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Case Narrative

Martin slumped off the school bus, barely glancing at his mother Lorreen, who was waiting on the corner for him. “Hey honey, what's the matter? Did you have a bad day?”

“Naw, nothin's the matter,” Martin responded flatly and walked on.

Lorreen shared a concerned look with her mother Rhona about Martin's despondent attitude. As they walked toward the house, Martin asked, without looking at them, “Mom, what happens if someone says you did something that you didn't do? Like if someone says you took something but you didn't take it?”

“Well, you tell the person that you didn't take it and talk about what happened. Sometimes it's just a misunderstanding. Why? Did someone say you took something that didn't belong to you?”

Martin started to get agitated. “Yeah, at lunchtime. Johnny and Mack and Jose said I stole Steven's watch, but Steven gave it to me! I told 'em so but they said I stole it because I come from a bad neighborhood and we don't have any money!”

“Honey, that's awful! When did Steven give you the watch?”

“He gave it to me last week. He's my friend and he gave me a present! Steven told them he gave it to me, too,” Martin answered. “But they just said Steven was stupid. Are we poor, Mom?” Martin looked up at his mother.

“Honey, we have a good life and everything we need,” Lorreen assured Martin. “I know you always tell the truth, and I'm glad that you told those boys what happened. It's good that Steven stuck up for you. You stick with boys that are nice to you and don't pay any mind to those other kids.”

Martin's mood lightened and he smiled a little as they walked into the house. But Lorreen remained troubled, and her thoughts drifted to other worries about Martin.

A later version of this teaching case is featured in the book Preparing Educators to Involve Families: From Theory to Practice, available for purchase from Sage Publications at

Lorreen and Rhona Reflect on Martin's Situation
As Martin loped ahead toward home, Lorreen's gait slowed to match her mother's. “Ma, I'm worried about the problems Martin's been having with these kids at school. His grades are so good, but he's been misbehaving a lot in class.”

“Oh, he is so smart. Why's he acting out?” asked Rhona.

“I think it's this thing about friends,” Lorreen explained. “Mrs. Taylor and I have talked on the phone about the fact that Martin's spending all this time with Shawn again - you know, his friend from the old neighborhood. She says that Martin looks up to Shawn, and he's a troublemaker, so we're working on a way to separate them as much as possible.”

“She sends home notes every few weeks saying how well he's doing. And even in our last few conversations, she kept telling me that Martin was a great student. But she's basically just worried that Shawn's a bad influence on him.”

“But this business today about boys in school accusing him of stealing and being poor makes me think there's a lot more going on at that school than Mrs. Taylor is saying. Besides, I doubt she knows about what's gone on with all his little friends since we've moved.”

“You mean because he doesn't see his friends from the old neighborhood as much?” Rhona interjected.

Martin still attended the same school, but had left good friends in their neighborhood behind when they moved. “Well, he definitely misses his old friends,”Lorreen agreed. “I think that's partly why he's started hanging out with Shawn in school. His other old friends come over to the house sometimes, but make fun of him right to his face. They criticize his clothes. They tease him about his interest in African and Native American heritage. They tease him about his darker skin color. But he still wants to hang out with them, I guess because otherwise he's alone a lot. But you know it bugs me. Not to mention all their street talk and him trying to copy it.”

“On top of that he doesn't get invited to any of the other kids' houses in the new neighborhood. His little Vietnamese friend moved away. And I won't let Martin have anything to do with these two white kids down the block. They're rough and talk back to their mothers. I wouldn't be surprised if they end up in jail some day.”

“And he's having trouble finding other new friends in the neighborhood. When we first moved here, things got racial. A few boys told Martin that their parents wouldn't let him come over because he was black, even though the boys really liked each other. Martin just took it in stride and wanted to stay friends with them.”

Lorreen also recalled a neighbor who had used the most hated of all racist words. “I was furious with her. I didn't lose my temper, but I set her straight that no one was going to make any racist comments about me or my family. I haven't heard anything like that since.”

Lorreen admitted to her mother that the move had affected Martin, that he missed his old neighborhood and wished he could have both black and white friends. Lorreen apologized to her mother, “I'm sorry I didn't mention this before, but I wanted to focus on the good things that were happening and not think about anything negative. Plus Martin and I talked about the bad things that people say and do to each other and about fighting racism. He knows how I feel about dignity and fairness and what it means to succeed in a competitive world. I think our talks have helped.”

Rhona spoke lovingly to her daughter, “I know how much you love your new home and fixin' it up and makin' it look good. You should be proud of yourself. I'm always telling my friends how strong and smart my grandson is and what a good mother you are.”

