By Jaden Middleton and Jeffrey Stephens
[Editor’s Note: This article is a transcript for the first episode of the Engaged Citizenship podcast started by Jaden Middleton and Jeffrey Stephens to discuss topics of community, race, justice and leadership. Due to some technical challenges, the podcast will launch in the Fall, but below is an excerpt of their first episode. The transcript has been edited for length.]
Jaden: We wanted to do this podcast because during [the Engaged Citizenship] class, I had this idea. We had really good conversations so I thought we could put them where people could hear them.
Jeffrey: This week we want to talk about ‘assumptions,” and assumptions specifically about race. We are going to start with a book we all read [in English class] this year called New Kid by Jerry Craft.
Jaden: New Kid is the story of a 7th grader, Jordan Banks, and his experience as a new kid. He is one of the few students of color at a prestigious school. Because Jordan is new and different, there are many examples of assumptions in the story. Assumptions people make about him, assumptions he makes and assumptions he witnesses.
Jeffrey: One example is when people first met Jordan. For example, when a parent of another student first picks up Jordan to take him to the new school, the parent assumes that the neighborhood Jordan lives in is ‘bad’. Another example is Andy who is a sports obsessed student at school. He assumes that Jordan is good at sports because Jordan is black. But Jordan is really more interested in art, in particular graphic art for comic novels.
Jaden: Another example is labels. Jordan meets another student of color at school, Maury, and learns that students have nicknamed him Maur-e-o because they think he is black on the outside and white on the inside.
Jeffrey: Another example is through Jordan’s friendship with Liam. Liam has lived with many financial advantages and Jordan assumes that Liam must be happy. He lives in a big house. He has all the latest games and he travels the world. But it turns out Liam is pretty lonely.
Jaden: There are also examples of a lot of off handed assumptions – these are just little things that are thrown around but they can add up to a lot. For example, in the cafeteria, students assume that Ramone’s mom makes tacos at home because of the color of Ramone’s skin. There are also a number of examples of white teachers who meant well and tried to understand what it would feel like to be black but they end up saying or doing cringey things.
Jeffrey [to Jaden]: Have you had any experiences like the ones Jordan faced?
Jaden: Most people in our grade will think that I’m really athletic… I guess I’m ok, but people think that I’m really athletic because I’m tall and I’m black and there are assumptions around that. What about you? Have you had any experiences with assumptions like the ones in New Kid?
Jeffrey: I’ve had some that aren’t completely like that. But I have had experiences sometimes where people might be scared of me and think I’m going to fight them. And sometimes it could be about race and sometimes it couldn’t be…but sometimes I do have people who are scared of me.
Jaden: I’d like to introduce an expert to our podcast: Dr. Troy Baker. He is the Director of Student Life at Pace Academy and he’s a national speaker and educator around issues of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. He recently recorded a seminar on Learning and Leading While Black.
Jeffrey: Welcome to the podcast Dr. Baker!
Dr. Baker: Thank you guys. I appreciate you bringing me in to talk about some important things and important topics. I’m so excited you guys would have me in and even call me an expert. I’m honored to spend this time with you guys so thanks for having me.
Jeffrey: Do you think students of color have had similar experiences around race [as Jordan does in the New Kid book] at Pace?
Dr. Baker: I do. That’s a good question. I think we have to be careful though when we say ‘similar’ experiences. So my first answer is yes. But we have to remember that not all students of color come from the same place. All students of color don’t have the same lens.
We are not monolithic people. So while those experiences might be similar, some of the impacts might feel different for different kids. I think one of the big assumptions is that all the students of color are the same. That is the big huge assumption and then there are assumptions about people as individuals and that plays out differently for all students in different areas of their lives at Pace.
Jaden: Did you experience race assumptions when you were a student?
Dr. Baker: I did. That’s a really great question. I experienced assumptions about race probably starting in about first grade. I went to a public school but it was a majority white public school and very early on I found myself in situations where there were assumptions about who I was as a person, how smart I was or how smart I wasn’t, how athletic I should be, there were a lot of things tied up in race.
And I would say that at that time, when I was young, I probably did not handle the situations very well. I was definitely a fighter. So I fought a lot. Got in a lot of fights. I was in the principal’s office a lot. I argued with people a lot. That was a big big part of my early experience as a student. Any time I ran up against something that felt offensive or felt like I was under attack, my solution was to fight that person. That’s where I found myself a lot.
