Fluttering around the Racial Tension of Trust: Proximal Approaches to Suspended Black Student-Teacher Relationships

By Stevenson, Howard C. | School Psychology Review, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Fluttering around the Racial Tension of Trust: Proximal Approaches to Suspended Black Student-Teacher Relationships


Stevenson, Howard C., School Psychology Review


I was honored to be invited to write a response to this wonderful article by Gregory and Ripski (2008) on adolescent trust in teachers. The authors have done a thorough job of explaining the background literature on teacher-student relationship trust, laying out how this relationship might lead to suspension rates and discussing the consequences of teacher trust for student well-being and future life challenges within the educational, employment, and justice systems. They also rightly identify that the vulnerability of school suspensions disproportionately falls on Black students and target student--teacher relational dynamics as the troubling source of this injustice. The case has been made elsewhere, I might add, that this disproportionality of suspension and expulsion rates for Black youth is not associated with a greater preponderance of misbehavior on the part of Black youth compared to other youth (Advancement Project, 2005). Gregory and Ripski's (2008) article provides a highly useful, albeit somewhat distal, analysis of the problem. Their research highlights the need for a more proximal analysis of the racial dynamics within the student-teacher relationship that might contribute to misinterpretation, disrespect, and hostility towards Black youth in general, and Black males specifically (Stevenson, 2003a).

I have been most interested in how racial tension influences teacher-student, police-student, and peer-and parent--student relationships in which Black youth become the recipients of unfair and life-threatening interactions (Stevenson, 2003b). This racial tension can be defined as the ways in which teachers and students are anxious and stressed about how a poor relationship might lead to public humiliation, accusations of being racist, a reputation of incompetence, or confirmation of stereotypes. The salient element of this racial tension, however, is its invisibility, which is fueled by a national reluctance to face head-on the thorny issues of racial conflicts and which is reflected in the dodging of racial discussions, interpretations, and analyses of social phenomena.

The fear of discussing racial matters in familial, societal, and collegial relationships is understandable given Americans' abysmal race relations history whereby dominance and subjugation of people of color, women, and children was supported by laws and regulations designed to promote the power and influence of wealthy individuals and businesses. This history has had long-term ill effects on the formation of family, on social mobility, and on the benefit of educational uplift for those who start their intergenerational story with little to no social capital. Yet, in school systems, we have always expected there to be an American dream that each child would be able, despite historically intransigent societal oppression based on race or gender, to overcome this oppression through education. The school was and is still seen as the place of equality where we learn how to compete in the larger marketplace of civic stability, but also to learn the rules of the game of life and play as well as anyone else. Unfortunately, schools and educational systems are no less immune to the hegemonic and hierarchical myths of racial and gender stereotypes. These myths are based upon the assumption that some groups in our society have no talent or motivation for procuring the skills to successfully navigate this competitive egalitarianism or do not deserve access to the secret codes or cheats to the "egalitarian game."

So, I was immediately intrigued by Gregory and Ripski's opening premise with regard to how student--teacher relationships are particularly challenging for Black student suspensions. When they state, "Given these trends, understanding how teachers successfully exercise their authority and elicit cooperation in their classrooms becomes paramount reduce the racial discipline gap" (p. 337), I found myself wanting more of a discussion about the problem of teacher authority and lack of success rather than the opposite. …

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