Racism in the Gifted Classroom: Are Our Students Immune?

James Bishop

Several months ago, a 12-year-old gifted student and his 35-year-old mother were brutally assaulted in an unprovoked attack outside the Passaic Gifted and Talented Academy in Passaic County, New Jersey. Even more horrifying, the mother was attacked while pushing the stroller of her one-year-old daughter. Although the young boy’s injuries were not severe, his mother, Beronica Ruiz-Vasquez, was knocked unconscious and suffered a fractured eye socket, broken nose, a concussion, bruises, and a bloodied eye. She was hospitalized for two days and continued to experience vision problems after her release as well as emotional trauma.

According to reports, the perpetrator attacked the Vasquez family because they were of Latin origin and the perpetrator resented their presence in the United States. The perpetrator and his companions told the boy, before the assault, “Mexicans should go back behind the wall!” The attack was a violent act of racism made even more shocking by the fact that the perpetrator was a fellow classmate at the victim’s school.

Vasquez family attorney Daniel Santiago, in comments to The Washington Post, said: “This was a brutal hate crime, and it was committed by a 13-year-old. I don’t know what circumstances could give rise to a 13-year-old boy having such hate in his heart that he would commit this brutal attack and leave a woman essentially to die in front of her children without any remorse or any twinge of conscience.”

How, you might ask yourself, can this happen at a school filled with exceptionally intelligent youth? Isn’t intelligence a preventative to racist and bigoted thinking?

The truth is intelligence does not inoculate you from racism, prejudice, or bigotry. That is because racism is fundamentally about emotion, not logic. It’s an intense dislike of the “other” that defies rational thinking. Writes Paula Ioanide in her book, The Emotional Politics of Racism: “Emotions shape the ways that people experience their worlds and interactions. They give people’s psychic realities and ideological convictions (however fictional or unfounded) their sense of realness. Emotions cinch or unravel people’s sense of individual and group identity. They help motivate actions and inactions, often in unconscious or preconsciously reflexive ways.”

In the face of strong emotions, reasoning suffers, and intelligence becomes ineffectual. Ioanide says emotions close off an individual’s cognitive receptivity. “The presumption that we can combat systemic gendered racism, nativism, and imperialism by generating more empirical facts and more reasonable arguments is severely challenged by the reality that people’s emotions often prevent and inhibit genuine engagements with knowledge.”

How can we prevent this from happening again?

We must first recognize and acknowledge that even our best and brightest minds can hold irrational beliefs with regard to subjects such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. We cannot assume that they are somehow immune to these more cancerous ideas in our society. We need to make an effort to talk to our gifted children and students and ensure that they are not governed by emotional politics and fomenting irrational hatreds. We need to engage with them when emotions are at low ebb and when they are able to use reason and critical thinking to explore their beliefs.

Schools must also be more responsive to accusations of bullying. The Vasquez family believed that the school did not do enough to address it. Even after the attack, the young victim returned to class to find that the student had not been punished, with the school arguing that the assailant’s right to an education superseded the victim’s rights and need for safety. It took the involvement of the town’s mayor to compel the school to take action and suspend him.

Finally, we spend a lot of time and resources exploring systematic racism in gifted education – in the biases of teachers, in the identification methodologies and policies of schools and districts – but perhaps we should be spending more time and resources examining the problem of racism within the gifted student population. We shouldn’t assume, just because gifted students possess exceptional intelligence, that they are immune to the lure of racism, sexism, prejudice, and bigotry. Hopefully, we can spare the next family the pain and trauma that the Vasquez family endured.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: James Bishop, Ph.D. LPC NCC is a licensed professional counselor in the state of Texas who specializes in working with gifted youth and adults. He is the current chair of the NAGC Social and Emotional Development Network. @dynamicbecoming

The views expressed in here are not necessarily those of NAGC