By the time I got to high school, my dad forced me to go to a private school. I wanted to go to the school in my neighborhood – it was an all black public school. That’s where I wanted to be. He forced me to go to a private school that was majority white. There were some assumptions about me and why I was there. Some people thought I was there because I wanted to go there to play sports. Some thought I was recruited there to play basketball.
But what they didn’t know was that number one, I was a much better student than I was a basketball player, and number two, I didn’t want to be there at all. I wasn’t clamoring to get there to get on some kind of team. My dad was forcing me to go there for educational reasons. I think it was very easy for people to see me and to just make determinations about my purpose for being there or my desire to be there. That was something that has been consistent for me as a student.
Jaden: What would you do differently if you could go back?
Dr. Baker: When I was younger, 1st grade, 2nd grade, 3rd, I think it was a difficult position to be in. None of my teachers really understood my perspective. There wasn’t anywhere in that school that I could really go to – I didn’t know at the time to find people that identified with me and could empathize with me. If I could do it differently maybe I would have worked harder to seek out folks that I could connect with? But at the time, it was almost like an immediate defense. It was almost like fight or flight. It was a defense mechanism to look out for myself.
I think [if I could go back], I would have spent a little more time trying to see if there were people who could identify with me – even if they weren’t a person of color – [if I could find someone with] the ability to empathize with someone else. I didn’t seek that out. I don’t know if I was even equipped to do that at that age.
Jeffrey: Going back to your dad and how he put you in that private school, right now, do you thank him? Do you appreciate it? Or are you like ‘I would have rather gone to a majority black school?’
Dr. Baker: That’s a great question. Such a really good question. What ended up happening is that somewhere around my junior year, I kind of found my place at that school. It started with a teacher who was not a person of color, he was a white man, a Jesuit brother. He and I connected. He was a person who found me, I didn’t find him, he found me. And he kind of changed how I felt like I belonged at that school — my academic identity and a lot of other things.
So now I am thanking my dad. I think it was a terrific decision. In a lot of ways it was a defining episode for my life in terms of who I became as a student, even all the way through to my recent history and finishing my final degree. So there have been more plusses than minusses for me. There are some things that were tough for me and different for me as a student of color, but on the whole more plusses than minuses and looking back, I am grateful that he forced me to do that at the time.
Jeffrey: Why do you think that assumptions exist? Why are they a problem?
Dr Baker: I think that assumptions in general are a part of the way that our brains work as human beings. We have to find patterns. It’s a survival mechanism. It’s a part of how the human race has thrived and survived for as long as we have. Your brain is set up to take in and synthesize information, form patterns, and make decisions based off of those patterns. And we want to do it as quickly as possible and we want to be very efficient with it. So there are some things that are natural about forming assumptions — there is a part of your brain that we can’t help it. It’s why we like to categorize things in science. It’s why we spend so much time figuring out what stuff is – because it’s a human survival mechanism.
The tough part is that sometimes when it comes to people, our assumptions are clouded by negative perceptions we have about a particular race in general. Sometimes our perceptions are clouded by limited information, limited interaction. We call that ignorance. We are ignorant to a lot of things. There is just so much that we don’t know. So the patterns that we think we see are just inaccurate. The final thing that we don’t see, we don’t see how much of an impact that has on other people. You don’t know how hurtful that is to other people – the flaws in the pattern that you think you’ve created.
So for example – you pointed out the example in the book about the wealthy student – what was his name?
Jeffrey and Jaden: Liam
Dr. Baker: Liam – so the example of Liam. If you haven’t been around a lot of really wealthy people, you might drive down West Paces Ferry and think: “Man, everyone in this neighborhood must be so happy.” But if you were to spend time in every one of those homes, and live in each one for a week, you would have a lot more information about what it is like to be one of the people who lives in those houses. So when you make that assumption that all wealthy people are happy, a lot of that assumption is based on ignorance.
Now, the thing is that this might not be as harmful. If I’m a wealthy person and everyone assumes I’m happy, I’m probably not offended by that. I might be, I might not be. But when we think about where assumptions become harmful about people, especially when based on race? It’s typically because those assumptions are carrying the weight of human history – you are carrying the weight of a lot of history, a lot of oppression, a lot of pain, a lot of discrimination, a lot of being blocked out of access to opportunity. And so some of those assumptions are based on some really terrible things that have happened, and so that is part of the reason they are as hurtful as they are, regardless of who they come from.
Jaden: What were [are] some of your biggest hurdles about assumptions?
Dr. Baker: Some of my biggest hurdles have been outside of school. Just the ability to move freely. Some of what we see on tape now about police, in terms of things that happen to you at the store, people being suspicious of you, people being afraid of you: those things have always been hurdles and sometimes still are — the perception that people have of you when you walk into a room, or walk down the street or drive your car from work to your house.