Lorreen surveying the small, well-kept yards in their new neighborhood and mentally compared it to the broken asphalt yard of their public housing complex just last year. “It's true, Ma. Each flower and tree reminds me of things growing and the possibilities that are ahead of us. I never thought we'd ever really be able to move. Remember how I used to worry about Martin day and night? I thought it was just a matter of time before I lost him to gangs. I always prayed we'd be able to move someplace safer. And now, for the first time, I really believe Martin has a chance for a good future.”

Lorreen had held several jobs at once to save enough money to move from the public housing where Martin spent his first five years of life. Ray, her fiancé, had supported her efforts and shared the excitement of their new home with them. Lorreen felt lucky to have Ray in her life and living with them, and to have her mother and other relatives so close by now. They all spent a great deal of time together, and Martin enjoyed playing with both his younger and older cousins.

Lorreen reassured herself out loud, “I know the move was the right thing for Martin, even though things haven't been perfect.”

“Even so, you ought to talk to his teacher,” Rhona countered.

Joan Taylor, Martin's First Grade Teacher
Joan put the finishing touches on her midyear progress report to Martin's mother. She wrote that Martin's reading had improved since the weekly meetings with his tutor had begun. Joan liked Lorreen and wanted her to know what a good reader Martin was becoming. Joan tried to stay in touch with parents as much as possible, even through short notes home, to help involve them in their children's schooling, which helped ensure greater success in school. Joan had taught first and second grades at Winston for four years and had enjoyed the mix of the students and families. Like all of the other teachers and administrators, she was white, but she felt that she communicated well with students of all ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Lorreen made a strong impression on Joan from the start. Eventually Lorreen had opened up to Joan about finishing her high school diploma as a single mother. Joan knew of Lorreen's promotion to assistant manager of a beauty supply company and of her hopes of going to college one day. “My grandmother, she always tried to instill in us, get your education, do this and that, and don't have any kids when you're young ... don't just sit on welfare, my grandmother didn't believe in that,” she had told Joan.

Besides, Joan appreciated Lorreen's concern about her son's schoolwork, a commitment that Joan didn't sense from all of her students' parents. But Lorreen had stressed Martin's respect toward his teachers and family members. She also clearly supported Martin at home with homework. They'd even bought a computer for him to practice spelling and reading on. It was true that Lorreen hadn't made it to any school-wide events like the PTA, which Joan often attended, but maybe she was just too busy with work. Otherwise, Lorreen seemed to live up to her belief that “You can't ever be too involved in your kid's schoolwork.” Even Martin seemed to share this involvement ethic, by helping his younger cousins with their school work.

Lorreen struck her as a very serious and success-oriented person, which she seemed to convey to Martin. “I always tell Martin,” Lorreen had said, “that being successful is trying new things, even if they're hard, and finishing things, even if you don't always do well, because one day you might do well. I always remind him about Michael Jordan, who wasn't successful at first, but he kept at it; Martin has to learn that determination is an important part of success.”

Martin had a lot of his mother's determination; somewhat small for his age, he still took on all of the bigger kids in outdoor games. Joan also really liked how bright, engaging, and enthusiastic he was in class.

Despite Martin's strong academic performance, Joan worried about his acting out in class. She attributed this to his spending time with Shawn, another African American boy, who seemed to have a lot of influence on him. She considered Shawn to be one of several black boys in school who expressed a lot of anger and got in frequent fights. She viewed their behavior as a product of having to defend themselves in the tough public housing neighborhood where they lived. Martin seemed different to her, though; he lived in a better neighborhood and obviously came from a strong, concerned family.

Joan called Lorreen numerous times to talk about Martin's behavior and felt the two of them could speak frankly about Martin. They agreed that Martin's friendship with Shawn encouraged his acting out and that Joan should try to separate the two boys as much as possible.

Joan had also learned about the incident where a few boys had taunted Martin about stealing a watch from his friend, Steven. She spoke with the boys, who explained that Steven's grandmother said Martin stole the watch. Joan figured that Steven's grandmother must have told other parents, because several boys knew about it, had approached Martin in school, and had concluded that Martin was too poor to buy his own watch. From what Joan could tell, the problem had been resolved when Steven corroborated that the watch was a gift to Martin. She liked to think that her constant encouragement of students to negotiate peaceful solutions to quarrels was paying off. Plus her efforts to separate Martin and Shawn seemed to be working fairly well.

The Meeting
Yet here Joan sat in a meeting with Lorreen one week later, presumably to discuss that same watch incident. In the back of her mind Joan worried that it might be something more serious. She and Lorreen spoke frequently on the phone, neither had ever had reason to call a meeting. Joan hoped it wasn't about the boys calling each other poor, because she hardly knew how to address that one on her own.

