The 180 Podcast: Margaret Beale Spencer (Part 1)

Margaret Beale Spencer: Where Resilience Comes From (Part 1)

As the new school year begins in the substantial shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, our students face challenges that go beyond making friends and making up for lost time in the classroom — beyond virtual Zoom teaching and hybrid learning.

After a summer of protests against systemic racism and police brutality, amid calls for a racial reckoning, many students, parents, and educators are engaging in conversations about race, equality and opportunity, and they may even find themselves discussing what makes some people vulnerable — to COVID, to violence — and what makes others resilient?

That’s just part of what makes today’s conversation with Margaret Beale Spencer so timely. Because human vulnerability, resilience and context are concepts that Prof. Spencer has spent her career studying and addressing.

Prof. Spencer is the Marshall Field IV Professor of Urban Education in the department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago. Her career spans more than 30 years during which she has authored well over 100 published articles and chapters.

In fact, we found our conversation with Dr. Spencer so meaningful, we are bringing it to you in two parts. This first covers her personal history and the kinds of resources and support that not only fueled her resiliency but informed her work and views, while Part 2 takes a deeper dive into her scientific research on human development.

Complete Transcript

Margaret Beale Spencer: My pleasure, Chris. I very much appreciated the invitation to share.

Chris Riback: Among the many areas that I want to discuss with you are three topics that I know are central to your work: Human vulnerability, resiliency, and the power of context. And to start to understand them, I thought we should start with you. How did you get here? I assume that your path was not a straight line. Most of ours is not.

Margaret Beale Spencer: Well, that is correct. You were absolutely right. I am very appreciative of my history. It was a modest history in terms of resources, but it was an enriched history in terms of the supports that I experienced and the opportunity to understand who I am through the eyes of other people and, most notably, my mother.

Margaret Beale Spencer: I was born and raised in Philadelphia, PA. My parents divorced when I was about six, but she really became a single parent of three little girls by the time I was four years old. By that time, her stories and my other relatives’ stories had become incredibly important to me. My mother was the middle of five children. She had two older sisters and two younger brothers.

Margaret Beale Spencer: Her father was the first non-military black deep sea diver off of the Delaware River in Philadelphia. And so that provided her family with a little prestige and status because it was an unusual role for a Black man to have at that time. We’re talking about the early turn of the 20th century. He would have worn this huge suit, the large heavy metal suit, and people would have pictures of him. And black barber shops around the city, they would write articles about him.

Chris Riback: Wow.

Margaret Beale Spencer: Well, my mother was 13 years-old. Her mother and her mother’s sister, that’s very important, they were very close. They both died of TB, tuberculosis. My mother’s mother, my maternal grandmother passed as well as her sister. And then, one month later, in fact, Mother’s Day morning, my mother’s father had been called to work to go down in the Delaware to do whatever.

Margaret Beale Spencer: Well, when they brought him up, he had expired. He was dead. And so that left literally within a one-month period, my mother and her four siblings orphaned. And because my mother’s maternal aunt had also died with her mother, they really had no supports. Like I said, she would have been 13 years old.

Margaret Beale Spencer: Obviously, as a girl, as a young girl at that age, it was traumatic, but they pulled together as a family and they managed. My mother later, she got married to my father. He was one of the black men during that period who were going into Second World War commitments and it was pretty traumatic. I think today we would have called his reaction to it all more like PTSD if anything, but it was difficult when he came home.

Margaret Beale Spencer: The bottom line is that they divorced, but not before my mother had the three of us, and I was the youngest of three girls. Hearing about these stories of my mother’s early development, hearing the stories from my father’s two brothers, and he was the oldest of three sons and then my mother’s two younger brothers, hearing their stories about their experiences as black men in this country’s service was really enlightening to me. And so for me, in many ways, the concept of human vulnerability — and I define vulnerability as part of our human identity, that is being aware of protective factors and assets as well as risk factors and challenges, everyday challenges as you navigate life.

Margaret Beale Spencer: So in many ways, even though obviously as a child I wasn’t aware of such concepts, they certainly were a part of my psyche. For me, that was the beginning of an awareness that especially for children, their human vulnerability and the balance between their needs versus their supports was a very, very critical balance or imbalanced state, and that it was something that all humans are burdened by. We’re all human, and we’re all vulnerable.

