The Bigotry of “Achievement” (a graduation speech)

Yesterday I had the honor of being the keynote speaker at a local high school graduation. The high school is an urban charter school serving primarily low income students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. After recieving positive feedback on the speech, I was asked to share my words. Here they are.


Twelve years ago I was 16 years old and graduating from high school. I was super excited because my brother had graduated the year before and I remembered how much fun the family had celebrating his high school graduation. Just like last year, my grandparents drove to Charlotte, North Carolina from Norfolk, Virginia to share in my accomplishment. Given that even then, my grandparents were super old and still willing to drive that far, I knew my graduation was a big deal.

I was number 563 to walk across the stage. Three years earlier, when I was a freshmen, there were over 900 students in my class. On graduation day, there were closer to 600. Somewhere along the way, we’d lost 300 students—300 would-be, might-have-been, probably were, friends. Interestingly, I didn’t notice that until graduation day when I saw the total number. I admittedly looked at the number to see how long I’d have to sit there before walking across the stage, but I inadvertently stumbled upon the realization that 1/3 of my class was missing. How, in the three intervening years, had I not noticed that?

For some reason, the missing students really bothered me. I remember asking my parents why there were so fewer students and they hypothesized that maybe a lot of them transferred schools. But given that every year new students transferred in, that should balance out. I asked my older brother and he brushed me off the way only older siblings can, with a slightly hostile “why do you care? YOU’RE graduating”. But I DID care.

Since we weren’t doing much of anything at school anymore I had plenty of time to ask my teachers about my missing classmates. I honestly don’t recall what most of them said, but I do remember one teacher’s response: she said ‘given the students that go to this school, I’m surprised 2/3 of you all made it this far.’

At the time, I didn’t realize what her comment really meant. I didn’t analyze or even attend to the bias underlying such an offensive statement. But now, 12 years later, I am infuriated at what she said.

“Given the students that go to this school….”—My high school had about 3000 kids in it. I would say 60% were White and the other 40% were ethnic minorities. Despite its racial diversity, the school was fairly homogenous when it came to income. Most of the students—myself included—came from lower income or working class backgrounds. At the time, I didn’t pay any attention to these type of demographic characteristics because frankly—I didn’t have to. I was part of a relatively large majority and had the privilege of not having to notice difference.

But once I left high school and attended college, I realized very quickly what that teacher’s comment really meant. She meant poor kids. Working class kids. Kids from single parent households. And kids whose parents may not speak English. She was surprised that kids ‘like that’ could graduate high school. The more I thought about that conversation from 4 months prior, the more determined I became to not be a ‘kid like that’.

If you fast forward 12 years to present day, I now teach here at [school]. I teach in the education department, mostly about public schools and how they treat ‘kids like that’. I teach about issues of opportunity and access, parent involvement, education policies, and education reform efforts. But really, no matter what the class is, I teach about students like you. I teach about your strengths, your attributes, and most of all, your potential.

To do so, I must first help my college students understand who you are, but more importantly, who and what you are not. You are not ‘disadvantaged’, you are not ‘at risk’, nor are you ‘exceptional’. You are not a deviant statistic who made it despite…being poor, or of color, or from a single parent household. You are not someone whose high school graduation is the end all be all. You are not someone who would allow others to set expectations for you. But that is exactly what is done in schools, and what has been done to you and to me.

From 6th through 12th grade I was in the International Baccalaureate, or IB, program. For those who are unfamiliar, IB is a college prep program with a heavy emphasis on analytical thinking, problem solving, and civic engagement. In 11th grade, we were required to talk to the director of our program about colleges to which we might apply. I was ready. I’d had my list complete since 8th grade. I knew I was going to apply to Brown, NYU, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, and Columbia. When I gave him my list, he looked at me and said ‘kids like you don’t get into schools like these. You might want to lower your expectations a bit.’