Lorreen sat across the child-size reading table from Mrs. Taylor, who looked just as uncomfortable about broaching the recent peer incident as she did, and who probably didn't know all of what Martin has gone through in the past few months. Like all of the teachers and administrators in the school, Mrs. Taylor was white. And for the same reason Lorreen avoided the PTA meetings, she now found herself silent. She just wasn't sure they'd take a young black woman seriously. And yet here she was, heeding her own mother's advice to meet with the teacher. Something at the school had to change, for Martin's sake.

The people and events in this case are loosely based on real-life accounts, but have been disguised to protect confidentiality and partly fictionalized for teaching purposes. We would like to thank Carol McAllister and Jane Dirks for conducting the interviews on which this case is based and for providing insight and initial analyses of the case.

This work was supported by the MacArthur Foundation as part of its Network on Successful Pathways through Middle Childhood, with partial funds from the W.T. Grant Foundation. Also through support from the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund as part of its School/Family Partnerships Initiative, and Kraft Foods, an operating company of the Philip Morris Companies.



Discussion Questions

  • What are the central issues in this case, and how is each presented?
  • Who are the major players, and who is absent? What relationships are described?
  • Describe some of the incidents in the case and each person's responses to them.
  • What are the major concerns/central issues that each person faces?
  • How have the central issues been addressed by each person?
  • How are people working independently and together to handle the issues?
  • Describe the communication links among the people in the case. What issues aren't being addressed?
  • What assumptions do different people in this case make about each other and about what is going on?
  • How do those assumptions affect the actions of each person?
  • What role does each person play?
  • How could each person change his/her behavior to meet Martin's needs better?
  • Are Lorreen's feelings about not attending the PTO meetings justified?
  • How might people talk more openly and effectively about the major issues in this case?
  • What kinds of discrimination are exhibited by various people in the case?
  • What do you imagine to be the culture of the school and its impact on issues of race?
  • What might Lorreen (and Ray) gain by attending the PTO meeting? Could there be any drawbacks to their going?
  • How well do Joan and Lorreen communicate? How comfortable does Lorreen feel confiding in Joan? How could their communication be improved?
  • How much does Joan know about Martin, his family, his friends, and his life outside of school?



Instructor Notes

To request instructor notes for this teaching case, send an email to FINE at



What Words Don't Say Commentary by Deborah J. Johnson

Deborah Johnson is a Professor of Family and Child Ecology at Michigan State University. Her research focuses on the racial coping strategies of children and youth.

Racial Socialization Messages: Families and Schools

Racial socialization includes the intentional and unintentional messages, childrearing behaviors, and other interactions that communicate to the child how he or she is to perceive, process, and respond to discrimination, prejudice, and other barriers based on race. These messages are transmitted through various socialization agents, most of which are found between home and school. Parents and parental figures communicate most of these messages before school and in an ever-changing manner once children reach school-age (Johnson, 2001; Hughes & Chen, 1997). Children's and parents' experiences with discrimination influence parents' approaches to socializing their children around these issues (Hughes & Johnson, in press). We know without a doubt that intentional racial socialization by parents has implications for school success. Students are likely to be more confident and achieve higher grades given some orientations around race (Marshall, 1995; Bowman & Howard, 1985).

School personnel, particularly teachers, socialize children around race as well, although we know less about these processes. Majority children's attitudes toward their own group are especially influenced by teacher evaluations and race attitudes (Corenblum, Annis & Tanaka, 1997). Children of color are often socialized not to allow others' attitudes toward them to be influential in their thinking about themselves or others. Living with the dissonance between how you are perceived by others and your perception of yourself is expected (Spencer, 1985). Nevertheless, in integrated settings, majority attitudes can set the tone for the everyday school climate of a child.

Martin in the Home Neighborhood
Martin has several dilemmas with respect to coping with race in the neighborhood. Some are generated by his mother's sense of racially volatile situations and experienced prejudice. She teaches Martin to value himself and his race even at the price of loneliness—not an easy problem for the child to solve. Lorreen anticipate racial events and works to prevent them in her son's life. Several studies suggest nearly one third of African American parents do not explicitly provide messages about race to their children (Johnson, 1994; Hughes & Chen, 1997; Bowman & Howard, 1985). The self development orientation that the mother seems to be promoting is linked to stronger self efficacy in school settings according to Bowman & Howard (1985).

Lorreen's protectiveness about Martin's friends, her clear messages to neighbors about what is and is not acceptable, and her frequent presence in the school are all strategies that convey messages to her child about coping with race in a variety of contexts. His grandmother is supportive and understands his loneliness for friends. Martin has to choose between old familiar and supportive friends who could potentially get him into trouble and those who represent higher class experiences, but carry the potential for Martin to experience discrimination. In addition, he risks being culturally inauthentic with his old friends (Johnson, Slaughter, Pallock & Kim, 2001). Strategies for managing friendships in this way are very stressful for Martin and part of coping with race.