Margaret Beale Spencer: As we navigate space and time, we always need this balance between the resources or the assets and given the risks, both the normative risk and, like my mother’s, the non-normative risks and challenge of losing both your parents. In many ways, Chris, I think I’ve always been sort of primed, if you will, to understand the fact of human vulnerability.

Chris Riback: It almost feels like you started learning about this some 20-ish years perhaps before you were born — when your mother was 13 and went through the series of events you just described that are as an extraordinary a blow that any child, and any five-kid family, could possibly have to sustain.

Chris Riback: I’m also taken by one of the things that you said at the very start which was… and I’m paraphrasing here, that your own upbringing was of limited resources, but deep support and really differentiating. So many of us would think, “Well, to be able to live through, to be able to make it, to be able to deal with human vulnerability, well, one needs deep resources. One needs a wide range of resources.” How do you think about that balance between the need for resources and how do you define resources versus support?

Margaret Beale Spencer: Both occur together. The challenge or the risk for me and my sisters given a mother who was doing all this on her own was that without her own mother and father’s support because grandparents matter was a need to always acknowledge and recognize what she brought.

Margaret Beale Spencer: For example, my mother was an avid reader. She loved to read. She loved to do things. My mother, she could have been an engineer. She could fix anything. She understood electricity and physics at a level that I did not, I’m sure, ever, even in college. But she understood it all and shared it with us, my mother, because she read to us all the time. Even though I was the youngest because my sisters then were in school because they were older, I taught myself to read when I was three because the model that I always had was my mother reading to us and uncles and aunts talking to us and expecting us to share our perspective and our way of thinking about whatever. Those were supports. Those were strong supports, and they were strong models.

Margaret Beale Spencer: Even though, on the one hand, there were challenges as risks, etcetera, but there were also these supports. I believe that is why I approach my work in the way I do because there’s so many strengths, sources of support that are a part of young people’s experience that somehow never see the light of day in our social science.

Margaret Beale Spencer: It becomes really quite problematic because that means that objectively from the outside, social scientists might see what they perceive as challenges, as risk factors, as problems, but because they don’t walk in the moccasins of other people, families, communities, they don’t recognize supports. They don’t recognize supports and resources because they only see supports economically. It’s like the experiences of people of color in this country and my bottom line view, of course, is that they saw bringing here Africans in the bowels of ships as only an economic benefit and never the transport of humans.

Margaret Beale Spencer: For me, that is a fundamental challenge to social science in this country and I would say developmental science in particular, is that if you don’t see people’s humanity, you don’t treat them in a humane manner. You don’t have policies that are defined in the constitution for we the people, being inclusive of the lives of individuals who were different in terms of race, ethnicity, port of entry, etcetera.

Margaret Beale Spencer: They don’t see the humanity. They see only problems. They see only differences in performance outcomes. They don’t understand the processes of human development in context of families with particular histories that suggest strengths because they don’t see them as humans and don’t see them as having strengths. They see them only as problems.

Margaret Beale Spencer: I really believe that’s a huge problem generally. I think for many, many ways, I really think that Condoleezza Rice in a CBS interview, she talks about this problem. She sees it as one of America’s defects because America at this constitution and how it’s lived every day for all citizens, does not include people of color as part of the we, the people. It continues into the current period.

Chris Riback: How are we, in this current period, how are we seeing humanity as a society?

Margaret Beale Spencer: I believe we continue to see humanity in a very limited way and that humanity, if you will, perspective is inclusive of people who are white and privileged without acknowledging same. The way I like to describe the dilemma is that we look at people only in terms of what they produce in terms of in the science. That means outcomes. If we’re talking about achievement, if we’re talking about family or community wealth, we think about differences only in terms of those differences without acknowledging that the deck is always stacked against people who are not white, but there is no incentivizing of that acknowledge reality.

Margaret Beale Spencer: That’s sort of what Condoleezza calls this mark, this birth defect in this country’s birth was based upon those assumptions, if you will, that’s never been acknowledged so that you see these differences, and you blame the victim for the underperformance without engaging in self-interrogation and the history of injustices that is these United States of America in its constitution pro-offering, if you will, certain perspectives about we, the people. And We, the people, really means white people. That’s something that remains under interrogated, if interrogated at all. I think that is the major problem that we are still settled with, but today is an opportunity because what COVID-19 done is to demonstrate for us that if you have this 400 years of inequality, of inequities in terms of how difference is treated and how certain individuals are supported and are privileged, when you have something like COVID-19, COVID-19 is a risk and a challenge for everyone for all humans, but for certain communities, it’s even more challenging.

