I asked a group of my daughter’s friends (all in their mid twenties) to tell me what they wish their white teachers knew about them as a black student.
The responses were interesting. A couple of responses I’ve written about in previous posts, but there were two in particular that caught my attention:
“All my friends chilling together doesn’t mean we’re in a gang.”
“Just because we’re laughing and jumping and running doesn’t mean we’re fighting. We’re probably bantering someone’s creps.”
The second response reminded me of an incident at my school at the end of the summer term. It was the morning the Year 6’s were due to go on a trip and there was a lot of noise coming from one particular group of boys. I watched and listened from a distance and worked out that one of the boys was wearing a new pair of trainers (also known as creps) which the others didn’t think were very cool.
The ongoing chorus from the group was, ‘What are those?” Now, those of you up on popular culture will know that the phrase comes from a Vine video that went viral. It’s a phrase often used to highlight footwear that are deemed to be naff!
I could see the boy with the trainers was only just about holding his own and the situation had the potential to go one of two ways. So, I went over to the group, casually mentioned that what they were saying wasn’t very nice and then dropped in the fact that they didn’t want me to start commenting on aspects of their attire and saying ‘what are those’ because then it would get really uncomfortable. They got the point and together found another topic of conversation to pass the time. A bit of banter in correct measure, with students you have a good relationship with, works wonders for defusing a situation.
But this is often not the approach some school staff take and why the young people I spoke to felt the way they did.
Young people often banter: they take the mickey out of one another and most of it is light-hearted. Yes, it can get very loud at times. If the comebacks from those involved in the banter are particularly good, the reaction can come in the form of the young people running away from the group and then running back, all whilst having fits of laughter. They can end up jumping up on one another and ultimately become a little bit boisterous, but at times like this, it’s all in good faith.
The problem that often occurs is that adults may hear the noise and automatically think the worst, without even taking the time to observe facial expressions, body language or listening to tone being used. All of this can be done in a matter of seconds. You can scan and see the main protagonists and how they are interacting with each other. You can see if one of the observers looks like they’re about to take it too far, and you can hear from the language used whether it’s confrontational and causing offence to the other party.
Not every gathering of young black people – males in particular – needs to be seen as a gathering that’s has the potential to become volatile. It really is possible for a group of 3 or more black boys to be together, just chilling.
Some may think I’m being emotive, but if you were to ask pretty much any black boy, perhaps from the age of 14 or 15 upwards, from an inner-city school how he thinks white people will view him when he is in a group with his friends, their answer would probably not be a positive one.
In my opinion, we’ve gone so far down the route of stereotyping that it’s hard to convince many that not every group of black boys you see on the street is up to no good.
There’s nothing that warms my heart more than seeing a group of black boys walking down the street, chatting and chilling, just like the group of white boys that may be doing the same. But it upsets me to think that there are many that would see the boys as a threat and assume the worst.
Any group, regardless of ethic background, can get up to no good, but sadly it’s the black males who have to work extra hard prove that this is not the case.
Some parents will instruct their black boys not to walk around in groups of more than three in order not to draw negative attention to themselves. What kind of society are we living in when young people have to decide how many of their friends they’re going to walk down the road with in order to placate the fears of others?
As educators, our responsibility is to help quash those stereotypical assumptions. We shouldn’t be the ones to immediately assume that a group of black boys who are making a lot of noise are doing so because there’s a fight about to break out.
Yes, we know that banter can get out of hand and lead to offence being taken and then laughter turns to anger, simply out of embarrassment. But as the adult, if you’re able to diffuse the situation using a positive intervention, by observing and listening first and building relationships with those concerned, you can help to create a much better environment for all involved.