Two levels of problems occur in the school and they are embodied in the teacher, Joan. One problem is that, like some of Martin's peers, the teacher also maintains some stereotypes about other African American children in the class. She regards some of the children as too poor and perhaps “not as serious” as Martin who lives in a better neighborhood. Lorreen's involvement with the teacher and the school also sets Martin apart. This has multiple consequences for Martin, but only negatively affects his other African American peers. Joan has many positive evaluations of Martin, but this puts him at odds with some of his peers. Moreover, while the teacher holds these positive views, it does not prevent her from also thinking of Martin as a potential thief. Martin must have a strong center in order to maintain a positive sense of self in light of these external evaluations. Spencer (1985) suggested that dissonance between how you feel about yourself and how others perceive you, in relation to race, is the normal course of an African American child's life. Whereas in the development of other children dissonance is something you work toward extinguishing, in a black child's life it is what you work toward tolerating and managing.

In the parent-teacher conference described at the end of the teaching case, it is clear that the teacher, Joan, is aware that of a problem and aware that prejudice is involved, but is fearful of “naming” it racial prejudice. It is indicated that she feels ill-equipped to handle the situation. However, her silence on the topic recently, and likely in the past (given her discomfort), had consequences for Martin and perhaps other children in her class.

Students are openly racist in their interactions with Martin and this has culminated in the stolen watch incident. The teacher's inaction or really “lack of words” has dire consequences for Martin and sends another loud message. Perhaps to Martin the message is that the teacher feels it is okay for him to be accused, that holding these stereotypes and acting on them is acceptable. The other students receive this message as well and are tacitly told that what they did and how they handled the situation was not particularly problematic because the watch was found in the end. No adult corrected the process and no one at school talked about it afterward. In the aftermath, Martin was hurt and wondered why he was accused. He wonders if this happened because he is brown or because of income. Children are more aware of their racial difference or made to be more aware of race when they are in the “minority” (McGuire, et al 1978).

In the parent-teacher conference, the silence deepens as both teacher and parent are quieted by their fears. Joan dreads a conversation about prejudice and Lorreen feels unempowered to confront the teacher and raise the issues that are psychologically debilitating to her child. It is not uncommon for low income parents to feel less powerful when speaking with school authorities. Issues of class and education often create these feelings.

Families and schools must share the responsibility of helping all children to cope well with race. Families must be responsive and willing to communicate messages to children that they feel will prepare them for anticipated experiences with discrimination. Schools and school personnel must be on the “look out” and willing to engage in discussions of prejudice and about stereotyping of all kinds. Incidents motivated by prejudice must be acted on immediately as delays can carry negative consequences. Communicating the message to all children that prejudice is a problem and that the discussion of those issues is welcome and needed is an express responsibility of schools. Support of this nature in home and school contexts will triangulate positively on children and allow them to negotiate the world with confidence and appropriate skills.

Bowman, P. J., & Howard, C. (1985). Race-related socialization, motivation, and academic achievement: A study of Black youth in three-generation families. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 24, 134–141.

Corenblum, B., Annis, R. C., & Tanaka, J. S. (1997). Influence of cognitive development, self-competency, and teacher evaluations on the development of children's racial identity. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 20, 269–286.

Hughes, D. L., & Chen, L. A. (1997). When and what parents tell children about race: An examination of race-related socialization among African American families. Applied Developmental Science, 1(4), 198–212.

Hughes, D., & Johnson, D. J. (in press). Correlates in experiences of parents' racial socialization behaviors. Journal of Marriage and the Family.

Johnson, D. J. (2001). Parental characteristics, racial stress, and racial socialization processes as predictors of racial coping in middle childhood. In Neal-Barnett (Ed.), Forging links: Clinical/developmental perspective of African American children (pp. 59–74). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Johnson, D. J. (1994). Parental racial socialization and racial coping among middle class Black children. In J. McAdoo (Ed.), XIII Empirical Conference in Black psychology (pp. 17–38). Michigan State University.

Johnson, D. J., Slaughter-Defoe, D., Pallock, L. & Kim. E. (in press). Longitudinal analysis of the Comer intervention on children's race related social and prosocial problem solving.

Marshall, S. (1995). Ethnic socialization of African American children: Implications for parenting, identity development, and academic achievement. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 24(4), 377–396.

McGuire, W. J. , McGuire, C. V., Child, P., & Fujimoto, T. (1978). Salience of ethnicity in the spontaneous self-concept as a function of one's ethnic distinctiveness in the social environment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 63–78.

Spencer, M. B. (1985). Cultural cognition and social cognition as identity correlates of Black children's personal-social development. In M. B. Spencer, G. Brookins, & W. Allen (Eds.), Beginnings: The social and affective development of Black children (pp. 215–230). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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