Transcending Race in Gifted Programs: Are We There Yet?

By Joy Lawson Davis, EdD.

In a meeting with a group of colleagues last fall, I was reminded that discussing the “achievement gap” can sometimes be a distraction. As a distraction, it often keeps us from focusing on issues that are more prevalent and more difficult to talk about. When we discuss “gaps” we refer to voids, vacuums, a space where something is missing. As such we infer that something has to be placed into the void for it to be “whole” or “complete.” In this manner, we tend to blame the “victim” for the void.

In teaching others about giftedness and diversity, I capture a host of conditions under the label of “challenges.” Some see the use of the term “challenges” as negative. My intent is not to draw attention to the negatives, but to help my audiences understand the very real and persistent problems faced by gifted students of color in our schools and communities. One of the persistent problems or challenges is racial discrimination. Racism is deeply rooted in the fabric of American society. It is a challenging and difficult concept to discuss, reckon with, and to transcend. To “transcend” implies that we have overcome, risen above, surmounted, and defeated a condition, situation, or barrier. to transcend race as a barrier in gifted education we must first recognize and honestly deal with the barrier for what it is. Like an enemy who has remained an undefeated foe, racism in our schools and society persists and its effects are long term and deeply damaging.

Last spring, the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) held a national summit on “Promising Low Income” learners. This summit focused on exemplary programs and practices as well as areas needing continuing research that address the needs of high-ability students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. I attended the summit and served as a responder. The summit panels and presenters were an impressive array of individuals from across the nation who conduct research and provide services to a broad group of gifted students who have high potential but often lack the resources needed to fully develop that potential. The summit’s work has been well received nationwide. For more information, visit NAGC’s Website.

Too often, however, as a field, we are hesitant to address the impact of racial discrimination in gifted education apart from income discrimination. Almost weekly reports are released which speak to the very obvious and painful effects of racial discrimination exacted upon African Americans in particular, in this country. Racial discrimination across educational settings is real. African American (and Hispanic) students are disproportionately identified for special education at alarming rates; they are the students also most likely to be suspended, expelled, and to dropout from school nationwide. These students are also the least likely to take and perform well on Advanced Placement (AP) tests nationwide. Taken together, these conditions are causing astronomical damage to our students, families, communities, and our nation. The issues and concerns of racially and/or ethnically diverse students must be addressed separate and apart from low-income students to effectively examine the causes and then, to effectively develop long-term solutions.

Below are vignettes (true stories) describing the effects of racism on two African-American students identified as gifted. While the examples are those of Black students, I also suggest that Hispanic, first-generation immigrant, and other under-served gifted learners also face similar challenges in schools and programs not because of their lack of high potential, but more often because of the ethnic group or race.

Vignette #1-

You’re too black to be in the gifted program! Last year, in preparation for a new manuscript, I interviewed and collected stories from families of many different cultural backgrounds and different types of geographic communities from across the nation. One such story is that of an African-American single mother living in a rural community raising a very bright high schooler who was identified as gifted in elementary school. In this mother’s story, she tells about experiences her son has had with peer groups. He has two different peer groups. The predominately White and Asian peer group in the gifted program and his Black peer group who are not identified as gifted and do not take the advanced level courses that he does. The mother described how on more than one occasion, her son was accused of being “too black” to be in the gifted program. Unlike the “acting white” phenomenon that research suggests some black students are accused of, in this young man’s case he had repeatedly been accused by peers from both the gifted group and outside of gifted class group of being “too black.” The declarative statement was “You’re too black; you can’t be gifted!” Being too black, the mother surmised, must have meant that he expressed himself as “black”; he was proud of being black and had close relationships with black students who were among his social and athletic peer group and but not in the gifted program, taking the same classes. With strong support from his family, intrinsic motivation, and commitment to succeed despite the odds, this young man has been successful. But his success has not been without its share of challenges, mostly from trying to convince students and even some adults in his environment, that it is possible for him to be black and gifted at the same time. (For a new look at why the ‘acting white’ theory has been misused and doesn’t always hold true, see Rhymes, E. Acting White? African American Students and Education.)

Vignette #2-

Are you sure you belong here? In 2011, I had the pleasure of meeting a physician in the airport before departing for a flight. This woman was stately, well-dressed with a very pleasant demeanor. As we talked, I shared my line of work with her, and she was pleased to hear about it. She actually appeared glad to have someone to tell her story. She went on to tell me that she was a native of an African nation and that her two daughters attended the local public schools. She continued by sharing situations her own daughters had experienced in educational settings wherein they were blatantly discriminated against by students and teachers. One story was particularly alarming to me. She had paid well for her daughter to attend a summer residential program for gifted students in science in a nearby state. As any good parent would, this mother said she did her research and believed the program to be an exceptional one, where her daughter could learn and be comfortable as a gifted student. Her daughter loves science, so she thought this would be an excellent opportunity for summer enrichment. After attending class on the first day, her daughter called home very distressed. She told her mother that some of her classmates asked, “Are you sure you belong here?” She reported the boys’ comments to the instructor, and he, too, looked at her as if perhaps her peers were correct and said nothing to challenge the boys’ assumption or correct them. The classmates and the instructor were all white male. The mother, a first-generation immigrant, was appalled by the comments and behavior, but not unprepared. She told me that she “took care of it” by contacting the program director and sharing the account, and also expressing her displeasure in such blatant bias on the part of the students, but even more so, the instructor’s lack of sensitivity and professionalism in the face of a very troubling situation. {See Henfield, Washington & Owens article entitled To be or Not to be Gifted? for a detailed and multi-facted discussion about the challenges faced by contemporary black yout