This post explores the myth of the absent black father and breaks down their relationship with the education system
I was recently fortunate enough to meet with a professor from the United States who is conducting research on black educators in the US and UK. The conversation started with the usual small talk and eventually we got into the topic of black educators in the UK. During the course of our conversation, I made him aware of my particular interest on the high exclusion rates of black boys and my mission [with the help of friends and professionals] to tackle this problem. We carried on talking about the lack of black educators and shared our views on the differences between the US and UK. He then asked me a question that I wasn't quite prepared for.
“ Have you ever come across literature that discusses the relationship between black fathers and schools?”
This question intrigued me because I’ve considered the different factors that could lead to the poor performance of black males in school, but I have never considered the relationship between the parent and the school, the father in particular. The reason I hadn’t focused on the relationship between the parent and the school is simple. Just like many others, I had the assumption that under-performing black males come from broken or fatherless homes. Me of all people should know better.
Both my parents originate from Nigeria and one thing you can be certain of with Nigerian parents is that they do not play with education. My dad in particular. My dad has never not been involved in my education. Some of my first [and worst] memories of school include my dad. Education was important to him because he comes from a poor background in Nigeria where education isn’t free and it isn’t as easily accessible as it is here in the UK.
Understandably, he took my education very seriously and emphasised on how it was the key to a successful life. My dad wasn’t just heavily involved in my education, he has always been present in my life. Despite his presence, I was expelled in primary school and I had been internally excluded in secondary school. To help boost my claim for the Son Of The Year award, I left school with only 4 A-C GCSE’S. Disaster.
This is why it’s important to consider whether we have put too much emphasis on the ‘absent’ black father? There is clearly other factors that could lead to the poor performance of black males in school and their problems in society but we seem fixated on the matter of black fathers being absent or completely disengaged. Is this even true?. Not quite.
The myth of the absent black father.
According to Levs (2015) New research confirms that 2.5 million black fathers live with their children and 1.7 are non-resident fathers.This challenges the myth that black fathers are distant and disengaged. Research by Jones and Mosher (20150 also shows that 70% of black fathers were most likely to have bathed, dressed, diapered, or helped their children use the toilet every day compared with white (60%) and Hispanic fathers (45%). Despite what this may suggest, there is still little research conducted that accounts for black father’s positive involvement in their child’s school. However, the small body of research on black fatherhood in the UK does highlight the impact of black fathers involvement on the health, development and well being of their children (Williams. 2007).
There is little attention being paid to the fathers who are present in their children’s lives and my dad is an example. Very little research has been published on black fathers’ engagement beyond family life and the involvement of black fathers in their children’s school has gone unrecognised and undervalued in educational research. There is a need to understand how black immigrant fathers negotiate relationships in educational systems that are often altogether new to them.
Black fathers' relationships with schools.
This is why I was delighted when Professor Derron Wallace told me he had already conducted a study on the strategies black fathers deploy to challenge assumptions about their identities and involvement in their child’s schools. He conducted 20-in depth interviews with black fathers in London and New York. The analysis of his study revealed that groups of black fathers drew on 3 strategies to offset negative stereotypes about their engagement & assert their masculinity. These were:
Black fathers feel the need to express themselves as responsible fathers and distance themselves from popular constructs of irresponsible black fatherhood. They feel a need to look different. If there was anyone that tried to be distinctive for the teachers, it was my dad. First of all parents evening was more important than my birthday. He couldn’t wait for it. When that dreadful day came, he would put on his nice shirt, cufflinks, his glasses and have his serious face on. When we got to parents evening there was a proudness that my dad carried with him. What came across as seriously annoying to me, was my dad making himself known to the school community. He wanted them to know who he was. He wanted them to know that he was present and that he wasn’t one of those dads that lets their child get away with failing at school. My dad even went as far as giving out his number to teachers who voiced their concerns about me in school. Who does that? I remember getting in trouble with a teacher, and the first thing he said was “I’ll be messaging your dad what you just said’. As embarrassed as I was, my dad was distinctive and that’s all he cared about. Although individual distinctiveness does not alter structural disadvantage and white supremacy, it is still useful for acknowledging and deflecting existing stereotypes about black fathers.
