Teaching Michael Brown

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Two years ago today, Michael Brown died, and I am wondering about the positioning of Black men on the news, and other forms of media. Does the media’s portrayal allow for understanding? I ask these questions as I work on research regarding the dynamics of family interaction. What images does the word family invoke? What does it mean to be part of a family? What are the ways in which the media has fallen victim to the ideas surrounding the Black “family”, and stereotypical ideologies including the “Black male as the brute”? How does that affect our interactions with Black men? Do the portrayals of black men in the media preclude or allow them to be included in what it means to be a member of a family, and by default a member of society?

There is a continuously negative and sensationalizing narrative about Black men, made glaringly visible, particularly among news outlets. Remember Darren Wilson’s testimony, and as Time succinctly put it: all the ways he was afraid of Michael Brown? There are significant challenges facing the African-American community in the United States, but media portrayal, in particular that of an overemphasis on Black masculinity, has led to a distancing in understanding of Black men as human, and members of families. In his book, Masculinity in Theory, Todd Reeser, of the University of Pittsburgh, challenges one to think of “the broad question of how and why racial associations with gender are being made – and in particular, possible attempts to create or affirm power or hegemony – should be considered”. The consequence of this racist construct compounded by gender specific stereotypes, including the adjective aggressive, taking the place of a noun, and enacting identity, is social distancing. Social distancing, or the inability to relate to another person, is directly correlated to a lack of empathy. When Black men are positioned in light of gendered stereotypes, or as excessively aggressive there is a loss of an ability to connect. Research has demonstrated that one of the sources of empathy for “certain categories of stranger” are directly impacted by what one gets through media including newspapers, television, or films (Hochschild, 2013, p. 36).

What does this mean for teaching, not just students who like Michael Brown, happen to have skin that is described as Black, but every single one who sets foot in the classroom? For teachers it is important not to let stereotypes, arguably pathological in nature, to become a single narrative, isolating one’s understanding of the complexities and multi-dimensional nature of being human. Educators must work to bridge the gap, that is at times unconsciously formed about who students are. It means learning to check our assumptions at the school door. It means asking ourselves as Columbia University’s Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz once challenged, “What are some habits of our hearts, and minds?” The nature of teaching makes it easy to form habits. Our minds, too, can begin to exercise certain ways of deficiency-based thinking, that can becomes solidified over time. It means actively resisting the language of labels, or identifying students by particular traits, perpetuating the practice of segregation further engendering a culture of dehumanization.

Reflecting on how you think, why you think what you think, requires humility. Humility also ask that you hear, but listen. So as you prepare to teach a “Michael Brown”, ask don’t assume.

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