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Two paths diverged: Why the messages we send to students matter

Today's guest post is by Dr. Renée Hlozek, a Lyman Spitzer Postdoctoral Fellow at Princeton University. Renée hails from South Africa and came to the US via Oxford University in the UK where she earned her PhD (DPhil) in astrophysics as a Rhodes Scholar. She studies cosmology as a theorist working closely with data from large telescope collaborations. She's also an expert in astrostatistics, which is where our interests start to overlap. Renée was inspired to contribute a guest post following my recent missives on race and racism in astronomy from the perspective of a non-US citizen.

The end of the semester is always an emotional time for me. 

It's a time when you prepare your students to take their exams, and try to instill in them the confidence that they need to stay calm, focused and positive. If you are in any way involved in education, you know those last few classes are key to building students up to the final hurdle. It is particularly poignant to me, because I currently teach a class in one of the country's maximum security prisons.

When I first started teaching I was struck by just how much the class was like any other I have taught before; filled with camaraderie, frustration at algebra and the eureka moments when you get something just right. But there is one major difference between the students I teach inside and those I've taught outside of the Department of Corrections.

When I give positive feedback it often appears like the first positive feedback some of my students have ever received. Feedback on the achievement, skill, intelligence and ability of people I don't really know, but who I am connected to through mathematics.

You might be wondering why I chose to write a blog post about this?f

Because many of the students I teach are men of colour. According to data taken from The Sentencing Project (image to your right), one in three Black men in the US will be incarcerated in a lifetime. That is breathtakingly bad.

The past few weeks have been terrifying. The deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner have ignited our grief, anger and outrage at the racism entrenched into the government here in the US. The protests have united us in the desire to change and challenge a system seemingly designed to oppress people of colour. 

We should be shocked, appalled and furious at these events --- and push to fight against the racially biased system. But it can also be easy to think that these events couldn't happen in our lives. 

Of course we need to work on stop-and-frisk, and push for indictments and police cameras. Yes, we need to stop the language of the war on drugs because it targets men and women of colour (aside: if you aren't convinced of this, watch The House I Live In; and Ethan Nadelmann's recent TED talk).

But surely on small scales, "at home" where we can control things, we are doing ok, right? I mean, we treat everyone equally. Right?

A recent episode of This American Life called "Is this working?" reminded me of just how wrong that assumption is. While the senseless deaths of Brown, Garner and countless others are the most extreme manifestations of racism in society and government, the effects are much more far-reaching than that. For example, 16% of black students are suspended from school, compared to 5% of white students, according to recent results from a survey of 49 million students in 16500 school districts around the country.

Implicit bias is a strange beast in that you can have it even if you know about it. Take this simple bias test to prove it for yourself. As an academic community we talk about bias largely in terms of the work place and to increase the diversity our community. And I think that is vital. But tackling diversity within a university population is almost too late. By the time students are in universities they are already in a system that they can use to strive. They've already overcome many hurdles just to get there.

What are we doing about the young men and women who have been branded as 'rowdy', as 'trouble makers' from a young age? The men and women who spend their lives swimming in a sea of negative messages and stereotypes? Who don't get support from their community to stay in school, who aren't validated? One of the most striking things about the reaction to #BlackLivesMatter and the discussion about the lives of the men and women who have fallen at the hands of racialised violence is that so often even in our description of the victims of these crimes they are themselves portrayed as criminals or dangerous. #BlackLivesMatter is about bringing the lives of these men and women into focus. Bringing into focus their personhood, not their background. This is visceral when I interact with the men I teach. As one of the inmates recently asked me: "how would you like to be defined only by the worst five minutes of your life?"

Are we surprised when these 'rowdy' children leave school (or are kicked out?) Are we surprised when they don't define themselves by what their brains and creativity can generate? When we focus on punishment and blame rather than principles of restorative justice; when we label students rebellious and difficult, we create a mould all too easy for them to slip into.

I'm from South Africa and stereotyping is something that I have a lot of experience with. It is so easy to stereotype different racial classes based on one or two interactions, and to let genuine fear of crime and violence 'justify' those stereotypes. But this attitude entrenches the stereotypes and ties our legs together, making any stride into the future difficult and sluggish.

All this may sound like pie-in-the-sky philosophy, but I've seen it play out. By the time some of my prison students reach my class, they cannot fathom why I am invested in them doing well. Why I want them to achieve and succeed. I continue to be humbled not only by the tenacity and determination of my students, but by their understanding of the larger world that brought them behind bars. They have committed crimes (and take ownership of their actions), but they continually show me that they can define themselves by something other than being encarcerated. 

As new and complex images of people of colour on TV and in the media grow, we can build a different narrative within our communities. But we need to address bias in the school system and in those who teach our children. We need to foster the belief in the potential of young men and women to learn. 

Some of those children might be Mike Brown. Some might be Trayvon Martin. Some might hold the intellectual keys to unlocking the mysteries of the Universe. 


Dillon Dong said…
Great post, Dr. Hlozek. I just wanted to comment that the This American Life episode you mentioned is very much worth listening to. In particular, it was the first time that I had ever heard of kids getting suspended in preschool. Apparently out of an almost complete sample of US preschools, 5000 / 1 million ~3-4 year old kids were suspended at least once, and 2500 of those kids were suspended more than once. In a sadly predictable trend, 42% of preschoolers suspended once and 48% of preschoolers suspended multiple times were Black, even though Black students made up only 18% of total enrollment. (see p7 of

I remember getting into several fistfights with the kindergarten bully as a 5 year old. It took me until late high school to grow out of being a rowdy, rebellious kid. Looking up these statistics really made me wonder if I had been born Black and attended less progressive schools whether I would be doing well in college today.

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