Margaret Beale Spencer: When you look at the differentials in terms of race, ethnicity, and individuals who are succumbing, if you will, in terms of death due to COVID-19, it also represents not just the current pandemic. It represents a history of inequality, a history of risk and challenge which has generally been unacknowledged.

Margaret Beale Spencer: Why it becomes part of the nation’s psyche is because when you find those differences and outcomes, you don’t acknowledge the history of privilege, the inequality that goes along with the privatization, if you will, of all things white. You simply look at the differences, and you say, “Well, this group over here is not performing very well due to something about them, their deficiencies, not the deficiency in the practice of we, the people.”

Chris Riback: You said that you see our times as an opportunity. What’s the opportunity, but maybe more specifically, what needs to happen to capture the opportunity?

Margaret Beale Spencer: I think white people in this country really need to engage in some real candid self-interrogation. And I really think that it may be that white people need to help white people, those who already, if you will, youngsters call it woke or aware of the inequalities that have existed in this country for the past several hundred years, need to help other white people.

Margaret Beale Spencer: I think it’s really important because I think that’s a first step. Asking one’s black friends to do this work, I don’t think is appropriate because we don’t know what happens in your houses. As black people, we don’t know how issues of inequality are modeled and communicated. Now, let me explain to you why I say that.

Chris Riback: Yes, please.

Margaret Beale Spencer: Well, because I always cared about the condition of kids, I planned to be a pediatrician. My undergraduate program of study was in pharmacy because I thought I could get all the pre-med courses, but I’d also know something about drug chemistry.

Margaret Beale Spencer: So I’d be one up, if you will, in terms of my medical studies, but I ended up changing because I really felt as if being the only Black woman in a class, entire class and being the only Black woman, being one of three Black students, and being one of five women, I decided that I didn’t want to go to medical school and deal with those gender and race differences again for another four years.

Margaret Beale Spencer: I needed to think about what I wanted to do, but I just did not want to have that experience again. I ended up taking a couple of courses in psychology because I had in five years of study I had not had any non-math or science courses except for one English class and one sociology class and five years of programming. I decided to take a couple of courses. I took one Psychology 101, and the second one was a research methods class.

Margaret Beale Spencer: I stumbled into psychology. I found it fascinating. I ended up being invited into the PhD program. I only had time for a master’s because my husband was getting his PhD very quickly. I did a thesis on looking at children’s racial attitudes, preferences. These were three, four and five-year-olds.

Margaret Beale Spencer: What was amazing to me, Chris, it was really a reworking with a few changes of Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s work on children’s racial attitudes. I had black and white stimuli children in different play contexts. These were boards that were developed by an artist.

Margaret Beale Spencer: Now, these identical children portrayed on these boards. I would ask my preschool children a question such as, “Okay. Here are two children playing. Which one is the nice child, the smart child, the bad child, the ugly child” much more attitudinal questions.

Margaret Beale Spencer: What was amazing to me coming into this field new was that the children answered the questions with so much clarity. They looked at me like I was a dummy for asking them the question. Generally, 95% of the time, the children responded that, of course, the black child, independent of gender was the ugly child, the bad child, the dumb child, or whatever, but most importantly, they were answering the question with a certainty that was amazing.

Margaret Beale Spencer: I redid this study in fact most recently for CNN. We’re talking about decades later. The pattern was very similar. The children have learned very early that all things dark are devalued, and all things light are good and to be valued.

Margaret Beale Spencer: Because of the certainty of the responses, these are just nice, normal kids, I recognize that it was the context, that formally and informally in myriad ways, that young children were growing up believing these clear messages as a function of race, color.

Margaret Beale Spencer: What I’m trying to share here is that I don’t think because white folks don’t know what happens in black homes in terms of unexpected strengths that I shared that my mother’s family had, even though there are these difficulties. Certainly, the experiences that I had and many other people of color, those experiences are not really known when it comes to science conducted by white researchers. They don’t notice strengths.

Margaret Beale Spencer: When we do our science, we look only for the problems. They don’t look for the strengths, but given your question, in terms of what do we do, I think there’s also significant variation in the white community. There are white people from families who are incredibly sensitive that whatever the source of their shared humanity beliefs might be, they have those beliefs. I think they know more about what happens in the families, how messages are communicated.

