Every time I facilitate restorative practices trainings for schools, I almost always know where the pushback will begin. I am able to get through the Social Discipline Window and talk through the two paradigms (Punitive vs. Restorative) with little to no challenging. I still have the smiles and engagement of those in attendance. And then I get to Affective Statements and this is where the training shifts from mere theory to praxis and practice. Where we are no longer just talking about the fluffy part of restorative practices but must now do some serious self-interrogation and emotional work. This is where teachers and administrators must confront that they have been unfairly placing their emotional work on children. That they have been using their adult power to turn personal judgments into facts.
People begin to shift in their seats. Eyes begin to roll. Eyebrows are raised. This is where the challenging and cries of outrage begin.
How many times have we heard a teacher or administrator say “I feel like you don’t want to be here” or “I feel like you have an attitude” or my favorite “I feel disrespected.” None of these statements are actual expressions of feelings but rather interpretations of behaviors. You cannot feel like someone has an attitude – you can only interpret someone’s expression as an attitude. This is what teachers and administrators are often doing in schools and disciplinary data shows this has been especially harmful for Black girls.
In Baltimore City Schools (BCPSS), Black girls are 4x more likely to be suspended than white girls and 2x more likely to be expelled than white girls. Black girls in BCPSS are more likely than other girls to be punished for speaking out in school, defying authority and causing disturbances. So what exactly does all of this have to do with Affective Statements?
Let’s start by defining Affective Statements. My aunty/friend Andria Cole provided this definition:
Affective Statements are personal expressions of feelings in responses to others’ behavior. Using Affective Statements require you to observe without judgement and to name/describe physical emotion, not the interpretations, diagnoses, evaluations or criticism
Based on the definition, the earlier statements (I feel like you don’t want to be here, I feel like you have an attitude, I feel disrespected) would fail the Affective Statement test. As I mentioned before, those statements do not express observation but rather interpretations, diagnoses, evaluations, and criticism of what is being observed.
So what does this all have to do with the cries of outrage when I facilitate trainings?
Affective Statement’s internal work forces teachers and administrators to grapple with how their biases about Black girls are reflected in the three statements above. Researchers with the Initiative on Gender Justice and Opportunity at Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality 2017’s report Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girl’s Childhood found that black girls are perceived as more adult-like and less innocent than white girls in schools. The report also showed that “when Black girls express strong or contrary views, adults view them as challenging authority or, more fundamentally, simply assume a girl’s character is just plain ‘bad.’” This means that Black girls are being punished because their behaviors and expressions are automatically interpreted as “disrespect” or defiance even when they’re not.
I feel like you have an attitude. I feel like you don’t want to be here. I feel disrespected.
Challenging adults in schools to use Affective Statements is a tool in restorative practices that can attempt to mitigate the harm that often occurs through non-affective statements. Forcing adults to use feeling words rather than interpretations of feelings means they cannot mask their biases of Black girls and pass it off as feelings. No longer should teachers and administrators be able to punish a child with “disrespect” being the reasoning without being able to explain exactly how they were harmed by said disrespect.
I will close by sharing this story told by Dr. Bree Picower during her Confronting Racism in Teacher Education talk at Loyola University.
You have two students, Sarah (white) and Tatiana (Black). Both students are playing with scissors and it’s time for the teacher to ask them to put the scissors away. The teacher says to Sarah “don’t you think it’s time to put the scissors away?” and Sarah (white student) understands that this isn’t a question but rather a demand. The teacher then comes to Tatiana (Black student) and says the very same thing, “don’t you think it’s time to put the scissors away?” Tatiana says “no” and continues to play with the scissors. Frustrated that Tatiana didn’t follow directions, the teacher sends her to the principal’s office for being insubordinate. What happened here? Research shows that Black children are accustomed to receiving direct demands at home while white children are used to passive demands. A Black child reads “don’t you think it’s time to put the scissors away?” as a question where they are able to make a choice rather than a choiceless demand. This story is another example of how Black girls are disproportionately disciplined in schools.