Black fathers often called on their own childhood engagement with teachers as a frame of reference for negotiating ‘respectful’ relationships with their children’s teachers. Black fathers have an understanding that showing respect to their children’s teacher could inspire that teacher to support the academic progress of their child. I always remember my dad being super nice to teachers. I sometimes believed he loved them more than me. If I said a teacher was lying, I was pretty much making a death wish. It wasn’t possible. My dad held teachers in high regards because he believed they were always trying their best for me and I had to be the one making things difficult in school. He cared so much about respect. The respect that I showed for the teachers and how it represented him and our family. He also believed in showing these teachers a huge amount of respect because he believed if he made himself distinctive, he would then portray a level of respect that would cause the teacher to try harder with me and help me progress in school. Despite his efforts my dad regularly came into conflict with teachers, white female teachers in particular. They would use two forms of microagressions against him : Racism and classism. This occurred a number of times with my dad who experienced his masculinity and engagement frequently undermined. Whether done in a preconscious or unconscious fashion, white teachers would often make slurs like “ I’m shocked at the fact you were able to be here at your son's school.People like you don’t often show an interest” “I’m sure it’s difficult for you to miss work and then come to deal with this matter regarding your child”. Understandably my dad would be offended that his involvement and masculinity was ever in doubt. More importantly, there was always something said that undermined him. He felt like these teachers saw him as inferior not just because he was black, but because he was a working class black immigrant male. These two microagressions ( racism and classism) not only undermine the working class black immigrant father, but it limits the black fathers' involvement in schools. These microagressions highlight that almost all black and-white racial interactions are characterised by white put-downs, done in preconscious or unconscious fashion.
Black fathers make efforts to summon gender microagressions as expressions of masculine domination to counter racial microagressions. In other words, sexist remarks are used by black fathers to retaliate against white female teacher’s expressions of racism. It can be a way to assert masculine authority in the face of racial antagonism. Racialised assumptions and class judgements of black fathers reveals the power of teachers and school authorities to alienate minoritised fathers, despite their strategies to be fully engaged in their child’s education. Black fathers then feel the need to retaliate with their own gender microagressions by being sexist and undermining the authority and power of the white female teacher. Although my dad never retaliated in the same manner, he would be frustrated with the way he was being undermined by teachers and we knew because we sensed it at home. His approach with me became more stern. He believed if he couldn’t appease the school by being present and polite, he would ensure that I worked harder to do well in school. He almost lost faith in the school’s efforts and placed more pressure on himself and me. That pressure had the opposite effect on me but that’s another matter altogether. Parents and teachers trading racism, classism and sexism only fortifies oppressive structures in educational institutions and limits the opportunity to create good functioning schools.
Solutions for schools.
- Diverse parent teacher organisations.
I said this in a previous blog and i’ll say it again. School’s should seriously consider the impact of making the leadership of parent teacher organisations diverse. Their strategies should deliberately involve the black fathers in the governance of schools if they really do have their pupils best interests at heart.
- Listening campaigns for immigrant parents.
Leaders of schools, particularly in the inner cities, should grant immigrant parents the opportunity to speak by hosting special listening campaigns. If immigrant enrolment is high in a school, the most impactful strategies may very well come from the affected parties locally.
- Unconscious bias training.
Unconscious bias is something we must consider as a real issue within education. If research highlights that pre-conscious and unconscious racism is affecting vulnerable groups, teachers should be formally trained as part of their professional development to express high expectations of all fathers and encourage parent leaders in schools.
This article was heavily inspired by the research conducted by Professor Derron JR Wallace
‘Distinctiveness, deference and dominance in Black Caribbean fathers’ engagement with public schools in London and New York City’.
If you would like to read an extended version of his study please follow the link http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/YmV2PKF3tvmV33GA78vX/full.