By LaKeshia N. Myers
“I just don’t know what to do, he’s so big,” I was stunned when she said it. Matter-of-fact, I was rendered temporarily speechless by the statement. I was acting as a new teacher mentor when my mentee, a young twenty-something white woman told me she was unable to effectively control her classroom. She stated she didn’t know what to do with Jason, a seven-year-old boy full of rambunctious energy.
Jason was tall for his age—he was the tallest student in his class, and he liked to talk. His favorite cartoon was “Teen Titans Go,” he liked pizza, and he was very fond of Santa Claus and Christmas. In this moment, his teacher stood in front of me, telling me she was afraid of him because he was, “big.” She was intimidated by a seven-year-old child because he was tall, and one could only insinuate, Black.
This was not the first time I had to have this conversation with a mentee, it had become so commonplace, that I made sure to have discussions about micro aggression, racial stereotypes and unconscious bias with my mentees because I’d seen it so many times. And here I was again, saddled with helping a teacher through the process of understanding that she shouldn’t view her student as a threat because of his height and his skin color. This concept is called adultification, and has been characterized by Elon Dancy, as pedestrian praise of Black male heroics in peer, athletic and entertainment circles while managing coexistence with labels as problems, violent, scary and hypersexual, with modern-day police and neighborhood lynching of unarmed Black males (Dancy, 2014).
Such was the case for George Stinney, Emmett Till, Michael Donald, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Tony Robinson and Lennon Lacy. Black teenagers murdered unjustly because of race. According to Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, “We see Black males as ‘problems’ that our society must find ways to eradicate. We regularly determine them to be the root cause of most problems in school and society. We seem to hate their dress, their language and their effect. We hate that they challenge authority and command so much social power. While the society apparently loves them in narrow niches and specific slots—music, basketball, football, track—we seem less comfortable with them in places like the National Honor Society, the debate team or the computer club” (Ladson-Billings, 2011).
While I was able to help my mentee work through her bias towards seven-year-old Jason, others will not be so lucky. They will consistently have their boyhood erased in an instant. It happens every time their joy is considered too exuberant, they express themselves through movement or fail to fit the mold of being quiet, docile and ‘manageable.’ It happens every time they are thrust into special education classes due to ‘challenging behavior.’ As an educator and legislator this is a reality that I struggle to upend daily.
More than a century ago W.E.B. DuBois, asked “How does it feel to be a problem?” Du Bois went on to say, “To be sure, there is a profound difference between having a problem and being a problem. While all may have problems, Black male existence itself is a problem within a white gaze” (DuBois, 1903).