How power dynamics & cultural clashes stemming from whiteness work against young people of color in urban schools

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Excerpted from “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education” by Christopher Emdin

“With the rumbling of a New York City commuter train above, and the Bronx skyline before me, I read Standing Bear [My People the Sioux, 1928] and became fascinated with the ways of the Sioux. His stories of Native American life and the unique traditions of his people reminded me of my youth in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and in the Bronx. As he described the distinct codes and rules of engagement of his people, I saw analogous images from the hip-hop generation…”

“In his book, Luther Standing Bear poignantly describes his experience as a student at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School—the first institution designed to “educate the Indian.” Established in 1879 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the school was founded by Richard Henry Pratt, a US Army officer who had served in the Indian Wars and believed that his experience with the Native peoples he had formerly captured and imprisoned equipped him to educate them. The white teachers he recruited sincerely believed in Pratt’s vision. For them, it was because of Pratt’s genuine concern for the Indigenous Americans that he had found it in his heart to give them a better life through education. It was this idealism that led educators to leave positions at other schools to be a part of the experiment to “tame the Wild Indian.”

The Carlisle School employed a militaristic approach to “helping” the Indigenous Americans assimilate to white norms. For students, the authoritarian “care” that was shown to them at school stripped them of their culture and traditions, considered primitive and inferior. Unfortunately, because many of these students were far from the support of their Native communities, they were forced to assimilate to the culture of the teachers and the school so as to avoid the harsh punishments that would otherwise be levied on them. As the teachers worked to “tame and train” students who were described as “savage beasts,” students struggled to maintain their authenticity amid the efforts to make them “as close to the White man as possible.” This tension between educators who saw themselves as kindhearted people who were doing right by the less fortunate, and students who struggled to maintain their culture and identity while being forced to be the type of student their teachers envisioned, played a part in the eventual recognition that the Carlisle School was a failed experiment.

The teachers who were recruited to the Carlisle School were in many ways like white folks who teach in the hood today. Written accounts from that era confirm that Carlisle teachers saw themselves as caring professionals, even though students described many of them as overly strict and mean-spirited disciplinarians. One teacher wrote in the school paper, The Red Man, that the students had “unevenly developed characters, strong idiosyncrasies and a lack of systematic home training.” His only praise for the indigenous students was their “native unconscious keenness.” Another teacher described a teaching culture in which “the students are under constant discipline from which there is no appeal.” This culture of unrelenting discipline was presented by educators as benefiting the Carlisle School’s challenging population. The Carlisle system had a goal to “make students better,” but this goal was predicated on the teachers’ understanding that the students came to the school lacking in socialization, intellect, and worth. The school celebrated teachers’ rigidity and strictness out of a belief that this was the type of training that would be successful in acculturating indigenous students to white society.”

Read more of the excerpt here.