As a student, some of the biggest hurdles early on were people underestimating your ability to contribute. So always feeling you had to work extra hard to prove yourself, prove your worth, prove your value in situations, so those were always hurdles for me as a student. Just the assumptions around your goals and what you want – people saying to you “well, it’s about more than basketball,” but I never said it wasn’t about more than basketball. So that builds a level of frustration and a chip on your shoulder as a defense mechanism. Figuring out how to break that down then became the biggest hurdle.
Jeffrey: Are you optimistic that things will eventually get better?
Dr. Baker: That’s a good question. I am in a lot of ways. But I’m also a big believer in thinking about things in a timeline fashion. I ask: “How long did it take for us to mess it up? It might take us that long to fix it.” That doesn’t sound very optimistic, but at the same time, it’s all on a continuum.
When we say “better,” I think it is better for you guys than it was for me when I was your age. I don’t think it’s fixed. But I think, when I was your age, I think things were a little worse when it comes down to conversations around race, awareness, empathy, inclusion, equity – people weren’t saying stuff like that when I was your age. Twenty years from now, my hope is that it will be better than it is today. But I think when we talk about centuries of oppression, centuries of assumptions, I think it’s going to take a very long time to get to a point of saying “ok, everything is even, everything is good, we’re all rolling with the same stuff, we all have the same deck of cards.” I think that will be a while.
I am optimistic that as we continue to put more effort into something, it will get better. You get better at stuff by working at it. You practice. That’s how you get better at anything. As we do this as a community at Pace, I think things continue to improve. I think conversations around race right now at Pace are better than they were five years ago. They just are.
I think more teachers are having those conversations, more leaders, more kids. The tone around this is a lot better than it was five years ago. So I would say that I am optimistic about change in that way but I also don’t want to be naive and think that in a few years everything is going to be perfect.
Jeffrey: What do you think our next topic should be?
Dr. Baker: You know what guys? I think this topic is incredible. I think it covers a lot. It pertains to so many people, not just in the Pace community but in general. It’s going to be hard to top. You came out of the gate strong.
I think one thing that might be interesting to hear a bit more about is perceptions that the larger community has about students of color at Pace. I think that is going to be a hard one to do – but if there is a way to think about that – or even what students have learned, maybe something around what people are learning to challenge assumptions, what people have learned when their expectations are challenged. That would be really interesting to discuss both from students of color and their perspectives as well as from white students and how their perspectives have changed.
Jeffrey: Can I ask one last question? What would you say to a student who was in your position in high school today? If they are trying to decide where to go to school and their parents wanted them to go somewhere that they might not want to go?
Dr. Baker: I would tell that student to try their best and trust the vision of their parents. And also, I would tell that student that there is more than one pathway to being successful. I would like to think that if I went to that all black school in my neighborhood that I would have still been a good student. I would like to think that I still would have been successful. I think I still had the same tools – I would have been a hard worker.
But I think I would tell that student to trust the vision of your parents. Understand the value in every situation that you are going into – you aren’t necessarily going to be able to craft that in any stage of your life – whether it is your college or your first job.
Ask yourself why your parents might want you to make a decision. Your parents aren’t forcing you into a decision based on some assumption about deficiencies in other schools, but they may know some things you don’t know about your preparation and I would say to trust their vision.
Jaden: Do you want to do a lightning round with us?
Dr. Baker: I’d love to. You guys are putting me on the hot spot. I’m ready!
Jeffrey: What is your favorite day of the week?
Dr. Baker: I’m weird in this way. Monday. Monday is my favorite day because you get to set the tone for the week.
Jaden: What is your favorite city besides Atlanta?
Dr. Baker: Memphis, TN.
Jeffrey: Would you rather be able to speak every language in the world or speak to animals?
Dr. Baker: Definitely speak to animals.
Jaden: What nickname does your family have for you?
Dr. Baker: They do not have a nickname for me at all. Everyone calls me Troy.
Jeffrey: Would you rather have invisibility or be able to fly?
Dr. Baker: Fly.
Jaden: Favorite junk food?
Dr. Baker: Doritoes.
Jeffrey: What is the best age?
Dr. Baker: 42. Whatever age I am, that is the best age.
Jeffrey: Thank you for coming to our podcast.
Dr. Baker: Thank you for having me. I can’t wait to hear what you do next and I appreciate you tackling these tough topics and thanks again for having me.