Evil Black Men

by — Feb 8, 2010


It was supposed to be a simple assignment — a little something to remind the kids about their lesson on adjectives. Magazine and newspaper clippings + lots of glue + fancy descriptives = an easy lesson and the perfect student work display for the parent/teacher conference.

We all drank in the oversized poster boards, us parents patiently waiting in the hallway for our turn with the teacher. Mari pointed lazily at the big navy blue sheet she worked on with her group; there were cars that were “slick” and “fast,” desserts that were “tasty,” and chairs that were “pretty” and “comfy.”

And then there were the postage stamp-sized, newspaper cutouts of young black men, three of them spread out across the paper. Beneath each of them, written in simple, neat black bubble letters was one word: Evil.

The hell?

Mari got questioned first: Who wrote evil under those pictures? And why? Did the story the pictures came from show these boys were criminals? Did you see the story? Did you have anything to do with this? Did it occur to you to tell whoever wrote this that this wasn’t nice?

I got little more than crickets from the kid. That and a bunch of “I don’t knows.” So I left her alone. Until, that is, I moved on to the next poster board, and the next one, too. On each poster, there were at least a dozen cutouts of black men glued down and summarily objectified.





Each adjective, it seemed, was uglier than the last. And each of those ugly words are the ones that first came to mind when the children in my daughter’s class — many of whom she calls friends — saw pictures of black men.

This — this was bigger than some random comments, some smart-ass kid who thought it would be funny to say mean things about random people. This was deep-seated stereotyping at its worst — at first blush, the innocent ramblings of 10-year-olds, but, in our eyes, symbolic of a much larger issue: Even these children, young as they are, were falling prey to the negative hype that black man = bad.

Blame it on media imagery, pop culture, racism, ignorance, immaturity, naiveté — a combination of all of them. Neither Nick nor I could be sure who or what to blame. What we did know was that when we got our turn to talk to Mari’s teacher, we were going to request the posters be removed from the wall and that she consider having a talk with the kids about perceptions, stereotypes, and adjectives that hurt.

This is what Nick and I were discussing (privately, mind you) when a fellow parent burst into our conversation, accusing us of “making a big deal out of nothing” and “trying to find something that’s not there.”

“What about this picture?” she yelled (literally yelled!), jabbing her finger at a cutout of a football player about to be tackled, holding a football in his strong embrace. Beneath his picture, a student scrawled “sporty.” “You both just conveniently ignored that picture!”

Dead. Fish. Eyes.

Now, I’d like to tell you that Nick and I handled this woman with grace — that our conversation was measured and neat and that we had a Kumbaya moment and laced fingers and pinky-sweared better cultural understanding. But er um, yeah — it didn’t go down that way. Let’s just say it got ugly and voices were raised and accusations were made and, despite my husband’s petition for her to “walk in our shoes for a day, a month, a year, a lifetime” before she dared tell us how we should feel about the blatant stereotyping of black men on our children’s class work, she just wouldn’t acknowledge that something was wrong with those pictures.

Mari’s teacher, however, handled our concerns with grace, humility, and a genuine understanding that with kids this age, teachable moments come out of left field and it’s on the adults in the room to deal with the situation head-on — to confront and adapt and use them to make children really think, instead of shrinking away from them or ignoring them or trying to reason away the obvious to make themselves feel better. The teacher, whom I’ve loved for many more reasons than just this one instance, allowed herself to see our perspective — how there was no denying that this class-full of 10- and 11-year-olds, a virtual U.N. of races, backgrounds, religions, and cultures, could internalize negative perceptions of black men.

Heck, even Mari didn’t fully comprehend why this was a situation until her father made plain how dangerous it is for people to look at a black man and automatically assume he’s bad or ugly or scary. “How wrong would it be if your Daddy were walking down the street, or your brother, or your cousins Miles and Cole, and everyone assumed we all were scary or evil just because of the way we look?” he asked her, before telling her of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell and Oscar Grant III and the long line of black men who were killed after police officers wrongfully assumed they were criminals. Punctuating our points, I showed Mari a blog that, ironically, I’d posted on MyBrownBaby earlier that morning about how I feared for her cousin Miles, who will soon look like a man.

Now, my Mari gets it. It’s a lesson we weren’t quite ready for her to learn, but clearly it was a discussion that needed to be had.

