Race and the Four Children of the Passover Haggadah

Each Passover, Jews around the world celebrate and reflect on the holiday’s meaning through a festive meal called a seder, which literally means order.

Although the focus of the evening is meant to be the retelling of the Hebrew slaves exodus out of Egypt, there are a lot of additional discussions. One part of the haggadah, the text containing the traditional seder readings, that has especially resonated me since I became a teacher is the piece on the four children.

In the traditional version of the Four Children, we read of four sons: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not yet know how to ask. Each child has their own response to the Passover traditions, and there is a traditional answer for each of them. The traditional text has always interested me, but for has long as I can remember, I have rejected the way each of the sons was described. The wise son in particular always felt mischaracterized and mistreated.

This year, as part of my work planning a racial justice seder with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) I returned to the four children once again, this time with a new lens.

As part of my contribution to the JFREJ haggadah, Mixed Multitudes: Nobody’s Free til Everybody’s Free, I thought about the racial disparities persistently plaguing our educational system. These disparities are not accidental, but rather are logical consequences of the biases and prejudices we project onto the children we teach.

Here are four ways we unfairly sort children:

The Wise Child: Who is considered wise?

Gifted and Talented has long been a subtle way to classify white students as excellent and students of color as less-than. In 2006 6.7% of US public school children were Gifted and Talented. The percentage of white public school children in G & T classrooms was more than double the percentage of Black public school children, which was the lowest of any race/ethnicity at 3.6%.

The New York Times data analysis blog, The Upshot, recently reported on the role of teacher bias in perpetuating this injustice.

More reading on this topic here:
Closing the Gifted-and-Talented Gap
A teacher's race-and racial biases-can affect how many African American students are assigned to such classes. Please…www.theatlantic.com

How Gifted And Talented Programs Reinforce Class And Race Inequities
Christina Torres knows what it's like to be one of very few gifted students of color in a classroom of mostly white…thinkprogress.org

The Wicked Child: Who is considered wicked?

When we talk about the school to prison pipeline, it is important to remind ourselves that it is not simply the relationship between harsh discipline practices in schools and mass incarceration. Rather, the school to prison pipeline is built on the over-disciplining of Black and Latino children.

Studies show that teachers of all races are more likely to punish black children than their white counterparts. In fact Black children are more likely to be viewed as angry, violent or even older by white study participants. This has very real and deadly consequences ranging from the creation of a school to prison pipeline and the murder of young Black people like Tamir Rice.
More reading on how teachers perceive Black students:
Teachers Of All Races Are More Likely To Punish Black Students
Two students. One is black and the other is white. On Tuesday, they both refuse to complete the math worksheet. On…www.huffingtonpost.com

Teachers more likely to label black students as troublemakers, Stanford research shows
Stanford psychologists Jennifer Eberhardt and Jason Okonofua experimentally examined the psychological processes…news.stanford.edu

The Simple Child: Who is considered simple?

From personal experience, I have seen how Black and Latino children, who tend to struggle in public schools are then characterized as learning disabled. Furthermore, as a corollary to the over-disciplining of Black and Latino children, many of these children are mischaracterized as emotionally disturbed. It seems easier for us to label our children as broken than to diagnose a failure in our system of schooling.

When Black and Latino youth, particularly boys, are classified as students with disabilities, they are especially likely to be classified with “stigmatized” learning disabilities:

"'Black students are often times two or three times more likely than white students to be identified, especially in the most stigmatizing categories such as emotional disturbance, mental retardation or intellectual disabilities and some other categories,' said Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies. 'They are underrepresented in categories like autism, and perhaps other categories like speech and language.'"
The Child Who Does Not Yet Know How to Ask: Whose voices do we listen to?

Are there children who don’t know how to speak? Or are we not listening to the words they’re using?

The language of our Black and Brown children is often devalued. “Speak English” is the common rejoinder to students trying to express themselves in African American Vernacular English, Spanish or what Chris Emdin, author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, might call neoindigenous languages.

As teachers, it is our obligation to listen more carefully. Sometimes the most valuable questions come from unexpected places. Therefore we must reorient ourselves and recognize that there are other forms of speech our students may prefer. If we want to "hear" these students, we must listen carefully.

Other times, students may choose silence. This could be a variety of reasons: trauma, introverted personality, or disengagement from our curriculum. Whatever the cause, as teachers we must push past our assumptions about what these students can do and ask whether we are providing other opportunities for them to communicate.

Obviously there are a myriad of ways our school system unjustly labels and excludes our Black and Latino youth. These Four Children are only a small sample. This Passover season, as the Jewish people celebrate a story of freedom, it is also a time to remember the work ahead to achieve freedom for all the children in our schools.


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