disparate treatment of Black children in the classroom from the earliest years, especially Black boys, often discourages and knocks many off the path to high school graduation and college. The cumulative and convergent toll of subtle but discouraging adult actions in schools and other child serving systems they come into contact with too often impedes the success of children of color, especially those who are poor, and burdens them with an emotional toll they don’t deserve.

I used to sing loudly with my children and Sesame Street’s Kermit the Frog “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” I can only imagine the number of Black children and adults who sing inside daily “It’s Not Easy Being Black.” I’m sure that Black youths seeing what happened to Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and others who lost their lives for walking while Black and those who are stopped and frisked and arrested and victimized by excessive police force carry these burdens inside every day. Even the youngest Black boys, ages 4 and 5, who are put out of school and even preschool for nonviolent disciplinary charges for which White children would never be suspended or expelled must be confused and feel this way too.

Watch the Video
Dr. Terrell Strayhorn:
Mentorship and Roadblocks

Dr. Strayhorn spelled out another way Black children are harmed: through disparate resources in the classroom, including textbooks, that hold Black, Brown, and poor students back. He described an experience he had while a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville working with a Knoxville high school that was 97 percent Black. “I found that in this high school these students were learning from textbooks that were at least 10 years old... What exactly are the implications of learning from a textbook that’s 10 years old?  Well, I'll tell you this: that if you don’t catch up too quickly, especially in terms of science, there are certain technological revolutions that have happened at such a fast pace that they’re not even mentioned in the books from which they’ll learn—but will certainly be part of the test that they’ll take to demonstrate competency to go on to college. So it means a whole school of children and youths are set behind, not because they’re saying ‘Don’t take me into the future’ or ‘I don’t want to learn’ or ‘I don’t want to be successful,’ but in fact because they’re studying hard from textbooks that were set up to set them behind. That’s inequitable and that’s unfair.” 

As he covered what does work in building a pathway to success, Dr. Strayhorn emphasized the need for positive interventions based on proven designs—because in his program evaluation experience he’s seen far too many well-intentioned efforts that lacked a measurable impact because good ideas weren’t well implemented. He said as an example mentoring programs are especially popular, but many don’t provide adequate training: “If I ask everyone at this table, ‘Will you be a mentor?,’ and you all say yes, and I say, ‘Now, go out and mentor,’ but never tell you what a mentor is supposed to do, I never tell you how important it is to get to know your mentee, I don’t build conditions and environments where you can engage your mentee in meaningful ways, I don’t give you resources to do the most important thing that a mentor has to do—and that is expose the protégé to experiences and opportunities that they might not experience otherwise... Mentoring, for me, is problematic because we pick it up very quickly and we move on with it because it sounds like it ought to work—but we don’t do the work it requires for it to be effective.” 

Dr. Strayhorn also discussed how important it is to provide role models for young people who look like them and who are culturally sensitive—and how this is especially true for Black boys. He was clear that not all mentors and role models have to “match.” As a young Black graduate student his own most influential mentor was his older White doctoral advisor. However, having some successful role models who do look like you and who have had shared experiences can make a huge difference, and these role models are out there for Black boys trying to imagine their paths through college: “There are models for success... I’ve met tons of young Black men all across the country who are hard working, they are conscientious, they’re industrious, they have high aspirations, and every intention of achieving their dreams. They were raised by moms, dads, guardians, foster parents, sometimes they have met the juvenile justice system, but they are still committed to achieving their goals.”

Everybody in the classroom and teaching children today—when for the first time White students wll no longer be the majority in our nation's public schools—needs to be culturally sensitive and culturally trained. This is true for all child-serving institutions. We need to watch out for the subtle as well as the overt ways in which we treat non-White and White children and those who are poor differently. And we need much more diversity in children's literature so that White, Black, Latino, Native American, Asian American, and all children can be exposed to the rich mosaic of America's melting pot to help them see themselves and what they can be. As the new school year begins it's crucial to hold up examples of success and inclusive education—and focus on steps that work to make that success possible for all children. And it is important to hold up examples where all children are excited about learning and feel empowered and encouraged to ask as many questions as they can.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by sha53 at: October 13, 2014
More of this dialogue is needed. What happens to the population of students that have parents that have been victimized by the same disparity as them? Who have no idea how to parent and the education ofO the value of lifelong learning. We have to minimize teen pregnancy, promote proper prenatal care, exceptional pk-4 grade basic skills. This should be number one top priority. Special Ed classroom assistant 6th grade

