“I Can’t Breathe”: How Some Schools are Suffocating Poor, Minority Students

by Alice Ginsberg - April 06, 2015

This commentary looks at the labels "vampire," "terrorist," and "little demon," that are used to annotate a first grade teacher's class list on the first day of school. The author, a teacher educator, questions the relationship between the use of such derogatory labels and the resulting stereotypes and statistics of black boys and crime in light of recent events.



“Little Demon”

If I asked you to guess the context of the list above, you’d probably say it was from a horror movie or video game. Unless you teach first grade in an urban school made up of entirely poor and minority students, you probably would never guess that these words would be used to annotate your class list on the first day of school. You’d probably be equally stunned to learn that the person who annotated this list was the students’ Kindergarten teacher from the previous year.

Vampires? Kids who bite other kids. Terrorists? Kids who bully other kids. Little Demons? Kids who don’t respect authority (e.g., follow orders).

I regularly teach a yearlong course in practitioner inquiry for full time teachers getting their master’s degrees in urban education. I’m slowly starting to get used to my students telling me stories about the atrocities that commonly take place in their classrooms and schools: second grade students who aren’t allowed to use the bathroom end up having deeply embarrassing and messy accidents at their desk; middle school students who don’t have the school’s regulation belt and are forced to wear duct tape around their waist until their parents (assuming they have parents) purchase it; students who are forced to walk down the hallways “hip and lip” style, which translates to walking with one hand on their hip and one hand on their lip. No eye contact, no sudden movements, and certainly no talking. These students are not only forced into silence, they must smother their mouths with their own hands.

Frankly, I thought I couldn’t be shocked anymore, until this semester a student told me about the Vampires, Terrorists, and Little Demons. Aside from the fact that we are talking about six- and seven-year-olds being labeled in ink on paper before they even set foot in their new classrooms, the terms themselves are quite simply outrageous. Ask yourself this: What if teachers used these terms to label students in a primarily White, middle class, suburban public school? Would the principal and teachers be okay with this? Would parents? Are words like vampire, terrorist and little demon ever deemed acceptable words to describe White and privileged children in schools?

Of course not. Biting, bullying and acting out in middle class, White schools’ kindergartens are typically seen as “kids being kids.” They are given the benefit of the doubt that grabbing another kid’s crayons doesn’t make them a “terrorist,” and refusing to line-up for snack time doesn’t make them a “little demon.” At worst, they may be considered for future diagnoses of special education or attention deficit disorder. If they are biting other kids, they may be put in time out, or targeted for counseling, but would we actually call them “vampires?”

Yet when we are talking about our most disadvantaged and marginalized students—students who many have already written off as destined to drop out of school, commit crimes, get pregnant, do drugs, go to jail, overdose and/or be murdered before they turn 18—the world looks very different. Any conspicuous behavior reminds us that statistically poor children of color are doomed to fail. Instances of outright defiance or aggression are automatically seen as evidence that the children themselves are “bad” or irrevocably “damaged.” They aren’t just small children getting used to the rigidity of school, they are actual “monsters” with a proclivity for violence who must be tamed at any cost. If they are already “terrorists” in first grade, God knows what they will do when they have access to guns and let lose in public spaces.

If we are comfortable calling first grade Black boys “little demons” is it any wonder that by the time they are young adults they are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than their White counterparts1 and are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate as White boys?2

My nineteen-year-old son (who is a middle class White male attending an expensive, almost entirely White college in the mid-west) asked me what I thought of the Ferguson ruling. My answer? “Regardless of whatever happened in this particular case—and there is conflicting testimony—the fact remains that racism is a powerful and systemic force in our society, and we must take it seriously and consciously act against it.” This, of course, was the short answer. The conversation went on for several hours. My biggest concern was that at the end of the conversation, my son understood my conviction that regardless of how anybody rationalizes the killing of Michael Brown, regardless of all the people who say it’s not a racial issue, regardless of all the good work that police officers do, what happened was not an isolated incident, and it is not okay.

The next day I read a post by a White policeman, reacting to President Obama’s public statement that Michael Brown could be “your son.” His response was, “No he could not. Because I’ve taught my son not to steal and to respect authority.” Perhaps, but I doubt that his son was called a “terrorist” or “little demon” in first grade and that label then followed him through the rest of his life. I also have little doubt that his son has in fact made some bad choices at one time or another. But it is much more likely that he is one of those who upon being pulled over by the police is told “You go to a good school, so I know you can’t be that dumb. Go home.”

What I find even more offensive about the policeman’s post is the implicit arrogance that kids who get into trouble automatically have bad parents who don’t have any morals or ethics themselves. The assumption is that vampires, terrorists and little demons are automatically spawn of the same. Because, let’s face it, these kinds of labels reinforce age old fears and beliefs that Black people are genetically inferior and are not human beings due the same civil rights as the rest of the human race.

Just days after the Grand Jury in Ferguson decided not to indict Darren Wilson came the decision not to indict the officers who killed Eric Garner in a chokehold. The phrase “I can’t breathe” has become a mantra of the current quest for social justice. I cannot help but think about the minority students walking down the hall “hip and lip” style. We think we are doing them a favor. Teach them as young as possible that a hand flagging in the air, or a mouth that has the capacity for free speech, will not be tolerated. Teach them, as young as possible, that inside and out they are nothing more than monsters and terrorists. Then tell them we live in a colorblind society where racism no longer exists.

We can do better than this. We talk about public education in this country as the great equalizer, but in reality, vampires, terrorists and little demons will always be “othered” in our schools. As Stevenson writes:

Colorblindness is traditionally defined as the way individuals are blind to the cultural and racial experiences of others. I see it differently. Colorblindness is more about blindness to one’s own cultural and racial dynamics, experiences, and reactions that occur in real time, in the moment of the conflict…. colorblindness impairs the recognition of power differences between racial groups.3

We must question and resist practices that equate skin color with moral character, leading to self silencing and immobilizing young children inside and outside our schools.


1. Gabrielson, R., Grochowski, R. & Sagara, E. (2014, October 10). Deadly force, in Black and White. Retrived from: http://www.propublica.org/article/deadly-force-in-black-and-White.

2. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. (2014). Criminal justice fact sheet. Retrieved from: http://www.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet

3. Stevenson, H. (2014). Promoting racial literacy in schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 06, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17924, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 6:48:37 PM

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