Black Minds Matter

Thank you, G for sharing this YouTube channel with me! Among the videos was this one, which is incredibly relevant to my work:

The topic for the talk shared above was “Ascription of Intelligence.” Teacher perceptions of a student have been shown to impact a child’s academic achievement and likelihood of being referred for gifted education or, alternatively, special education (Blanchett, 2006;(Elhoweris, Mutua, Alsheikh, & Holloway, 2005; Sebastian Cherng, 2017), environments in which low-income and ethnic minorities are disproportionately under and overrepresented respectively. We often associate bodies of color with less “talent”; “giftedness”; “intelligence.” My own experiences in the US education system and with gifted education [or with not being given the opportunity to “test” into a gifted program] have undoubtedly shaped my experiences as a researcher and more generally in this world. When I googled “giftedness” the featured image for this post captures a screenshot of the first images to appear.

The talk I’ve linked in this blog echoes my previous experiences trying to unpack racial disparities in gifted education. When I was working on my Master’s I interviewed teachers who were responsible for either 1) identifying children for gifted education; or 2) teaching in gifted education classrooms.

During the course of this research, I found the common perception that ethnic minorities were “watering down” gifted education programs. This perception was illuminated by teachers who argued that these views were not confined to them, but also held by parents and administrators. Conceivably the idea of “watering down” contributes not only to the difficulty ethnic minorities face in being found eligible for gifted education, but also their positioning in a gifted classroom if found qualified. One of the participants described one of her black students, who she believed, was found eligible for gifted education predominantly based on his ethnicity, and who then struggled in the gifted program. Perhaps, the perception of an unequal selection process for ethnic minority students over majority peers for gifted education contributes to the phenomenon this participant described. When examining these anecdotal stories through the human geography theory of bordering, one can reason that even when ethnic minority students cross the physical boundary into gifted education, a sociocultural boundary remains that seemingly connects certain minority groups to a given level of intellectual capability. This perception is fed by a larger genuine issue: identifying “giftedness.”

Evidence of these perceptions were supported in the following instances when speaking with educators. I look only to provide these anecdotal stories to bring attention to an issue that requires increased conversation and attention:

Teacher A: “…It has been discussed among teachers that perhaps minority students are selected for the program simply based on their ethnicity and not their true academic ability… I have heard offhand comments from teachers on my team and resource teachers  after we receive the list of students accepted for [our gifted education program]. We’ll question some of the students who were accepted by the committee outside of [school name has been omitted] who had lower ratings and test scores but still got in and a teacher might comment: “Oh, he got in because he is Hispanic”… The county wants to present statistics that paint a nice picture of how well-rounded and inclusive advanced academics are for all demographics.”

Teacher B: “Talking to the [gifted teacher] she looked at me and said “if he’s in the pool, he’s going to get in, he’s going to get in,” and I asked her why he would get in and she said “because they need more Black representation in those classes”…He probably should not have been allowed in, but because of his ethnicity…he got in… I think the test scores play the biggest part for different cultures. I think the blacks, like that ethnicity, as long as the test scores are decent and their work is decent, they’re going to get in.”

Teacher C: “Honestly, when I taught at a [gifted education] centre if you look at the makeup of the classroom the majority of the students were neighbourhood students who most of the time happened to have been Caucasian, and I have heard parents say to classroom teachers “I want to refer my child for the centre to get away from the knuckleheads in the general education classroom.”

Teacher D: “I do hear it from some teachers. Some [gifted education] teachers say, “I don’t know how this student got in”- that’s their version of “it’s watered down”…So there definitely is that mindset of… “are we watering down?” and “should we be taking this particular  percentage of [ethnic minority] students?”

Teacher E: …It makes me very very sad when I hear around here: “well you know, the [gifted] centre’s being watered down because we have kids coming in and they can’t even read.” You get it? You see what I’m saying?

This mindset among some teachers and staff engaged in the gifted education identification process is highly problematic, especially when ethnic minority children are already underrepresented in gifted education.  Giftedness, in and of itself, is a loosely defined term. Historically viewed as a static and innate capacity written into the genetic code, “giftedness” as an advanced intellectual capacity has adopted a vocabulary of dynamism and potential through words like “spectrum” and “potential” or “bright” and “advanced academic” instead of “gifted and talented”. However, the eugenic undertones out of which giftedness was born cannot be ignored. Indeed, the greatest danger is in doing so, for it allows racist structures to persist. In many ways the birth of the study of “giftedness” was simply another tool to distinguish one group’s superiority from another’s inferiority. As a concept developed out of the work of predominantly upper class white males, I argue that “giftedness” became a justification for white privilege and power. Given the ethnic minority’s history of marginalization and discrimination in the United States, underrepresentation in a field once used to further demarcate black[1] from white is predictable. In this way, gifted education, as it stands, is one of many social institutions of passive racism operating in American society today.


[1]  Used here to mean non-white ethnic minority, or to use Mary Douglas the dangerous ‘other.’

Published by historicallyburdenedconcepts

Bi-racial butterfly interested in bioethics, sociogenomics, impacts on understandings of inequities

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