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What makes some Black teenagers lose interest in school after achieving academic success in earlier grades? There are many causes for low academic achievement, but Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum's book, "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" and Other Conversations About Race, offers one reason why many African American teens lack motivation to succeed in school.
Messages in the Media
Tatum notes that racist messages in the media can be harmful to teens. "Worse yet, the negative messages of the dominant group (White people) about the subordinates (Blacks and other people of color) may be internalized, leading to self-doubt or, in its extreme form, self-hate." Blacks on television are often drug dealers, murderers, prisoners, and gang members. The positive images of Black doctors, lawyers, and responsible parents are outnumbered by the negative images.
White people are labeled as the most beautiful or the smartest by the media. Most media images position Whites as superior and Blacks as inferior. Many African American youth cannot see beyond the racial stereotypes.
According to Tatum, as children enter into puberty they begin to search for a personal identity. As Black children mature, they encounter racism in hurtful ways. They may be followed in stores or harassed by the police. Misguided Black teens use media images to define what it means to be Black. Modeling themselves after stereotypes, many Black youth use slang, wear sagging pants, and listen to music that degrades themselves and others.
Tatum points out that racism may also be a part of the school system, "In racially mixed schools, Black children are much more likely to be in the lower track than in the honors track. Such apparent sorting along racial lines sends a message about what it means to be Black." Racial encounters and racist systems lead Black teens to form a Black identity that discourages school success.
Messages from Peers
During adolescence, African American teens seek support from Black peers instead of relying on parents. Educators notice that Black high schoolers sit together in the cafeteria, especially when they attend schools with a low percentage of Black students.
As a group, Black teens often assign certain behaviors to racial identities. When a Black girl speaks Standard English, she may be accused of "talking like a White girl." If a Black teen does well in school, they may be teased. Unless parents steer Black teens towards positive ways to define themselves, many students fall behind in middle and high school.
What Parents Can Do
There are many ways for parents to help teens form a positive self-identity. Parents can discuss Black stereotypes and teach their children that they do not have to become stereotypes. If parents read books and watch movies about positive Black images and leaders, they can have meaningful discussions about race.
Tatum encourages African American teens to bond with other Blacks--whether it is in the cafeteria or other places--but it is key for adults to direct teenagers about productive ways to support each other. With proper leadership, Black peer groups can actually be used to support academic achievement, instead of opposing educational advancement. Parents can enroll teens in mentorship programs and academic programs with other Black teens.
Teens should visit places that promote African American achievement in order to nurture academic growth. Parents can check local newspapers for places and events that display Black intelligent people, such as the California African American Museum. Use the information learned from books, community events, and museums to talk to children about their career goals. Parents should support children in accomplishing those goals by enrolling them in classes, summer activities, and other events that help students explore their interests. Local churches and other community organizations may be able to link teens with mentors.
Society may offer a lopsided view of what being Black means, but parents are able provide a full picture of Blackness. If parents give children the message that being Black is not a style of dress, a particular way to speak, or a level of intelligence, teens will be free to determine their level of success.
Taiesha Flenaugh can be reached at