Dismantling the False Narratives of Blackness
Equity through better storytelling with Dr. Ivory Toldson.
Posted Jun 08, 2019
I have always been cognizant about how stories are told about Black folks—and how so much is left out. Too often, I am confronted by stories of Black despair and catastrophe as if Blackness is not also magical, resilient, and powerful. For a long time, all I knew were these single narratives of Black hopelessness because they were everywhere I looked—academic journals, education organization mission statements, and in the media.
How we tell stories about our students matters, particularly Black students and other students of color who do not need to look too far to see negative images of themselves littered throughout mass media. As a black educator who grew up poor in the Bronx, I know how dehumanizing it can be to hear that youth of color need saving and taming. I am still tackling my own internal challenges around impostor syndrome. As a result, I am sensitive to the far-reaching effects that these stories can have.
If we do not begin to question how and why these narratives are told and how dangerous and dehumanizing they are, then our country cannot progress in achieving racial justice. That is why I am happy to share with you a conversation I had with Dr. Ivory Toldson about his latest book, No BS (Bad Stats): Black People Need People Who Believe in Black People Enough Not to Believe Every Bad Thing They Hear about Black People, who tackles these BS stories and gives us hope for fuller narratives of Black excellence.
Dena: What motivated you to write your latest book?
Ivory: Early in my career, I conducted research on how to spur academic success among African American males. At the time, I derived solution-driven findings that had implications for educational policy and practice. However, I quickly learned that many educators could not appreciate the solutions because they bought into a hopeless narrative. And, their lost hope was rooted in negative statistics - sharp data points that began to call “BS” or bad stats. Examples include, “Black boys are a dying breed,” “There are more Black men in prison than college,” “Black children fail because single mothers raise them,” and “Black students don’t read.”
As I began to conduct research on these points, I found that most of these negative statistics were incorrect, poorly contextualized, or incomplete. It also seemed like many scholars and think tanks that published these statistics were attempting to sell problems rather than find solutions. The dialogue that I had with many about BS motivated me to write the book.
Dena: We definitely need people to have more faith in us not to believe false narratives about us--or at least to question what they hear. So, why do you think it important for educators and policymakers to know the pitfalls of education statistics and data as you mentioned?
Ivory: It’s important for educators and policymakers to know the pitfalls of education statistics and data because BS ingender implicit biases and explicit racism. Earlier this year, a study found that "White teachers are three times more negative with Black students."
I believe a lot of teachers have negative perceptions of Black students because we continue to use the BS to shape the narrative and, ultimately, the fate of Black children who just need a good education.
Even the well-indented stats we repeat, without context, to support the "achievement gap" and the "school to prison pipeline" rob Black children of their humanity by placing "others" as a standard for their success and reducing their lived experiences to an ominous number.
The minds of educators who are negative with Black children are usually full of B.S., and therefore, they are incapable of seeing the beauty inside of a Black child. All they see is a number.
We, Black people and our allies, must demand better from the people who educate our children. But first, we must demand better from ourselves. We have to change the narrative.
Behind every number, there's a person; behind every person, there's a story; and behind every story, there's a solution.
Dena: I could not have said it better myself. Thank you. Speaking of solutions, what practices would you advise scholars, educators, and policymakers engage in to disrupt the problems you mention in your book?
Ivory: In No BS, I talk about the importance of using good data, thoughtful analysis, and a compassionate understanding to uplift Black students.
1) Good data: Good data is comprehensive, holistic, and provide a complete picture of important issues. Many various sources, most of which are publicly accessible, can help us to develop a comprehensive picture. Good data is open to multiple interpretations. BS masquerade as the interpretation. Good data provides the necessary pieces of information to assemble into a complete picture of the issue and lends itself to data storytelling. After gathering good data, the next step is to provide thoughtful analysis.
2) Thoughtful analysis: A thoughtful analysis requires a subjective connection to the data. Several analytics strategies can lead to more meaningful conclusions about the data. Within-group, as opposed to between-group analysis, enables the research to expand and enrich the range of findings for the research population. The achievement gap, for instance, results from between-group analyses that make the erroneous assumption that one group needs measured characteristics that are statistically compatible with another race to achieve equity. This short-sighted view typically positions White achievement levels as a standard for Black students to attain and masks resilience and unexpected levels of success among Black students.
3) Compassionate understanding: Ignorance is a crutch. Educators who lack compassion often use declarative sentences that begin with, “I don’t understand.” For example, “I don’t understand why he can’t get to school on time,” or “I don’t understand why her mama let her out of the house looking like that.” Educators use “I don’t understand” statements to deflect attention away from their own deficiencies or insecurities. Compassionate educators seek to understand. More often than not, they will say, “Help me understand...,” to open the dialogue necessary to find the means to help students, families, and communities.
Dena: I love these practices and totally agree how important it is for educators to take an inquiry stance to understand our students lives more fully. Now, I know there is not a single answer for what I am about to ask you, but along with what you just shared, if you had to list three to five steps that we can take to get closer to equity in education, what would you list?
Ivory: In my book, I discuss the "PROPER” way to educate Black students:
R-Reduce suspensions. Replace rigid focus on discipline with a focus on academics and student agency.
O-Offer a culturally-aligned and academically enriching curriculum that, at a minimum, meets the admissions requirements for the most competitive public university of your state.
P-Provide parents support: (1) information about how to help children learn at home, (2) information on community services to help their child, (3) explanations of classes in terms of course content and learning goals, (4) information about child development, (5) opportunities for parents to volunteer, and (6) updates on student progress between report cards.
E-Eliminate biases, stereotypes and misinformation from school staff. Schools should operate under the philosophy that all Black students are capable of the highest levels of academic achievement.
R-Regularly monitor collective student progress. Good schools have: a collective GPA of more than 3.0; near 100 percent of students involved in an extracurricular activity; at least 25 percent of their Black students in honors classes or some type of enhanced curriculum; and less than 6 percent in special education.
For more ways to change the narrative for students of color, see my piece in Greater Good Magazine. As Dr. Toldson made clear, we have work to do. Thankfully, he's given us a way.