Chapters 8 and 9 

Chapter 8, What is the school-to-prison pipeline? 

Sagan is in trouble at school for assaulting numerous teachers, threatening others, and making hand gestures mimicking gunfire. He is also five, so Oluo and Sagan’s mother, Natasha, are shocked at the school’s response, which was a suspension. Children of color are far more likely than are white children to be suspended, arrested, and forced to interact with law enforcement. This makes it far more likely that they will end up in jail, which is where the phrase “school-to-prison pipeline” originates. Oluo is not suggesting that teachers are racist monsters dedicated to imprisoning people of color. Instead, she attributes the problem to systemic and implicit bias, a lack of understanding of the problems children of color face, and government policies such as zero tolerance and a mandated police presence. She offers suggestions for managing the problem that include bringing it up at school board meetings and monitoring the local data. She also encourages the inclusion of Black and brown children as models and examples in the school curricula and in our engagements with children. And she suggests addressing problem children as children first, with unique problems, risks, and needs.  

Chapter 9, Why can’t I say the “N” word? 

Oluo describes the first time she was called a "n*****." She was eleven and she and her brother were staying for a week with her mom’s friend Liz, who had two kids. Their mom was on a business trip. After a few good days, Oluo and her brother walked Liz’s kids to their school bus. As the bus pulled up, kids inside shouted the “N” word out the window at them. To Oluo’s surprise, Liz’s kids started laughing meanly along with the kids on the bus. They went back to the house but didn’t tell Liz about the experience, in part because they didn’t have the words to process what had happened. 

The next day, when they refused to walk Liz’s kids to the bus, Liz accused them of being snobs, when they were simply afraid. Feeling uncomfortable and unsafe, Oluo and her brother didn’t want to play outside and they didn’t want to play with Liz’s kids. Liz interpreted this as a sign that they were spoiled and lazy, and she began to treat them differently. When they returned home, Oluo and her brother agreed not to tell their mom because her business trip had been good and they didn’t want to ruin it. Language is a powerful tool, and when it is used to oppress people, as it often has been, such language needs to be repudiated. In a country where free speech is permitted, anyone can use words with long, hateful histories, but Oluo asks why people would want to. Because we still live in an inequitable society, these words still have power, so they are not presently capable of being reclaimed. And if white people feel oppressed at not being able to exercise their power of free speech, they should consider the ways Black people have been oppressed by the free exercise of this and other hateful words. 


Oluo argues that children of color are viewed differently than white children, both individually and in their group interactions. Children can have bad days and appear withdrawn and isolated. Children of color who have bad days are called sullen or disrespectful. Children get bored, hungry, and tired, causing them to whine, cry, or act out. White children are asked what’s wrong, while Black children are punished. Children play, and sometimes children play roughly. When Black and brown children play, such behaviors are perceived as being aggressive or bullying. Black and brown children who are larger than their peers are labeled menacing or predatory, whereas similar white children are viewed as athletic. Oluo questions whether these differences are the product of some real difference in minority children or the product of a systemically biased culture. She argues from her personal experience as a mother and her own interactions with Black and brown children that the answer is systemic bias.  

Minority children are treated differently in America’s school system because of the systemic racial bias that pervades every aspect of America’s culture. This problem is not a matter of individual, racist teachers who can simply be weeded out. American society depicts Black and brown people as violent, aggressive predators, and teachers and school administrators can often unintentionally believe these biases. Racial inequity also means that cultural differences are often perceived as signs of inferiority, so minority children who process information differently are likely to be labeled as having a learning disability. Minority children are more likely than are white children to live in poverty and suffer from its attendant problems. Hunger, sleep deprivation, and the lack of adequate housing or clothing endanger children living in poverty. These problems manifest as anxiety, depression, anger, and withdrawal. Children growing up in broken households, living with a single parent, or being raised by people other than their parents are also likely to suffer from the fear of abandonment and other attachment issues, resulting in behavioral differences in the classroom. Finally, government policies such as zero tolerance and mandated police presence on school campuses disproportionately affect people of color negatively. 

When children of color are systematically segregated, disciplined, and punished, they learn to hate school. Children who are routinely punished for minor infractions can internalize feelings of self-doubt, blame, and guilt, leading them to believe that they deserve to be punished. In such situations, children may then act out in order to be punished, because the pattern is familiar. The same pattern applies to prisoners who reoffend and end up back in jail because institutional life is the only life they know. Educators and school administrators who inflict this pattern upon minority children are training them for life as institutional subjects instead of career professionals who can make meaningful contributions to society and grow as human beings. Also problematic is the fact that educators immediately resort to accusations and punishment instead of exploring the root causes of a child’s behavior. Black and brown children thus continue having their needs unmet while white children are afforded a range of services to ensure they are well cared for.  

Words can be tremendously damaging to individuals and communities, especially in the context of their origins and histories. Words have connotations alongside their denotations. Attempts to isolate words from these contexts are rarely effective and often disingenuous. This is particularly true in the case of the word “n*****,” which has been used practically exclusively as a racial slur against Black people in America since the early 1700s. And while words such as “cracker” or “honky” also have racial connotations, their histories are not fraught with slavery, lynching, or assassination. Other words such as “uppity” or “thug” have not been used so blatantly and exclusively as racist slurs. However, these words and others still have a history of being applied, often unconsciously and always negatively, to Black people, and their connotations are negative and disparaging. Americans rightly treasure the freedom of speech guaranteed by the United States Constitution, a rare freedom globally even among constitutional democracies. However, white people are not being harmed when they are denied the right to use the word “n*****,” and certainly not in the same way that Black people have been and are being harmed by its use.