I was 15 and had just been told that I wouldn’t be accepted into the schools I’d wanted to attend since I was 12. I was hurt and angry so I told my mother what he said. She was livid. To this day, she talks about how inappropriate that teacher was for telling me to not even apply to those schools. But I’m not angry about it because I get it. I get that because of my skin color and my family’s income bracket, I was presumed to be at a disadvantage when compared to my white or wealthy peers. He assumed that I didn’t have the intellectual ability or maybe the financial means to succeed at an Ivy League College. Or perhaps, as he accused my brother of being a year prior, he thought I was a criminal with behavior problems a top tier institution wouldn’t tolerate. He, like so many people in this country, viewed me as having a deficit.

Because of my ‘disadvantaged’ background, before I even entered Pre-K I was labeled ‘at risk’. This is a phrase I’m sure most of you are familiar with. At-risk. If there is any phrase I hate, it’s this one. At-risk is what I call a proxy term for ‘poor or working class or immigrant or of color’. I am annoyed when people lack the courage to say what they mean, but I am incensed when people label others based on demographic characteristics. What exactly was I at risk for? Teen pregnancy? Being in a gang? Getting straight As? Becoming a professor?

Rest assured no one who called me at risk ever thought I’d be a professor. On the contrary, to them, I was a statistic at risk for academic failure, unemployment, crime, and imprisonment. Because of that…because they expected so little of me, the bar was set low. In elementary school the goal was to be able to read at grade level. In middle school, attention turns to basic math skills. In high school, they just wanted me to graduate. That’s it. There was no mention of Honors or AP courses. No expectations of being student body president, homecoming queen or captain of the track team. Those expectations were reserved for other students. People were therefore shocked when I skipped first grade. No one expected me to be reading 3 grade levels ahead in 2nd grade. No one thought I’d get straight As in a rigorous college prep program. And no one—including the director of my high school IB program—thought I’d end up graduating with honors from an Ivy League College.

Because of those successes, I was given an alternative label—exceptional. I find this label as offensive as disadvantaged and at risk. Calling me exceptional is basically saying ‘you did well even though you weren’t supposed to.’ What’s more is that what counts as exceptional for me would never be exceptional for the people who insist on calling me such. Graduating high school is an expectation many people have of their children. But when poor students or students of color do just that, for some reason, it is an exceptional accomplishment.

Do not get me wrong. Today you are honored for a great achievement. Some of you may be the first in your family to graduate high school so this is an especially celebratory occasion. Many of you are now headed to college and others will brave entry into the workforce. Each of these paths is evidence of investment in yourself, your family and your community. But this is not all you have to offer, nor is this all you will accomplish. Because if this is it, you justify them calling me disadvantaged and at risk. You make it okay for your little brothers and sisters, cousins, and friends to be called the same.

I encourage you to raise the bar. By going to college you make college graduation the norm. By seeking job training you demonstrate how short term investments yield long term gains. That is where the bar should be for all students, not just those fortunate enough to be born into privileged circumstances.

So I do not call you exceptional because of your graduation today. I do not call you successful or accomplished or any of those things. Because to do so, undermines what you’ve yet to do. You will continue to achieve because frankly, there is no other option. You have to. I need you to. I need to know that one day, I will be able to throw out my lesson plans about unfair labels, inequitable opportunity in schools, and implicit teacher bias. I need you to prove that what I teach my students about urban schools and urban students is true. That you are not disadvantaged or at risk. That you not only have the right to educational opportunities, but will also take advantage of them in ways that engender long-term success. I need you each to be vigilant of others’ words, but more so of how your actions support or discredit their words.

Every single one of you got here today because you worked hard, you went to class, you paid attention, asked for help when you needed it and helped others when they needed it. You did this, not despite your demographic characteristics, but in addition to being given unfair labels and low expectations. High school graduation is a stepping stone across the river of life. I urge you not to let others assign labels to you and expectations of you that will leave you stranded in the middle of the water. Instead, view today as one of many stones upon which you will step as you decide who you will be and how to define ‘exceptional’ for yourself.