My hope is that my baby isn’t the only student who walks with a clearer understanding about adjectives — and the ones that hurt.


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  1. Geez… I'm just speechless… by both the displays of ignorance on the part of the teacher AND some of the commenters on your piece as a whole! Even when the situation is presented clear as day, denial still works to cloud these people's vision. And, although the teacher took action, she's still leaving it up to YOU to be the representative of black folks on how we should be viewed/treated! I hate that WE are still left to be the sole educators. What? She doesn't trust herself to actually go around the class and the children are working to help them think outside the box? GRRR!

    Anyhoo… you are amazing and I love you for it. I think you handled the Oscar Grant backlash beautifully btw!

  2. My goodness. I, too, am surprised the teacher didn't notice what had happened, and I wonder whether the children had a list of adjectives they had to use and attached those to the black people or whether they came up with the words on their own. If they had a list, the information may have come from the teacher. It seems odd to me that three groups would do the same thing, unless somehow instructed to do so. I am also glad such a topic was discussed on such a mainstream site, but I am saddened that it deteriorated into the typical argument. I was just about to comment there, when I decided this would be a better place.

  3. Jennae @ Green Your Decor

    All I can say is wow…

    As soon as I read the word "evil," I literally got chills. It should surprise me that all these kids have internalized the same idea, but it doesn't. The fact that even Mari — who clearly has parents who teach her a thing or two about how beautiful it is to be black — didn't understand the problem at first proves how much outside influences can affect our children. Especially since, from your response at Parenting.com, the children were not given the adjectives, but allowed to come up with them on their own.

    I'm not shocked, but I AM disgusted, and just thankful that your daughter has the kind of teacher that she does. Even if you have to be the one to speak to the class, better that than for her to ignore the issue altogether. And kudos to you for stepping up for something that wouldn't matter to so many people.

    I love how easy it is for people to tell us "get over it." That's easy to say when you've never been the victim of racial profiling. And the parent who chose to interject in your private conversation? I can definitely see how it would've gotten ugly, because I don't think I would have been able to have a Kumbaya moment right then either.

  4. Ugh! Where do I even begin? I read this post wide-eyed and gobsmacked. The mother interjecting herself into your conversation uninvited would have been on a fast train to getting the TASTE slapped outta her mouth. Yes, I am just that barbaric. Just another confirmation of one of many stereotypes I suppose.

    And I don't understand how the teacher allowed these posters to be put up without inspecting them first. If there had been a poster of a blonde woman with with the adjective "Dumb" or "Clueless" inscribed beneath it, would she have been quicker to react and correct the bias here?

    I have to agree with everyone else here on some of the comments on the parenting blog. A lot of the comments were ignorant and clearly made my cowards. I dare anyone of them to tell me to "get over it" when my Blackness is cause for me to be shot in the back by the cops, face down! Disgusting.

  5. Teresha@Marlie and Me

    I'm almost too shocked to go read the rest of this post…almost. be right back

  6. D, I posted this at Parenting, but I thought I'd reproduce it here too:

    "Denene, I wish that parent had been speaking to me, because she would have the wrath of 400 years of oppression rain down on her like a ton of bricks. I can't stand the way ignorant people refuse to acknowledge the impact of centuries of racism, even when it is blantantly obvious. If the pictures had been of Black men holding guns or knives, then I'd understand the 'evil' tags (but that would have begged the question of why they chose those images of Black men). But if these images did not inherently speak to any evil activities, in and of themselves, then that parent was simply bugging. As the father of two male children, I plan to arm my sons with ample information about how they will be perceived in this society MERELY BECAUSE OF THE COLOR OF THEIR SKIN, as well as the tools to help them combat the inevitable ignorance they will face. White people do not inherently have the capacity to understand why this is so disturbing to us because they have never experienced profiling, or discrimination or outright hatred stemming solely from the amount of melanin they possessed. I'm happy to know that the teacher was a voice of reason, but I'm equally disturbed that she failed to exercise some editorial discretion before those posters were up for display. The opportunity to teach should have preceded the screaming match at the school, which may invariably be tinged with the psychic impact of the outburst. I'm raising my children to be unapologetically Black. They are being taught that all things Black are positive, life-giving and life-affirming. I am teaching them to love themselves, the color of their skin, their nappy, dreaded, curly, straight, short, textured hair. I am praising their thick juicy lips. I am letting them know that without Black people, there would be no one else on this planet. So let some ignorant fool come at me with that mess."

