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I’m guilty of saying Black boys and girls are failing in school—a good chunk of us are. Going forward, I’m committing to correcting that language and mindset because I’ve realized how dangerous and damaging that deficit-based thinking is—especially when it’s internalized. And if you claim to be an advocate for Black kids, you should too.

I’ve frequently used data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to highlight the fact that there are indeed gaps between Black, Latino and White students, intending to shame the system for its failure to provide our kids with a high quality education. Yet, I’ve been unintentionally framing it from a deficit-based and possibly demoralizing perspective.  

Yo, it’s absolutely critical that we consistently and unapologetically tell the truth about and work to eliminate the obstacles Black students face.

But, we must be careful and mindful of how—in the process of speaking facts—this reality can diminish their self-determination and brilliance. To be clear, Black kids aren’t failing—a system that was never designed to nurture or grow their talents is failing them. They’re forced to navigate in a school system that upholds this notion of white superiority with blatant racism. 

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Students at Valiant Cross Academy in Montgomery, Alabama. (WSFA)

Uplift our Black students, tear down oppressive systems

If our kids are constantly hearing they’re the problem from us—even if that isn’t the intended message—and the public school system, they’ll start to believe it. So here’s how we gotta flip the script.

Black people and allies, the most important thing we can do is make sure we’re positively affirming, investing in and uplifting our kids every chance we get while, at the same time, fighting systems that want to tear them down. And they must know that whiteness is not a standard of excellence—that they should set their own degrees of success outside of the world’s construct of supremacy through skin color. Point, blank, period.

We also have to abandon this “savior” complex because it perpetuates this position of superiority and privilege, which are the very things we’re fighting against. A major key dropped by Conan Harris in the film, Black Boys, was “These young people don’t need saviors, they need believers.”

And he’s right. Because Black boys and girls don’t need saving from themselves—they just need to be rescued from this awful ass system.

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Students with Tulsa’s Opportunity Project.
Students with Tulsa’s Opportunity Project.

Replace “achievement” gaps with “opportunity” gaps

Secondly, we have to stop and push back against the use of the word “achievement” when referring to gaps in academic progress and replace that with “opportunity”. Because if anything, Black students are the victims of divestment.

When you look at the fact that many school districts with majority Black kids receive significantly less funding than those with majority-White students, that’s an opportunity disparity in itself. Obviously less funding means less access to essential resources—they’ve been armed with a knife and shoved into a gunfight.

Another thing is, we definitely have to do away with curriculum and narratives in schools that depict Black people as innately uncivilized and inferior. 

The characterization of Black people as troublemakers—a criminalization tactic—is imprinted on the minds of young Black students through racist texts and images. The notion of inferiority is reinforced when teaching the history of people of African descent begins with slavery in America as if we didn’t rule whole kingdoms. A history that this country and its leadership insists on burying—like mass efforts to suppress the teaching of critical race theory in schools.

Schools must embrace Black excellence

This deficit-based mentality is fortified when teachers assign them less challenging coursework, school resource officers dehumanize them because of the color of their skin, and administrators suspend and expel them at higher rates. Who can believe in themselves or even survive under these conditions?

Look, every day the whole world is telling our kids they ain’t sh*t. Whether it’s coming from the media, someone in or outside their communities, the police, schools, whoever, they’re hearing and seeing it. We cannot afford to have them growing up, believing that they aren’t enough and conforming to stereotypes and standards white supremacy has set for them to actually fail.

Black excellence does exist and it lives in our kids. In a dark world that constantly seeks to dim their light, our advocacy should make it shine brighter and our love and affirmed belief in their ability to succeed have to be the fuel that also gives them the power to fight. So, who’s with us?

Tanesha Peeples is driven by one question in her work--"If not me then who?" As a strategist and injustice interrupter, Tanesha merges the worlds of communications and grassroots activism to push for radical...

One reply on “Ditch Deficit-Based Language in Our Advocacy for Black Students”

  1. I’m with us!???? I agree with most of what you are saying. In fact I questioned whether I should include achievement gap in my narrative and decided yes. The gap is not defined solely on/or comparison to white students at least for me it isn’t, in an academic setting there are basic benchmarks and if we want to measure success we must acknowledge achievement. I take the position of many who believe the achievement gap is a result of the opportunity gap, however in an academic institution our students are not graded/measured by opportunity. I appreciate this article and committed to do whatever I can to uplift students who simply “need more” to do more!

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