Congratulations class of 2014!




7 comments on “The Bigotry of “Achievement” (a graduation speech)

  1. It seems to me that ‘given the students that go to this school, I’m surprised 2/3 of you all made it this far.’ could mean ‘given that the majority of the students at this school don’t do their homework, don’t apply themselves in class, do tend to cheat and copy and share work, and don’t tend to have the long term thinking and goal setting skills associated with successfully setting and meeting goals, I’m surprised that 2/3 of them made it this far.’

    I’m not justifying what this teacher said, and I certainly have no idea what she meant by it, but it does seem to me that she could have been referring more to the *behavior* of the students that attend the school (that is no doubt strongly correlated to the expectations put upon them by teachers, but also by their families and classmates and communities, and by their experiences) than to the demographics of the students in and of themselves . . . In Birmingham, AL, we have a graduation rate of about 50%. But, in my opinion, only a fraction of the students that graduate actually did the work that you should have to do in order to graduate. Just looking at our ACT scores tells you that the vast majority of our graduates aren’t ready for college. Given how few of them appear to be college ready after 4 years in high school, it *is* shocking how many of them officially graduate.

    • Hmmm I think regardless of what the teacher was referring to, she was inappropriate to make judgments about students she didn’t know personally. There is no way she knows about the habits (social, behavioral or academic) of 3000 students. She therefore shouldn’t comment at all. And as a teacher, one should never communicate such disdain to students. That is just poor form and unprofessional. And let’s be honest: how often do teachers say things like that about their wealthy and/or white students who statistically commit more crimes (and more violent crimes) and have more behavioral infractions than do students of color?

      • I think that you can have frank conversations about statistics with high school aged students. Both groups are, undoubtedly, a product of their environment to some extent; it’s important that they develop some cognizance of that fact. Leaving it unaddressed seems to lead to the two groups just looking down their noses at each other. (Which in turn leads to teachers that look down their noses at students.) That said, I don’t think that this comment has to be read with disdain. Maybe it was the tone of her voice–a tone that I can’t read. She may have been being defensive. (It’s not *my* fault all those kids didn’t graduate–just look at how they approach their education!) The fact of the matter is that there are schools that haven’t hit a 67% graduation rate in 20 years. If they hit that number this year, out of the blue, it would be surprising. There are schools that serve a population that is 98% minority and 99% impoverished. If they hit that graduation rate, it would be surprising. It’s not surprising because of some belief about their abilities or inabilities–it’s surprising because it would be dramatic change from what’s happened in the past. You don’t have to know all the students at a school personally to be surprised.

        In any case, teachers are humans, not robots. They slip up. Teachers of white & wealthy students slip up; teachers of black & impoverished students slip up. When I was a (white) student at a predominantly white private school in 6th grade, another student mis-graded my homework assignment because he didn’t know what ditto marks were. As a result, I had a low grade, that was called out in from of this class at this school that was new to me. And the teacher remarked “A **? These are true false questions, Naomi, you have to be stupid to get a grade like that!” and the class sniggered. It was unprofessional. It was disdainful. I didn’t forgive her that year. I remember it 19 years later. She’s the dean of the lower form (5th & 6th grade) at that school now. Disdain happens everywhere and isn’t necessarily about race or income.