Margaret Beale Spencer: I think before we can talk, generally speaking, between the races, we need to talk with each other within a racial context in order to figure out what are the similarities and differences that result in variations among white people. Certainly, we’ve had to deal with these issues for a long time in terms of consciousness, of inequality. We’ve dealt with these issues. We’re dealing with them in terms of communities of color.

Margaret Beale Spencer: But I think before we begin talking across racial and group lines for the most part, not exclusively but for the most part, that within communities, people need to help each other deal with these issues of invisibility of the humanity of others who are not white because I think this view that humanity is inclusive only for whites is not acknowledged, is not interrogated. But clearly, I think it is a part of who we are as citizens in this country today.

Margaret Beale Spencer: It needs to be addressed, interrogated and [it needs] some recovery, but it’s going to take resources, I think, first within before going between to ask of others what should I do or who am I. I think others who share at least some history should have that task. It has to happen.

Chris Riback: We spoke a moment ago about the optimism that I’m hearing from you. Yet, I’m struck. You did that thesis research on intrinsic racial bias. You just discussed some of those conclusions. You did that however many years ago — 20, 30, maybe even 40 years ago that that work was done.

Margaret Beale Spencer: Well, first, I did it then. I’ve done it since then, but in more sophisticated ways, but go right ahead, Chris.

Chris Riback: Okay. But if I’m hearing you correctly, the outcomes that you’re seeing from the research and the ability to see humanity, it sounds like you have gotten, let’s say, very challenging reactions each step along the way. The children that you talked with in your thesis research found that dark children, that that meant bad, that that had negative outcomes. It sounds like that you have replicated that research through the years.

Chris Riback: What does that say to you? How do you stay optimistic if you have seen the same thing in your research over five, 10, 20, 40 years?

Margaret Beale Spencer: Well, that’s why I said that it really requires an interrogation and acknowledgement that people have functioned with a very exclusive view of humanity.

Chris Riback: We haven’t had that conversation, I guess? You would not feel that we have, in a satisfying way, as a society, as a country, as neighborhoods, as neighbors had those conversations.

Margaret Beale Spencer: That is correct.

Chris Riback: Why? Are they too hard? Are they too hard to start? I feel like the questions get asked that the problems are evident, that the divides are evident, the challenges are evident. Why is it so darn hard to have the conversation?

Margaret Beale Spencer: Well, my view is that it may be hard because if we have a sense of self in terms of an identity that is based upon a viewpoint that everything that I earn i.e. my elevated status in society, is all due to my own efforts, my own brilliance, my own exceptionality, and to cope with the possibility that your status has been scaffolded historically over a 400-year period on the backs of others and never been acknowledged as such, that’s pretty uncomfortable.

Margaret Beale Spencer: The possibility that maybe you would not be where you are today, if you have been functioning on a level playing field with others, that’s a new identity that probably is very uncomfortable to come to grips with. When you think about it, every single walk of life that people are on every navigated space, you have that issue to deal with, but you don’t know where to start.

Margaret Beale Spencer: When you think about the majority of teachers in urban settings are still white teachers. We don’t want to deal with these issues which means that they’re left much more unconscious. If you see behavior in a classroom, say for example, for black boys in particular, but Black girls are not far behind in terms of pathologizing them and you see two kids engage in particular behavior and one’s a black boy and one’s a white boy, you think that Black boy’s behavior is very problematic.

Margaret Beale Spencer: You might see the white boy as showing some knuckle-headed, silly behavior like your nephew, Johnny. But that Black boy’s behavior, you see very differently. That’s if you’re lucky enough to understand and feel some dissonance. The problem for me is that too often, there is no dissonance. There is no consciousness that, in fact, that implicit bias is really going on. That’s why I’m saying that within the community of white professionals and everyday people, there needs to be these discussions because you see them more than I would.

Margaret Beale Spencer: I think they that the support is there as well because without that, it’s not going to happen because it is uncomfortable to have to question the self, to have to question, if you will, one’s status that you think that you’ve earned versus a status that you inherited because of structured inequality experienced across generations.

Listen to Part 2 of this interview here.

Turnaround connects the dots between science, adversity and school performance to catalyze student development and academic achievement. www.turnaroundusa.org

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