The following excerpt from Bright, Talented & Black: A Guide for Families of African American Gifted Learners, by Dr. Joy Lawson Davis, was originally published on my blog Everyday Intensity in 2010. You can also read a guest post by Dr. Davis on why she wrote the book and my review of Bright, Talented & Black.
External and Internal Challenges of Being Young, Gifted, and Black
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.
~Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, author and civil rights activist
Being gifted can be as much a challenge to gifted children as it can be to their parents. Many characteristics of giftedness raise concerns that need specialized attention from parents and school personnel. Without understanding the full scope of gifted behaviors, often even the most loving and caring parent cannot help a child tackle the external and internal challenges of being gifted. While many issues addressed in this chapter are those faced by all gifted children, Black gifted children face additional, specific dilemmas.
All of us at one time or another have experienced discrimination. Black gifted children are likely to be treated unfairly, not only because of their ethnicity, but also because they are gifted, which raises additional challenges for them. Sometimes the discrimination is overt and intended. Other times it is subtle and possibly unintended. Many people hold biased notions or beliefs about others that they perceive as facts, and they may not even realize that they are discriminating when these beliefs come into play in their actions and behaviors. In either instance, though, whether intended or not, discrimination is a reality that Black gifted children must face at some point in their lives.
Black gifted children in unfair or discriminatory school settings understand from a very early age that something is wrong with their school experience. They often have a vague feeling that they don’t quite fit with what the teacher expects or what their classmates are doing. This type of situation not only puzzles them, but over time, it becomes frustrating and disappointing. Some students will try to make themselves fit in, even if it means that they are not being true to themselves. Others may withdraw within themselves or even physically withdraw from gifted programs. Some become depressed or angry and rebellious and act out. The low retention of gifted Black students in honors and advanced classes speaks to their discomfort level and the need for schools to examine better approaches to ensuring that students’ intellectual and social-emotional needs are appropriately met.[i]
Many gifted teens, both minorities and those in the majority culture, have a very deep concern for human rights and equality issues in the community and the world at large. It is not uncommon for gifted students to become activists and leaders at an early age, not because others vote them into office, but because they feel personally obligated to speak up and work to help make a difference.
It is essential for parents of Black gifted students to teach their children about race. Describe to them what it means to be Black in America, talk about our history in this country, and help them understand through your speech, as well as your actions, that although they will face obstacles and challenges because of their race, they have the ability to be successful.
Lack of Understanding of Black Culture
Another barrier for Black children is simply a lack of understanding about Black culture from the majority population. When our schools were integrated, some even by force in the 1950s and ’60s, Black students were placed in classrooms outside of their home communities. As a result, many African American students faced teachers for the first time who did not look like them nor understand their behaviors, language, culture, and traditions.
Some researchers suggest that this lack of understanding is a major factor in the continuing achievement gap between African American children and White children, and they point to the increasing numbers of teachers who have little or no knowledge of and respect for who these students truly are, but yet who teach Black children on a daily basis.[ii] As a result, these teachers tend to categorize and discriminate against African American students. Powerful research results from a nationwide study indicate that:[iii]
White Male students are more than twice as likely to be placed in gifted/talented programs as are Black male students, while the latter are more than twice as likely to be classified as mentally retarded as White male students, in spite of research demonstrating that the percentages of students from all groups are approximately the same at each intelligence level. The persistent over-classification of Black male students as mentally retarded reflects, at best, a lack of professional development in this area for teachers and other staff.
When educators discriminate because of a lack of appropriate professional development, the affected students are handicapped in their ability to receive educational opportunities that are equivalent to those offered to their majority-culture classmates.
One way that discrimination and a lack of understanding of Black culture affect African American children is that others simply do not expect enough of them—it is discrimination through low expectations. As a parent, you should be aware that teacher expectations contribute significantly to the way teachers teach and the way students learn. As a matter of fact, some recent studies have concluded that teacher expectations, and thus the learning environment, have the greatest impact on student achievement.[iv] Teachers have the ability to strongly influence the lives of their students though the ways they interact with them and the amount of attention they give to them (or not) in the classroom.
Teacher expectations are not unlike community and societal expectations. As a parent, you need to be alert to low expectations from various adults both within and outside of the school setting. Neighbors, relatives, coworkers, and potential employers often fall into the trap of low expectations, too, and it can be quite a challenge to keep your child from accepting those low expectations—and underachieving as a result.
Most children are negatively affected by low expectations. Some, however, use these expectations as motivators. One high school student from a low-income environment said this when asked about barriers or facilitators to her achievement:[v]
When people see my home and my surroundings, they expect me to be of low education or incapable of educational success, because let’s face it, that’s the unavoidable stereotype. My environment encourages me to be successful in school in order to prove the stereotypes wrong.
This comment was mirrored by Oscar-nominated actress Gabourey Sidibe: “I think people look at me and don’t expect much—even though I expect a whole lot.”[vi] Sidibe won international acclaim for her portrayal of Precious, a large, dark-skinned teen who was horribly abused for most of her young life. Precious is a film adaptation of the book Push, by Sapphire. Sidibe was nominated for Academy and Golden Globe awards and won the NAACP Image Award for best actress—and this movie was her first acting role. Her latent talent would have not been discovered had it not been for the audition team who saw potential in her, friends who encouraged her to try out for the part, and her own high expectations.
Just imagine the numbers of children in classrooms and neighborhoods across America for whom low expectations are the norm. They live in places where they are not expected to rise above or do anything fruitful with their lives. Among these children are many who have exceptional talents. Be alert for situations in which your children may be confronted with individuals who don’t believe in their potential. For example, if your son tells you about specific comments made by teachers or others that indicate low expectations of him, immediately remind him of his high potential and how, with hard work and persistence, he has the ability to be anything he wants to be.
If your child describes events that demonstrate that he is repeatedly subjected to low expectations in school, set up an appointment with his teacher for a face-to-face discussion. If, after this meeting, your child continues to describe negative comments that he and other students experience in the classroom, then your next meeting should be with the principal. It is important for parents to speak up and not allow students to be abused in school settings by adults who don’t believe in their potential. Suffering from low expectations can destroy the spirit of anyone over time, particularly a gifted child or teen who is already in a minority and feels he has to prove himself time and time again. One mother passionately shared her feelings on this matter, saying that she had “a sense of responsibility to exalt her own son to let him know that he is special and capable of doing well in school and in life.”[vii]