I consulted to a school with students, ages 17-23, who had dropped out of their local high school. They were poor, of many ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Some were homeless; some had kids of their own. Their choice to return to public education was a triumph of optimism and willpower over the conditions of their lives. Each morning, when they hauled themselves out of bed to come to school, they triumphed against the odds.
Few had done much traveling; their neighborhood cultures were the cultures they knew. When they went to job interviews or college open houses, they were stepping outside their comfort zones. Some staff members coached these students to pull up their pants, take off their hats, look the interviewer in the eye, and speak differently— all things that most ungenerously can be said to “act white.” The students were urged to code switch.
The students were not totally ignorant of the ways of the world: if the interviewer was a middle aged white man, they knew they had a better chance of being hired if they spoke his slang and didn’t look “threatening.” In a similar fashion, it is a lesson that many kids of color learn from their families when dealing with police—“don’t look threatening”–a lesson I never had to drill into my own kids.
A Black colleague told me that code switching is multi-faceted; each student of color has to weigh the benefits and costs. He told me that in his experience, code switching was no guarantee to get the job, once the employer saw the color of his skin, or heard the accents of many kids of color. And if the students of color did get the job, they would have to repress the same fundamental parts of their culture every day, for as long as they held the job—an act some felt would betray their family’s values and heritage. My colleague said no one ever explores the cost of that betrayal.
I talked with that colleague about our Latino student Jerome, who was going to a job interview—with his pants hanging low, and his baseball cap on backwards. My colleague said it was not my place to urge Jerome to pull up his pants and take off his hat; there was no guarantee that stripping himself of his identity would land him the job. “And what message are you telling Jerome about how you value who he is?”
I asked, “Is there anything I can say to Jerome, given that there is so much prejudice against young men of color who look and sound like him?”
He said, “Tell Jerome whether you would hire him looking like that.”
The comment took my breath away. I stood in stunned silence. Then I stammered out, “Well, yeah I know and love Jerome. I would hire him. I can’t say that the interviewer would do so. I don’t know who the interviewer is. I don’t know if it’s worth it for Jerome to code switch.” And then, risking much honest shame, I said, “I’m not sure I would hire Jerome if I didn’t know him.”
We stood again in silence. I felt so confused. I think my colleague appreciated my honesty.
He said, “That’s what you tell Jerome, that you wouldn’t be sure if you would hire him dressed like that. Be honest. It’s his world to navigate. Your honesty teaches him more than your assumptions about that job. Be honest with him.”
There are many voices urging schools to explicitly teach job readiness skills. Lost in this push to make our students employable is silence about the forces that compel students of color to code switch when seeking a job—and the costs of code switching. That silenced dialogue (thanks to Lisa Delpit for the phrase) avoids delving into the terrain of power and race, like teaching physics in a make-believe world that has no friction.
One hundred years ago, John Dewey, noting the ever-evolving content of school subjects, stated that the one absolute curriculum in American schools should be democracy–a democracy that has never achieved equality of power and opportunity for all of its residents. Like physics and employment skills, the curriculum of democracy needs to be filled with the friction of real life, the frictions of class, power, race, and privilege.
There are many different versions of democracy and employment skills for us to reference in schools. Should I tell my outspoken idealistic student not to mention in a job interview that he is a socialist, despite the fact that it is legal to be one—it’s not a good employment attribute, right? It is okay to teach job skills—but we don’t teach union organizing as a job skill. Many adults urge Jerome and his friends to code switch—without assessing the cost versus benefit for Jerome to maintain his place in an environment that demands only some people code switch, and in so doing, help to maintain that inequitable environment.
There were so many—too many– lessons to be aware of in a conversation with Jerome. Dewey said to lean into democracy. Others would focus on power and prejudice. I went with honesty. Jerome could use my honesty to add to his understanding of the world he has to navigate, more than he needed my assumptions of his world, his employability, and his self-worth.