        I’m also curious about your statistics about violent crimes–where are you getting them? I know that rich/white kids are more likely to be depressed/anorexic/bulimic/on meds for anxiety. I think it’s evidence that the rich white way of approaching education and raising children is likely not “the way”. (Some people seem to think that if we could just get poor black kids to act like rich white kids everything would be hunky dory. I don’t.) I point these things out to white people because I think that these beliefs need to be challenged. That said, when I go into a school that is almost entirely black, and almost entirely poor, I experience a display of agression among students that I don’t see in predominantly white schools. (There may be some outsider bias here.) Additionally, my experience is that the “urban” schools in my area have physical fights on a regular basis, and the rich white kid private schools don’t. I think that wealthy/white people are more likely to end up doing mass shootings (like Columbine), and more likely to become serial killers, but when it comes down to most homicides (which in my area seem to be between individuals who know each other) most of the ones in my area appear to be black on black crime. And wikipedia tells me, “According to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, in the year 2008 black youths, who make up 16% of the youth population, accounted for 52% of juvenile violent crime arrests, including 58.5% of youth arrests for homicide and 67% for robbery. Black youths were over-represented in all offense categories except DUI, liquor laws and drunkenness.” So, I’m not sure where you’re getting that “wealthy and/or white students … statistically commit more crimes (and more violent crimes) and have more behavioral infractions than do students of color.” I don’t doubt that it’s unwise to go by arrest or conviction rates, because of bias in the police force and/or of judges and juries. But where is the data that would indicate that white youth are statistically more likely to commit violent crimes?

      • You are bringing up complex and nuanced issues. This is not the space for me to teach the content of my Urban Education or Education Policy courses. The data I refer to represents decades of empirical research triangulated across multiple sources, rather than anecdotal evidence based on my own or a few teachers’ experiences in a handful of schools. It is important in education to never look at data points in isolation because the confluence of social issues like income, neighborhood, family structure, and health are all extraneous variables unaccounted for in many statistics. That said, I encourage you to review meta-analyses on these issues for a better understanding of the intersection of teacher bias, teacher expectations, student race/ethnicity and student income. Michelle Alexander has a decent meta analysis of crimes vs sentencing across income and racial groups in her recent book, The New Jim Crow. Pedro Noguera is the leading expert on urban (I’m not sure why you put that in quotes. That is a label used when schools reside in urban areas as defined by the federal government) school discipline policies and how they function across races and genders. Jacqueline Eccles has published for decades on teacher expectations based on student demographics. Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane have two great texts (I use them in my Diversity and Equity course) that combine all of the aforementioned bodies of work into a discussion about access and opportunity in public schools (this conversation is about public school students as the experiences of marginalized students in private school are often anecdotal because there is not a critical mass for statistical reliability). Their thesis is that depending upon the demographics of students in a particular school, students experience vastly different teacher expectations, academic offerings, quality of food, extracurricular activities, disciplinary referrals, etc. My point here is that relying on one (outdated) citation in isolation does not accurately depict the experiences of students of color or poor students in schools. I am even less apt to rely on white middle class teachers’ thoughts about marginalized students’ experiences because frankly, how would they know what it’s like to be judged and labeled solely based on skin color? Where is the cultural synchrony (Irvine, 1990)? I’d also suggest looking at the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings and Geneva Gay on cultural relevant/responsive teaching, in addition to James Banks’ work on multicultural education. You will find that decades of research with students of color suggests that it is never appropriate to judge a body of people based on one’s experiences with a small percentage–no matter how many times a personal hypothesis is ‘proven’ correct.

  2. Chad J says:

    so wait, are we pretending that you aren’t a legacy at dartmouth? you’re obviously bright but you weren’t first in your class. seems like an important fact to leave out. also, you came from a solidly middle class background, despite what your high school teachers suggested.

    • I’m confused about the point of your comment. That because I’m a legacy my point about low expectations isn’t valid? If anything it seems to further support my point that perception is often misguided.

  3. gingy says:

    How some people think it’s ok to critique someone’s lived experience I’ll never understand. I’ll never understand half of these comments. It doesn’t matter where said well meaning teacher in anecdote was coming from, it matters how she was perceived. I had a similar experience where as a neophyte international student from the English speaking Caribbean I attended an American University and in my Honors English Composition class, my teacher circled all my spellings of words like “colour” and “honour.” I approached him after class and told him that the spellings weren’t incorrect, it was British English and that was what was commonplace in my homeland. He responded, “Well you’re in America now, you have to write like an American.” Whether he meant well or not, I know how it was perceived, “You and your language aren’t good enough.” Needless to say he didn’t last long in the program and I went on to study post colonial literature.

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