Parents, Should We Teach Our Kids ‘Respectability’?


No clothing, degree of politeness or ‘gentle’ demeanor can change the perceived danger of Blackness, even when there is no expressed threat of violence.

As MiniMocha gets older, I think about how race shows up in the classroom. I wonder how long her exuberant enthusiasm for everything will be welcomed by her teachers as ‘refreshing’ before it becomes a liability or a label. Research shows that differential treatment of kids based on race begins in preschool. I think about how much the classroom environment shapes our love of learning. It saddens me to think how kids suffer in schools that weren’t designed for them with teachers who don’t understand them. What does all of this mean for how we — as parents — teach our kids to show up in school?  The brutality documented on video of a school resource officer slamming a young Black girl to the ground at Spring Valley High School serves as an important reminder: Respectability can never erase the perceived threat that Black bodies represent.

In recent New York Times piece, Roxane Gay asks, “Where are Black children safe?” The answer is–not many places. School being one of them. The brutality of Spring Valley can happen in any school — public, private or charter. High performing or Low performing. Rural. Urban or suburban.

When I think about respectability, I think about the way marginalized people of color Black people are perceived in public spaces. In short, the dilemma is whether we teach our children to appear physically non-threatening; the acceptable degree of passion or dispassion used to engage others, and how (and when) they submit to authority figures. And, further, how we judge other children (and their parents) when they look or behave in ways that violate our inner respectability standard. We all have one. Maybe we as parents needs to challenge it as well.


Yes, ma’am — it is.

Stubborn expectations of respectability from others continue to challenge my parenting: How should I teach my MiniMocha to show up? And by others, I don’t necessarily mean White folks. After the Spring Valley video dropped, many Black folks on social media questioned why the young girl did not do as she was told rather than why the adult behaved in such an aggressive manner with a child. I read discussion threads that blamed the student — who was suffering from loss and trauma– for the actions of an adult who was supposed to be there to keep her safe. To focus on the behavior of the child focuses on the individual — not the structural. Parents who would say…”but she should have….” should stop and think about the response of the system to the incident. Why did the police respond versus a school guidance counselor, given the nature of the young girl’s recent trauma? Research indicates that who is first on the scene in a conflict at school–guidance counselors or school resource officers—have a tremendous influence on the outcome.

In digging deeper into respectability, one article describes it as “common sense” for Black folks. Be good. Non-threatening. Dress neatly. Speak properly. Be unassuming. It’s survival. But, is it? What are we really teaching our kids about who they are and who they should be?

Check out this clip on bias in the classroom.

School settings are places of learning and discovery for some students, but also places of great heartbreak and misunderstanding for Black students. The absence of culturally-based, racially-informed strategies for not only teaching students but engaging students is mind boggling. Parents send their kids to school thinking that they are safe, when the truth is they are not, for many reasons. If Spring Valley teaches us one thing, let it be that respectability is not a protector from violence in educational spaces, when the perceived threat is Blackness, itself. The evidence is numerous.

What can parents do when considering school options?

1. Know that public school systems were not built to educate Black children. That’s a fact. Given that, there are limited choices for ways to educate Black children outside of this structure, but there are alternatives. Explore them.

2.  Private schools can also be racially unsafe spaces. Check out the documentary, American Promise, to see how two Black families cope with the challenges of sending their Black children to exclusive predominately White private schools.

3. Charter schools can offer good alternatives, but they are not a catch-all solution. Ask questions about the inclusion of culture into the classroom, ask about school discipline policies, and ask about implicit bias training.

4. Look at the data. Most state departments of education collect data at the school and school district level. In my search for a good school, I look for: proficiency data, staff diversity, certification, and teacher experience. Even these data aren’t perfect indicators, but it is a start.  Look for schools in which Black children and performing well. Those schools may look very different than the highest performing schools in your area.

Parents, we must stay vigilant. Our kids education depends on it.



This is a hard topic to write about, because I loved school so much. However, researching schools as a parent is a completely different, often heartbreaking story.

Featured image photo credit: BigStock

About Author

I am Dr. Joanna Scott, creator of Mocha Parents, Awesome Kids. I am also a mother, researcher and racial equity consultant. I have worked with numerous organizations across the country who aspire to be more intentional about race in their organizational policies and practices. In this space, I borrow from my work and my parenting experiences living at the intersection of race and gender. I have an extensive background in public policy analysis, family counseling and years of experience as a child advocate. I hope my work mirrors my heart’s song – a deep belief in the brilliance of every Black child.

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