The Color of Intelligence by Serenity Freeman
“What is the color of intelligence?” This question seems ridiculous, but I assure you it’s important. Take a minute to think about your answer (yes, I’m serious). What colors came to mind? Blue, red, maybe green? Society has taught me that intelligence is white, therefore anyone or anything showing intellect is considered white. That’s what my classmates implied when I used anything not considered slang to convey my ideas. Anytime I presented myself in a professional setting and I was met with a surprised “You speak so well!” by many adults. The way we treat Black children in regards to education makes them feel ostracized and discouraged.
Unspoken norms give context and enhance the meaning of words, phrases, and sayings. American English has its origins rooted in Middle and Old English from the British colonizers of the seventeenth century. Things that are taboo, such as nudity and sex, are considered unclean due to the influence of Christianity and other religions on our country. Are these connotations inherently bad? No, but they are present, and sometimes as a society we forget that these connotations exist. They’re markers for the culture, time, and norms of the place where they were created. It’s the reason why a White person calling a Black person a “nigga” is generally deemed unacceptable. It references a time when that word was (and continues to be) used as a slur towards the Black community as a means to degrade us. The same logic applies to the way we address Black youths' intelligence.
Now this isn’t an instance where White people are entirely to blame. Although people of European ancestry started this way of thinking, people of all races have perpetuated this stereotype. Unless parents are particularly strict when it comes to education, the trial and error that comes along with learning in the academic sphere generates a sense of hopelessness in Black youth. This feeling of defeat is amplified when teachers antagonize and discourage Black students from pursuing high academic achievements. A friend of mine told me that back in elementary school she had an amazing third grade teacher. The teacher liked her, called on her often, and listened to her aspirations. She was heartbroken when she found out the next year that this teacher had refused to give her a recommendation for the gifted and talented program. Even though her test scores and grades showed that she was qualified, the teacher said that the girl was “just not gifted material”. After a year of back and forth with the school, eventually ending in a threat of legal action, my friend was finally placed in the gifted program. Once she got there, she was faced with her academic peers, the most ‘intelligent’ kids at her school. Ninety percent of them were White. If her test scores and grades qualified, if she was engaged in class, and respectful, what else defined “gifted material”? What was this young Black girl missing before that resulted in her exclusion? The answer to this question is White skin.
Another factor that feeds into this racist cycle is the dehumanization of intelligent Black children. Most of the time, the perpetrators don’t realize that they're creating such a negative impact, so this can be done by friends, family, or strangers. In my experience, being intelligent put me on a pedestal that I never asked to be placed on, and forced me to experience each of these scenarios. In previous years, my classmates constantly compared themselves and other students to me. Phrases like this were tossed around on the daily: “Of course she can do the work, she’s the smart kid” and “Well if Serenity can’t do it, then how are we supposed to!” While I did take pride in my academic reputation, the fact that I was always in the spotlight bothered me. It established the idea that I couldn’t make mistakes or be incorrect because everyone expected perfection from me. I felt alienated, like I was an anomaly for happily raising my hand to answer questions in class. I faced an internal struggle over whether it was wrong to be uncomfortable by these statements, or whether to feel grateful for the seemingly positive attention, so most of the time I said nothing. Being placed under this skewed spotlight discouraged me in my academic career: the dehumanization and isolation I faced from my peers created a dynamic that painted me as an exception to the rule. Too many Black students are forced onto this spectrum of discouragement and dehumanization, so how do we reverse these effects? How do we reconstruct the system?
Reconstruction of the educational system should begin with the normalization of uncomfortable conversations, the hiring of more Black teachers, and widespread exposure to Black professionals in all careers. These unspoken stereotypes grow and fester because they are left unchecked for too long. As a school that prides itself on diversity we need to consistently discuss racial tensions, not just when they explode in a scandal. The topic of race has become a taboo for those with the privilege of ignoring it, but these conversations are literally a life or death matter for those of us on the receiving end of racism. We need more Black teachers who understand the struggles of our youth and can encourage them and guide them to helpful resources. Many Black students will go their entire academic career without having a Black teacher, without seeing an adult who looks like them in the classroom. This lack of representation sends messages to children that causes them to reflect on their own intelligence and potential. Positive reinforcement is a necessity so we need the testimonies of successful Black people in all fields of study. Nothing fills students with determination like knowing there are people that look like them doing things they'd only dreamed of.
We need to rewrite the narrative that an intelligent Black child is a diamond in the rough. Yes, there are exceptional black youth, but they aren’t rarities. Intelligence should not be one color and it shouldn’t be an unspeakable subject.