Black Teens Aren’t Unintelligent, Just Unaffirmed

“He always lays his head down or looks out the window! He never participates in discussions! He doesn’t seem to be interested in the class and his grades are suffering for it.”

These might be familiar conversations for teachers who encounter unmotivated Black adolescents. At the end of their wits, the teachers throw up their hands, writing these youths off as disinterested, unintelligent, and disabled. They then diagnose the teens as maladaptive to the learning environment (Codrington & Fairchild, 2012; Darling-Hammond, 2010; Gardner & Miranda, 2001; Nasir, 2012), deciding that the Black students need a more “serious” intervention than they can provide. Once the decision is made, they ignore the students for the rest of the year, deciding to pay attention to the more “model” learners. Grave mistake.

The Truth About Student Motivation

The problem is not that Black teens aren’t bright. Catch them talking to their peers in the hallway about popular culture, and you’ll notice they articulate their ideas with an energy, passion, and depth most preservice teachers wish to see in their future pupils. So, what’s going on here? The issue is that the identities of Black students are not affirmed in the classroom. Schools, directly or indirectly, make available particular identity choices to Black adolescents, many of which don’t align with positive academic behaviors (Nasir, 2012). Common examples of these identities are that of the disruptive troublemaker or inattentive problem student.

Once those identities are internalized by Black teens, damaging life consequences result as they begin to perform at lower levels. This leads to stagnant achievement scores and declining GPAs. In many cases, Black youths drop out to work menial jobs with minimal opportunities for advancement. Others who can’t find work resort to crime, often ending up in prison (Amos, 2008). In some cases, students might graduate successfully, but struggle to continue to postsecondary school due to low grades, (Farmer & Hope, 2015) in which case the two options of minimum wage work or crime prevail.

Influence of School Practices on Black Identity

So how do educators put an end to this troubling cycle? It begins with teachers understanding a fundamental component of adolescence: identity formation. Psychologist Erik Erikson defined adolescence as a crucial period when teens are trying to figure out who they are (Erikson, 1968). It’s a vulnerable time as there is an array of identity choices available to youth, especially in school. During this period of identity formation, adolescents can be self-conscious as they look to others—usually family members, teachers, or peers—to affirm or negate the identities they practice. For Black teens, this time can be quite sensitive as they attempt to define themselves amidst prevailing negative stereotypes, many of which label them as lazy, dangerous, or culturally inferior. In this sense, teacher-student interactions become crucial as they either support Black youth in creating counter-narratives or appropriating stereotypical roles that result in self-fulfilling prophecies.

Unfortunately, school structures and practices often encourage the latter choice, as many Black youth are led to “dis-identify” with learning in school via negative messages.  To understand why some Black teens show oppositional identities to learning, one must take a Vygotskian perspective and understand that learning is a social process that occurs in culturally organized settings. Usually, being a learner means acting and behaving in a way that is recognizable to members of a particular academic discourse (Lave & Wenger, 1991). It requires putting on an identity of sorts. For example, the student in math class is expected to assume the identity of a mathematician. Identities are negotiated within the same space where learning occurs. What this means is that identity and learning often end up informing each other.

The negative messages Black teens receive present themselves through tracking, negative expectations, and racial discrimination (Davidson, 1996). Tracking disproportionately funnels Black students into lower ranking courses, leaving them with little opportunity to receive adequate instruction. Likewise, negative expectations accompany Black students, especially those who swagger into class, using African American Vernacular English and wearing backwards baseball caps. Teachers who assume that cultural dialect and fashion style is a mark of unintelligence, refuse to acknowledge these students, often by not calling on them when they raise their hand. Worse, racial discrimination sometimes manifests in verbal assault or excessive disciplinary action, resulting in high suspension rates among Black adolescents. These school structures and practices lead to diminished participation among Black teens, who see little point in engaging in environments that don’t validate their intelligence or identities as learners. School no longer remains a safe space where Black youth feel affirmed, appreciated, and honored for their academic contributions. In these examples, teachers can’t expect Black youth to exhibit model student behavior even if they are bright.

Solutions for Improving Student Engagement

So what does this mean for schools and teachers? It means that for one, schools must get serious about professional development. This doesn’t mean holding a monthly professional development, where teachers listen to one administrator drone on about budget cuts and test scores. Professional development must occur on a more dynamic level where minority students are put at the center of the conversation, and not as numbers or test scores, but as real people with developing identities. Professional development should address the relationships between learning and identity, understanding how learning environments influence identity processes among Black youth.

Educators can also take practical steps to ensuring that Black teens feel affirmed in the classroom, such as implementing cogenerative dialoguescoteaching, and culturally relevant pedagogy. During cogenerative dialogues, students (about four to six) and teacher engage in conversations about classroom dynamics. During these dialogues, teachers ask students to comment about classroom practices that may feel send negative messages about Black youth’s ability to learn. Coteaching, where teacher and student collaborate in designing and implementing lesson plans, can empower Black teens by validating their academic behavior. Finally, pedagogy that builds on African American adolescents’ cultural background can lead them to develop affirmative views toward school, as they see themselves represented in the curriculum.

In the end, we can’t continue to go off stereotypes or assumptions or bias. When we do, we miss out on the wealth of knowledge and insight that Black youth, or any student of color, bring to the table. So instead of worrying if our students are intelligent, let’s make sure we are and affirm them!


Amos, Jason. Dropouts, Diplomas, and Dollars: U.S. High Schools and the Nation’s Economy (Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education, 2008).

Codrington, H., Fairchild, H.H. (2012). Special education and the mis-education of African-   American children: A call to action. ­Fort Washington, MD: The Association of Black Psychologists.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine our Future. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Davidson, A. (1996). Making and molding identities in schools: Student narratives on race, gender, and academic engagement. Albany, NY: State University of New York.

Erikson, Erik. (1968). Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Farmer, E., Hope, W. (2015). Factors that influence African American male retention and graduation: The case of gateway university, a historically Black college and university. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory, and Practice, 17(1), 2-17. DOI: 10.1177/1521025115571074

Gardner, R. I., II, & Miranda, A. H. (2001). Improving outcomes for urban African American students. Journal of Negro Education, 70(4), 255-263. doi:10.2307/321127

Lave, J., Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Nasir, N. (2012). Racialized Identities: Race and Achievement Among African American Youth. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.