Submitted by Grandmom at: September 2, 2014
My granddaughter attended an all black public school when she was in the 3rd grade. Her teacher (white) assumed that my granddaughter did not read a passage from the National test that is given to the children to check their reading level. My granddaughter finished earlier than expected, therefore, the teacher assumed that she guessed the answers because she got 80 percent correct. Moreover, she wanted to retain her in the 3rd grade because she was not ready for the 4th grade. I asked my granddaughter about the test and she told me that she skipped over the big words that she did not know. However, she did understood what she read. We knew as a family that my granddaughter can read and understand what she reads decided to put her in a Christian private school, she was tested and put in the 4th grade. Moreover, she was on the honor roll throughtout her entired 4th grade year. I encourage parents to believe in their children because like the article, we need to pay more attention to how our children are being taught and what the teacher is saying to them. Also, the teacher try to make my granddaughter think that she could be smarter if she repeated the 3rd grade by pointing out another student who repeated the same grade.

Submitted by Anonymous at: September 2, 2014
I wish I could say that the disparity of treatment for the young as well as older African American boys and men was a lot better in 2014 but the mistreatment of my college educated 89 yr.old father, my physician brother and sadly my 26 year nephew lets me know that more awareness is necessary from everyone. We are all in this together and like Dr. King said injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We still have work to do.

Submitted by mommyg at: August 31, 2014
I agree with many of the comments made by Dr. Strayhorn. I am a teacher for students with special needs in the state of NJ. One of the disparities that I have to address each year is equitable distribution of science materials for my students. Although there is a basement filled with science equipment and materials, only a select few teachers who are male and Non black and Non brown have daily access for their students in the general population. This to me is institutional racism at best, because what it says is that children of beautiful hues of brown and black, who experience learning disabilities are not worthy of receiving the same materials as their general education peers, but are being held to the same education requirements especially in assessing knowledge of the curriculum.

