Shifting the Paradigm: When Black Students Refuse to Accept the Norm
“My generation learned that if we wanted to accomplish anything, we would have to get off the dime. Your generation must learn to get off the paradigm.”
— Marian Wright Edelman speech at Tarbut V’Torah school in Irvine, Calif.
In today’s society, we speak of this thing called the “paradigm shift” that signifies change in our midst. This indicates that our societal values are dynamic, not static. Therefore the outcome of change is one that is different today than it was yesterday. But is this change producing a different outcome or are the same issues simply reborn?
Research shows that the enrollment of minority students has doubled over the past decade. One attributing factor to this increase is the presence of programs that have been created to help raise minority enrollment. But once enrolled, then what? Has the paradigm shifted enough by the “system” to value the presence of Black students as children with the right and the ability to learn more advanced educational material; or are institutions just glad that the rise in numbers increases their marketability? It is hard to tell, when Black students often graduate at lower rates, matriculate slower and often express heightened feelings of resentment due to climate issues.
Literature regarding the state of Black college students often reveals that many of the cause and effect relationships are written from a deficit standpoint. Black students entering college for the first time are likely to hear that they may not succeed for a number of reasons; or that their race is not well represented; or that they may be less likely to succeed than their White counterparts. With this as the supporting model, Black students are faced with the idea that they are already a step behind their counterparts.
In addition to these factors, Washington Post columnist and education advocate William Raspberry suggests that some Black students are attributing their lack of success to their own lack of effort. He asserts that some Black students are cognizant of the fact that they are not pushing themselves in comparison to their other classmates. Thus, they become their own oppressors and defeat themselves. This private attitude of self-defeat ultimately sets up personal roadblocks that are often unseen to outsiders. This is known as internalized oppression, which is a serious beast that has caused complacency where there used to be persistence in some Black students and is often intensified by low expectations.
When education advocate Marian Wright Edelman speaks of getting “off the paradigm,” she no doubt is referring to the need for students, and for our purposes Black students, to challenge these models. This change marks the initiation of the “shift” in what has been the normative standard for so long. This “shift” requires a new way of thinking about success and achievement and personalizes the commitment to academic and social persistence. The question is how do Black students shift the paradigm when confronted by so many challenges?
The “shift” comes when Black students enter school expecting to succeed, regardless of whether they fall into a particular category or not. It comes when the model is not based on societal restrictions or expectations. The ownership becomes the students’, and the norms based on stereotypical expectations are no longer fact. Raspberry states that, “we can wait for (White) America to change its attitude toward Blacks. Or we can change the way we respond to what we believe that attitude to be.”
With this said, the “shift” comes when Black students refuse to be number increasers, and begin to expect, demand and partake in the quality education being received by their White counterparts.
In a 1990 address to the graduating class at Howard University, Edelman suggested that students “remember that Black folk can never take anything for granted in America … Don’t be lazy. Do your homework … Take care and pride in your work…” Even with more opportunity available there are still strides to be made. It is not the time to be comfortable. As Edelman suggests, Black people in this country, advantaged or disadvantaged, cannot afford to take a laissez-faire attitude in many things, the least of all education. She no doubt alludes to a shift coming when Black students understand the importance of being enthusiastic and energetic when it comes to their studies. It is this enthusiasm that will motivate them, not that of the institution. Things may take some preparation, some time, and some effort to complete; however, the fastest way is not always the best way, and Black students should not settle for just “getting by.”
Edelman also suggests that students not be afraid of taking risks or of being criticized. This fear is certainly understandable when Black students are often already under a critical eye; however, it is Edelman’s assertion that they put themselves “out there,” challenge the norm, and go after what is rightfully theirs regardless of whether they were chosen as number increasers or as valued members of the institution that they attend.
Though Edelman’s words were stated over 10 years ago, the importance of her message can be heard loud and clear today. This is a day of great struggle for Black students — not necessarily because of overt forms of racism, though they still exist, but a struggle for Black students who are unaware, or worse, unconcerned about their possibilities. Today is a struggle for Black students who accept the “norm” that has been defined for them and who believe in the low expectations set. This is a day of struggle for every Black child afraid of taking risks, afraid of faith, or afraid of the stigma of being smart. These struggles continue to fight against the “shift in the paradigm” that is so needed from Black students. As Raspberry suggests, it will take more than just realization of the need for this “shift” to occur, it will take action.
— Renique T. Quick is program coordinator/academic adviser in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. Denise L. Shipley is coordinator of multicultural and international student services at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.
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