The other day, two of my students wandered into my office to talk to me.
For the purpose of this story, let's call them Justin and Tamia. Justin and Tamia had been dating for five months, and like all teenagers were experiencing some bumps in the road in their newly found relationship. Tamia, a Senior and straight A student with insecurities about her appearance and dating, and Justin, a Junior, with just plain ole' insecurities, were in the midst of figuring each other out.
By no means a relationship expert, albeit an expert at problem solving, I asked Tamia and Justin what had occurred. Tamia stated that "Justin is just too sensitive. He takes everything too seriously. Everything I say is wrong and he can't take a joke." Justin stated, "She doesn't think before she speaks and it's not funny."
I spoke to each student separately and Justin told me the following. He stated that he wasn't feeling well and that he was going to take a day off from school. His girlfriend, a high achiever and straight A student, told him that he was going to be a high school dropout. He was upset and told her that this hurt his feelings and that he wasn't going to be a high school dropout; that he just wasn't feeling well. He stated to me that he was really quite upset at her comment and very offended. Later, I spoke to her separately, and she insisted that she was "just joking". He insisted that she was not joking at all.
After my conversation with both of them, in which I helped them to understand each other's perspective, I began to think about these two young people and the implications of the dynamics of their relationship. I began to think about how loosely we use the words "high school dropout," about how as a society, we believe that our young men, particularly young men of color are unaffected if people refer to them as "high school dropouts" or wanna be "high school dropouts."
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the dropout rates for whites, blacks, and Hispanics has declined dramatically since the 1990's and continues to decline. However, we are by no means ready to celebrate.
We still are seeing higher dropout rates for young Black and Latino males than Caucasian males. So, Justin has a right to be sensitive. He is one of many young black males who not only struggle against a societal stereotype, but also struggle against a stereotype within his own race and culture.
His own girlfriend, a young black women with straight A's and a good head on her shoulders, lacks the awareness to understand that referring to her own boyfriend as a high school dropout is not only insensitive, but also suggests that she too has bought into the racially motivated stereotype that all young men, particularly young men of color, may be high school dropouts.
So, how do we begin to address this issue? We must start by not only educating our young men about the importance of achieving a high school education (see research on the widening achievement gap amongst young men of color and NYC's Expanded Success Initiative), we must also begin to educate our young women! We must speak to our young women about the importance of lifting each other up, not putting each other down, and about being deliberate and serious with their actions.
And we must communicate to our young women that young men are permitted to be sensitive and compassionate and that our words do have impact...and that this impact can determine the direction we take and the imprint we make on this world.