Submitted by Char at: August 30, 2014
Dear Dr Edelman, I am not sure that you can say that white children get away with jumping up and speaking out of turn. I had a problem with that, and I got scolded. they can't have the whole class doing it, I was told, makes it quite disorderly. Kids with ADD forget what they were going to say if they don't blurt it out right away. very frustrated with the mind trying to keep up with 20 different directions at once. I used to say, that it was like trying to do your book keeping while working at McDonalds and having 6 lines of customers wanting their order at the same time. you can end up turning in circles, and not getting anything done. I tried teaching a class of 6th graders one time, and the boys were always trying to get the attention of the girls and vice versa. Someone wasn't staying on track, and you spent most of the hour trying to keep everybody on the same page. I like your speaking of Dr Strayhorn's comments about not being able to keep our education up to date. That is so true. They are outdated by the time they are published. it would be so wonderful if classes could convert to computer training for sciences and social studies especially. When I think of all the specialities advancing since I was in school the things that I don't keep current in, have likely become so outdated. I need to go back to school!I like Dr Strayhorn's enthusiasm. ( He looks too young to have a 14 year old though!) I am so happy for teachers who inspire children to learn and have an interest in the world and science and liking to read. What a gift. but I notice that by the end of the school year, all the teachers look pretty exhausted. I don't think there is too much racial about that. I also worry that if you speak as if the children are disadvantaged that it is easy for them to give up, and to feel like they didn't get a fair shake, and resentful and a chip on their shoulder. When that happens, their happiness is lessened. There must be a fine balance to encouraging kids, patient, telling them that they can not expect this stuff to be handed to them on a silver platter, that it takes a lot of work to achieve success. I know a few people who have photographic memory, and they make learning look very easy. I had a room mate like that in nursing. She made off with the top grades, and top awards and she only studied about 15 minutes a night. When we graduated, she had decided that she didn't want to be a nurse, and went to pharmacology classes. I said to a friend, you know, I kind of think it would be nice to have it come that easy, but honestly, I don't think she has any sense of reward about it, because she didnt' have to work to achieve it. I had to struggle to learn and memorize but now I've been a nurse for 40 years, and it has been very rewarding. The "no child left behind" has been a disservice to some, because it has not challenged them to strive toward the goal. kids don't think they should have to work hard, and they don't want to work. Isn't that a shame.They have missed out on the reward that comes with the hard work. Sometimes at little kid competitions, I see little ones all get a huge trophy for winning one match. They want everyone to feel like a winner. What is going to feel like reward to them, when the big struggles are accomplished. What does concern me is the nutrition for developing brains in pre school, so that the brain has a better capacity for learning. I remember what a struggle it was to get my kids out to school in time in the mornings. Sometimes they were so late, that they dashed out without breakfast. and nutrition should be a requirement for everyone to understand the importance to themselves and their children, to prioritize so that the vegetables/protein/ fruits are part of their diets. yes, I know, it's easier to fill kids with carbs, and cheaper, and grocery bills are a real challenge. but allow kids to get away without eating their vegetables because they don't like them is a great disservice. okra and carrots and fresh beans and peas.....the kids would have more sparkle in their eyes, and ready to take new things on. and if they were put to sleep on time, so they were rested, their brains would be more ready to learn. Most of us didn't know what we were getting ourselves into when we had children. the sleepless nights before the baby was born, we didn't know that was to prepare us for the sleepless nights to come! We didn't know that we would be keeping up with such eager little feet for so many years, and that there would ALWAYS be dirty clothes. Haha! and that toilet paper could run out so fast.....all that when we finally got the kids down for naps and thought we could get something done, that we wanted to rest our eyes too. It really is kind of funny. I didn't know I would get a thrill out of buying a new mop! There are things that I can get into poor me about too. How come I had to work full time all theses years, why couldn't I stay at home with the kids. How come I bear the expenses of all the house hold costs, why can't he take care of them.When I start thinking about that, I can get grumpy and spout off, and make my husband wish he was out of the house. It hasn't helped at all. I need to find my contentment in what I do have and not in what I don't. Yes, I remember a few grumpy teachers that made life difficult. I go scolded when I didn't seem to know what the teacher thought was obvious I should know. didn't work up to my capacity. used words in my report. did I really know what they meant or did I copy from the encyclopedia when I did the report (which I had worked very hard on)and I did know what they meant so I didn't think that she was fair. I used the "mean" instead of average.but it probably wasn't so bad. It certainly made me very aware of it in the future. nothing like getting scolded front of the whole class. Maybe she was irritated because I was always so amazed that she took the handkerchief out of her bra, blew her nose and put it back in there after blowing her nose. It probably didn't occur to me that I should maintain a neutral expression about it since she was the teacher. When kids have days like that, hopefully mom can help them work through it, re encourage them, unconditional love, but consistent guidance. they will be blessed. ( oh, to be perfect parents). I agree with you about diversity in literature. the diversity makes life varied and interesting, and richer. How I wish that people would learn this, instead of taking on a bully behavior , sibling rivalry, instead of family togetherness. I tell people often. War is awful. there are no winners only losers. look at all the trauma soldiers go through with horrifying memories of what they witnessed, what they did. how can they get rid of the nightmares. we are all together on this fragile little planet, and we need to learn how to get along. We come from different backgrounds, cultures, and religions, but we need to learn to get along.My heart goes out to yet another young man's family shot by the police.and it breaks for every parent who has lost a child to violence. It hurts for parents whose son is a hostage in a foreign land.It is unfair and it makes me angry but I will try not to let these sorrows stop me. we have a journey to make called life. Carry on... Life could be very beautiful indeed.In small ways we can make the world a better place. sounds like a Coke commercial from years ago, now that I think about it. Well, I've rambled on long enough. God bless. The world will be a better place because you are in it! Char

Submitted by Craines at: August 30, 2014

Submitted by Anie at: August 30, 2014
Very on point. Please comment on the practice of our own internalize oppression for children experiencing the color complex as well.

Submitted by Grannynanny at: August 29, 2014
When it comes to educating our beautiful Black children, especially our boys, Dr. Janice Hale wrote a piece that said Black children bring their "church culture" to school. In this "church culture", just as in the Black church, there is lots of movement, showing of emotion, "shout-outs" when something is good to you or resonates with your spirit, and you are not expected to sit still for hours on end. She goes on to state that the typical school classroom is set up like a Euro-centric church, where one is expected to sit still, be quiet, and remain in orderly rows, not showing very much, if any, emotion. This classroom culture is counter-intuitive to the nature of Black children, so the disconnect happens the minute the child enters an educational system that is run predominantly by those sharing the Euro-centric church background. The moment I read her thoughts, I knew she had hit the bulls-eye concerning the problems our Black children face in culturally insensitive schools. At this point, until we have schools that reflect the cultural make up of the community, we will continue to have problems.

Submitted by milly dee at: August 29, 2014
Dr. Strayhorn is right on with this article.

Submitted by Anonymous at: August 29, 2014
It is interesting to read and comforting to know that as a Community Educator and mother of 3 Latino boys I have support. I have many times felt that not enough was being done for my boys and I have sat in meetings where I am sweating and nervous to face up to 8 professionals. I often tell my boys to never give up, but there are times when I feel I am giving up against a wave of subtle behaviors from teachers and other professionals. However I thank you for sharing your experiences and how this has positively affected your life.