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Black students don’t need your “tough love”. They need compassion.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays from educators, students, parents, and others who think and write about public education.

It’s time to address a harsh reality that most prefer not to discuss: more than a century and a half after the abolition of slavery, the dehumanization of black children continues in classrooms across the country.

It’s not just the low expectations, the stereotypesand adultification of black youth that compromises their physical, emotional and academic well-being. A vast gap of empathy also threatens their lives.

White children are generally treated with more trust, compassion, and lighter discipline. Black children typically face harsh discipline, surveillanceand aggressive enforcement billed as “tough love”.

This empathy deficit is not only seen by white teachers who, through implicit and explicit biases, believe that black children need an aggressive hand. Black teachers sometimes admonish their students of color more harshly as a way to teach them how to survive, the result of hard-won lessons passed down for centuries.

We have seen this reality time and time again, both as lifelong social workers and educators and in our own lives. But what we’ve come to believe is that black kids don’t need “strength.” Life is already hard for many of them. They need an abundance of love backed by empathy and compassion.

Dr. Barbara Milton: Making sure I succeeded in the white mainstream culture was a job my mother and grandmother took seriously and with the best of intentions when I was growing up. At the first sign of tears, I was reprimanded: Don’t cry! Tears show weakness! You can’t be weak in a white world!

Another warning: never look white people in the eye. It’s too risky and it could cause problems. And no matter how hard I worked, I heard: Don’t be lazy! Black people have to work twice as hard! Show them that you are ready for any task!

They believed that this tough love would provide me with the armor to resist and push through the abundance of racism that would try to hold me back. It worked, but the cost of emotionally arming myself and sticking to those rules was way too high. I adopted a persona that was not my true self.

Now, as an adult, I’ve had to cut through the hard learning of love and find the gentle love and compassion needed to heal and be resilient in a world where racism continues to try to undo the force of the heart, mind and strength of black people. souls.

I am grateful for how my mother prepared me for a difficult world. But I now know there is another way to uplift black youth. I use the strategies of empathy and compassion, not only in my personal life but professionally in my work with young people and families from marginalized communities.

My clients often remarked that their encounters with me were different because they felt seen, heard and valued as human beings. I was aware that my position working with them was in stark contrast to their encounters with other, mostly white, professionals. Love and respect have become a cornerstone of my work with black youth and families.

Dr. Deborah Brooks Lawrence: I was one of the few black kids in my school. For the most part, everyone left me alone, and that was OK with my fifth-grade self. For a class assignment, I made a painting that caught the attention of my director. He saw it and asked, “Who did this very creative work?” I said, “I did.” Warily, he claimed, “That’s fine, but I don’t think you did this because you’re culturally disadvantaged.” My teacher didn’t say a word.

When young people of color fall, schools fail to catch them, instead sharing tough love.

Although the language may be different today, versions of this scenario still play out for young black people. When educators don’t believe in their black students, it’s maddening and exhausting.

If we want black children to be able to process these experiences, they must feel the security of comfort and compassion. When it happened to me, my mother told me: “You have to get used to it and keep going. But compassion is what helps build that resilience.

Drs. Milton and Brooks Lawrence: Often, young black people build a hardened facade in response to the lack of understanding of their lives and the racism they face inside and outside of school. At the same time, as they watch the murders of black people at the hands of the police, they get the message that it’s safer to be more invisible.

Like our caregivers, well-meaning black teachers urge young people of color to protect them from the cost of challenging or “offending” white authority. It’s a tightrope walk, and many young black people lose their balance somewhere between hypervigilance and inner restlessness. Yet tragically, when young people of color fall, schools fail to catch them, instead sharing tough love.

It’s time for all educators to treat young black people humanely. Look underneath for behaviors and attitudes that, at first glance, may seem arrogant and even antisocial, but are likely expressions of ability with no easy outlets.

Using Sankofa, from Ghana, which means “to go back in time and put forward what is useful”, work with students of color facing challenges. Listen, using patience rather than punishment. Help them tap into their inherited wisdom and resilience. If you do, you will change a life, and maybe even save one.

Drs. Milton and Brooks Lawrence are the authors of “Inherited Wisdom: Learning from Once-Enslaved Ancestors to Uplift Black Youth”, by Cognella Press.

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