On being treated like Shaneequa…

My daughter attends a charter school in Newark run by a charter school corporation. Dealing with her school is particularly taxing, as there are a number of factors that inform the interaction. The below-mentioned conversation with the Dean of my daughter’s school was regarding the school uniform policy and the absurd attendance policy of suspending students for being tardy (I won’t even address the role of race in the über-punitive nature of urban public schools). The conversational undertones involved dynamics of race, school authority, parental role, and a general philosophical difference in approaches to effective urban education.

The dean set the tone of the conversation by stating he had tried to call me the previous week, during which time I was traveling internationally. I had informed the school of this trip in advance and given them an alternative contact. Instead of reading the notes and apprising himself of the situation,  he asked me if I was having financial problems keeping my phone on and reloading minutes. Already enraged I managed to keep my composure.

The Dean continued by implying that I did not value my daughter’s education, which he reiterated at many points throughout. At one point, he even mentioned breaking the cycle of apathy and fulfilling my duties as a mother. He continued by giving irrelevant, non-analogous examples of the current scenario, making sure to state that the “policy is necessary” without being able to answer why. He repeatedly stated that the point of the suspension policy is not to punish. I asked him on multiple occasions to please explain the goal of a punitive punishment such as out-of-school suspension if not to punish, as it certainly could not be to encourage attendance; he could not. Thinking he must have made a profound point in the conversation, he concluded by inviting me in for a meeting in case I “needed help reading and understanding the school policy and parent handbook.” Anger doesn’t begin to describe the feeling in the moment as he questioned my reading comprehension.

In reflecting upon this conversation with a friend he aptly summed up the interaction when he stated, “He was talking to you like Shaneequa.” That is, he was talking to me as if I were one of “them”: an uneducated parent off the streets of Newark in the midst of a cycle of poverty and educational apathy resulting in low educational attainment, who had birthed a child who now needs to be saved from this inevitable destiny by this charter school through tough love and the constant threat of punishment to maintain control over kids and parents who just “don’t know how to act.” This is not my background, nor are these the circumstances under which my daughter is being raised. But the Dean’s talking at me with these assumptions is in line with the orientation that I had received at the beginning of the school year, which focused heavily on the teen pregnancy, high school dropout, and incarceration rates in Newark, and barely addressed the teaching philosophy of the school. The clear message was akin to saying, “you need us to save your child, or else they will end up pregnant, on the street, or in jail.”

But, why should I have to distinguish myself from Shaneequa just to be treated with respect and not insulted? Had I cursed him out and acted like Shaneequa, it would have only reified his assumptions. Shouldn’t “Shaneequa” (**or any other parent with a black/minority/ethnic or perceivably “ghetto” or “unemployable” name) be treated with respect and as an equal partner in the education of her child? The need to distinguish between “us” and “them” on so many different levels (educated v. uneducated parent; school administrator v. parent; white administrators v. black and brown students) is particularly disheartening and counterproductive to what should be the common goal: enriching children’s educational experience. Moreover, a (cultural) deficit-model approach to urban education can only lead to further issues and breakdowns in communication between the school and families that do not represent the “targeted demographic.”

by Portia Allen-Kyle


One comment

  1. Tracy · · Reply

    As a parent of a young black boy who will eventually enter into the education system, this worries me. My wife and I both come from an educated middle-class background and will raise our son the same way. But this type of treatment is inevitable. I experience it as a worker in a very public career?

    Was there any resolution? Did you go in to speak with the principal?

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