  7. Teresha@Marlie and Me

    I'm back…all I can say is bravo to you and Nick for not backing down from the rants of that hysterical parent (not to stereotype, ha!) and for not only bringing the problem to the attention of the teacher, but also for being so involved in the solution. now, that's engaged parenting!

  8. I really thought this wasn't real when I started reading it. It just made no sense to me. A teacher allowed something like this to be displayed, really! I'm at a lost for words. I'm Canadian born and for the life of me I don't see this happening here. At least I hope it doesn't, but I really can't be sure…wow I'm really bothered by this…scared actually. I don't want my baby girls dealing with crap like this. I want them to see the perfection and strength of the Black man, the positive image that they see everyday in their father. I know that you had kind words for the teacher Denene, but how could she not have seen the harm in this? After reading this I'm a bit scared for all the little black boys I was so optimistic about last Wednesday. That optimistism now feels like a slow leak in my tires. Everytime I read/hear/see something like this, I get so angry, I just want to scream(sometimes I do) but eventually I calm down, put on my armour and tell myself to continue making strides, continue tackling these issues, one moron at a time.

  9. you have got to be kidding me…how in the world can children be so slanted so early? and how does the educational system back it up? i am gonna talk about this again and again with girlies…as a white momma of a chocolate baby, i have people say disrespectful things when she's not around bc they just don't have any idea.
    the other day at p's softball game a parent said, "this place is horrible. so ghetto. did you see all the blacks?" i said, "you mean those uniforms. yep, they are terrible. bc i know you aren't talking about people that way."

    we have to change this…one person at a time.

  10. T.Allen-Mercado

    I commented over on the other site, and I read the other comments. I'm just sick about all of it, and yet I'm not surprised.

  11. MBB Founder and Editor Denene Millner

    Hello, good people,

    Thank you SO much for your kind, understanding words. I know that when I write about race for such a large, predominately-white audience, I need to steel myself for the ignorance. Still, no matter how much armor I wear, It hurts like hell when people feel like they have the right to tell us how we should and shouldn't feel. As Nick and I explained to the woman who got all up in our business, what she thought about how we felt about the incident didn't really matter; her job, as a grown-up, was to have EMPATHY for our feelings (even if she didn't agree with them), understand that we have THE RIGHT to our feelings, and then figure out how she could contribute to helping make it right (or shut the hell up).

    Being able to have empathy for someone and their plight is a sign of maturity. Clearly, if all you can muster after such a passionate argument for better understanding and less stereotyping when it comes to black folks is, "Get over it," and "Stop making everything into a race issue," then your maturity level is about as high as Mari's. Actually, that's in insult to the 10-year-old.

    Anyway, I just wanted to thank each and every one of you for commenting here at MyBrownBaby, and helping Nick and I to see that we are NOT crazy, that we are NOT blowing things out of proportion, and that this IS a worthy pursuit.

    We may not make it to the promised land, but damn if we ain't gonna break the wheels off trying…

  12. This post has been with me all day. As a white mother to two brown babies, and as a teacher I am horrorfied too. I feel you have expressed amazing generoisty towards the teacher who did handle your feelings well.
    What I am unclear of here, for what her next steps are with the class? She mentions the teachable moment, but is she going to use it–and brainstor, a list of postive, powerful, respectful, and the list goes on adjectives of black men for her class?
    That you published this piece in the mainstream speaks volumes to your commitment to all children. That many people are still not ready to listen is not surprising, and why we need more and more articles like it. (I did not read the comments there).
    Your writing style is so fresh and refreshing. Thank you.

  13. What the what the? I mostly read the comments left on the other site, there are some real interesting people out there. This reminds me of the Clark Doll Experiments and repeats of that experiment beyond the civil rights movement through modern times. The solution is to keep working with our kids and adult selves to love and empower each other despite a society that makes it easier to put up judgmental walls.

  14. Erskine ISAAC

    Outrageous?-Yes! Shocking?-Not really! Sickening?-Indeed!

    What really should be address is that the insensitivity and ignorance of the teacher to not address this head on in the first place. I am assuming she is white but if she was African-American the shame is quadrupled!
    If you and I would have allowed our African American Children to produce pictures of the white men and boys with the same offensive adjectives there would have been hell to pay.

    The Double standard continues…….To fight is still on…..!

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