“That is still the case in this country for too many students, the soft bigotry of low expectations. If you don’t expect them to learn, if you don’t expect them to succeed – then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” ~Tavis Smiley
This particular quote comes from Smiley, but as he acknowledges elsewhere, the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations” was used, many times, by President George W. Bush. And while I didn’t usually agree with President Bush, I never thought the man was a bigot. He surrounded himself with people of all colors and if his policies hurt people, it wasn’t because of bigotry against any race. I was thinking about this today because of my students, of course.
We had been reading Sherman Alexis’s essay “Superman and Me,” a gorgeous piece of heart breaking prose, and my students got it. In fact, this is a theme I’ve been working on with my students all week: overcoming societal, familial and group expectations. Almost all of my students are first generation college students from “traditionally underrepresented groups” on college campuses. (Doncha love jargon!) Far too many of them deal with low expectations, so I was so thrilled to see them get fired up along with Alexie. Some were quite vocal about the difficulties of casting off other people’s and society’s low expectations for them.
It is a bigotry, of course. But Bush and Smiley were being quite generous when they call it “soft”. There’s nothing soft about it. If you expect little of a group it’s because you think little of the group as humans. And that’s wrong.
But bigots don’t read my writing I’m guessing. They are welcome, and if you are one, you’re in the right place, because this is the kind of place that encourages you to open your mind and change it. Bigotry hurts the bigot almost as badly as it hurts those hated, so if you’re here, you’re looking for a better way. We’re here to help you heal.
But I know that everyone can use the advice to not give in to low expectations. They aren’t just based on ethnicity or race. Math and science are “hard” for girls. Blondes are dumb (I’m a blonde. When I’m not dyeing my hair another color, people carve 20 points off my IQ when dealing with me. Truth.) Poor people are lazy. Fat people are stupid; beautiful people are vain, rich people are selfish. Not one of these can be used as a blanket statement, yet all of these stereotypes are wide spread. We expect people in these groups to act a certain way, and many times they do. So then we are correct in our assumptions and receive the affirmation we were expecting. (I’m being generous using the third person here–none of these are my sins, but I’m not free from making snap judgments, especially when cranky.) And so these ideas are internalized by the person on the receiving end and can become a reality to an individual.
Don’t buy into other people’s expectations for you. Believe me, no one with your best interest at heart has low expectations for you. And if someone doesn’t have your best interest at heart, you don’t need that person in your life. That’s not always a simple extraction to make–sometimes these people are our closest relatives. But even people who love us can be toxic for us. As my late, great cousin Vivian used to say: “You pick your friends, but your family is cursed on you!” Pessimistic? Yes, but sometimes a little too close to the bone!