Trouble with the Teacher: The Ferguson Commission, Unconscious Bias, and Children’s Literature

Yesterday, the Ferguson Commission released its report on the August 2014 incident in which the 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson. The sixteen-member commission, headed by Rich McClure and Starsky Wilson, decided that it would be pointless to simply examine the shooting in a vacuum, as an isolated incident. Instead, the report looks at St. Louis county institutions, government, policing, and education, through a wide-angle lens. The commission points out disparities in income, unequal access to services, and inequalities in education. A searchable version of the 198-page report can be found here: http://forwardthroughferguson.org/ but I want to focus on just one aspect of the report for this blog. The commission, in a section of the report entitled Youth at the Center, tackles the issue of school discipline and unconscious bias. In Missouri during the 2011-12 school year, more than seven times as many black children as white children were suspended at the elementary school level. This is not, then, the suspension of teenagers, but of children under the age of 12. “In addition to hurting academic performance,” the commissioners write, “this disproportionate discipline of Black students lowers teacher expectations and has been shown to increase the likelihood of future incarceration” (http://forwardthroughferguson.org/report/signature-priorities/youth-at-the-center/). The authors of the report do not argue that teachers are uniformly racist; in fact, they point out, all teachers regardless of race tended to label black students as troublemakers. The bias, they suggest, is unconscious—but sadly pervasive.

This is not, of course, a new or especially American problem. Schools in many multicultural countries have long had disparities in the treatment of children based on race. This difference can be seen in children’s literature over time. One landmark British book that introduced many readers to this racial disparity was Bernard Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft (1974).

Do you think you can see what the trouble with Donovan is?

Do you think you can see what the trouble with Donovan is?

Donovan Croft is a West Indian boy who is fostered by the Chapman family when Donovan’s parents have to leave, his mother to Jamaica to care for her dying father, and his father to work. Because of the sudden loss of his family, Donovan becomes silent. This, apparently, is the trouble with Donovan Croft: that he won’t speak his feelings and thoughts. There are two groups of (white) people that interact with Donovan in Ashley’s book: the well-meaning and patronizing, and the violent. Donovan’s teacher, Mr. Henry, reacts to Donovan’s silence by slapping him, and a neighbor, Mrs. Parsons, almost slaps him as well. Both call him racial epithets. This is the obvious racism against “different” children seen throughout the world. But Donovan also faces more subtle “othering” from people who are “on his side.” Mrs. Chapman, Donovan’s foster mother “found herself talking to him in a sing-song voice she might have used on a four- or five-year-old” (31), and she often speaks of him in diminutives (“poor little devil,” p. 70 for example). She tells the school that his old school reports have been good, but she speaks of him as though he were in need of help, and not very bright or capable. The psychologist brought in to try and help Donovan speaks to Donovan’s real father in much the same way. Mrs. Chapman and Dr. Spencer both mean well, and are quite a contrast to obvious racists like Mr. Henry. But their unconscious expectations do affect Donovan—and presumably, might continue to do so throughout his school career. The publisher’s (Penguin Puffin) description of the book carries on these unconscious biases, positioning the reader of Ashley’s novel to both pity and blame Donovan Croft for his own situation: “Poor Donovan . . . went on resisting all the well-meaning efforts made to explain to him and to help him, making everything more difficult for everybody” (“Puffin Books: The Trouble With Donovan Croft front matter). If Donovan would only accept the help of white people . . . but “they” never do, and “we” all suffer.

The obvious racism of Donovan's teacher blinds us to the low expectations of well-meaning adults.

The obvious racism of Donovan’s teacher blinds us to the low expectations of well-meaning adults. Illustration by Fermin Rocker.

Ashley’s book was written during a time when Britons were trying to come to terms with changing demographics; one could argue that the biases displayed in the book (conscious or unconscious) are historic, and would not happen now. Certainly the level of everyday brutality of white adults toward black children has decreased (and indeed, is now illegal in schools—which it wasn’t in 1974). But it is important, as the Ferguson Commission emphasizes, not to dismiss bias or assign it only to a few isolated individuals. Unconscious bias is more difficult to dismantle, because it can seem random when not considered as part of a whole picture. To illustrate what I mean, I want to look at a later British children’s book, one I like very much because it is cheerful and optimistic and multicultural: Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s 1988 Starting School. Written during a period of conscious attempts to make schooling in Britain inclusive, Starting School is heartfelt in its attempts to do just this. A group of multiracial children start school in a warm, welcoming reception (kindergarten) classroom with a pleasant teacher. The children are shown in all sorts of activities, and non-white children are shown reading and doing other intellectual activities (puzzles, for example). The culture is assimilative (at the end of the term, the children have a nativity play as many British schools, whatever their religious makeup, still do) but also accepting (an Indian girl wears her sari to show-and-tell). The parents are involved in the school (the Black British boy’s mother plays the piano for music class). The children are not always happy, but they mostly are, and any young reader who read (or was read) this picture book would likely see the classroom depicted therein as an enviable one.

In (almost) perfect harmony--the Ahlberg's racially diverse class starts school.

In (almost) perfect harmony–the Ahlberg’s racially diverse class starts school.

Yet even in a book that tries (and mostly succeeds) so earnestly to depict the kind of society free from racism that we might all want, there is possible unconscious bias. The teacher depicted by the Ahlbergs is, in general, ideal, but “Sometimes the teacher is not cheerful either” (Starting School n.p.). The illustrations on the page show all sorts of situations which might try any teacher’s patience, but in only one is she chastising a child. That child is nonwhite; aligned with him by looking in the same direction (up at the teacher) is another nonwhite child. Standing by the teacher, and aligned with her, is a white child.

We all have bad days--but on whom do we take it out?

We all have bad days–but on whom do we take it out?

I do not think the Ahlbergs thought of this and deliberately depicted it this way, but it does stand out; and it is these small incidents that the people on the Ferguson Commission argue add up to lower expectations and lower success rates for nonwhite children everywhere. One picture does not matter, but it does as part of a societal pattern. The only way to combat unconscious bias is to make ourselves aware of it, not just in the big ways, but in the little, hardly-noticed incidents by which we chip away at each other because we are different.

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