Watch Your Step - or You Might Get Stereotyped

Study: Walking style could nudge boys into special ed
May 14, 2001
By Bo Emerson, Staff (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Running the high hurdles as a track star at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, La Vonne Neal knew that taking off on the right foot was crucial to success.

As an educator at Southwestern University, in Georgetown, Texas, she is also interested in seeing students put their best foot forward. This is partly why she conducted new research that suggests boys who adopt a certain style of walking are perhaps unfairly pegged as more aggressive and are more likely to be referred to special education classes.

The particular style of walking she studied has been called "pimping" in popular culture, as in the 1994 autobiography "Makes Me Wanna Holler," (Vintage, $14) by former Atlantan Nathan McCall.

Neal's interest in the ways teachers interpret such non-verbal cues dates from her years as a middle school teacher in Round Rock, Texas. She says she observed the negative reaction from white teachers to this stylized "stroll" of some black students.

Neal also noted that other studies showed black kids tended to evoke more negative attitudes from teachers. A Civil Rights Project study at Harvard University, for example, found that black public school students are three times as likely as white children to be labeled mentally retarded and referred to special education classes.

Neal wondered: Is it the way they walk?

To conduct the study Neal recruited two 13-year-old males, one black and one white, and videotaped them walking from a locker to a classroom in a middle school. Each boy wore similar clothes, and was taped walking in two different styles, first in the "standard" stride, defined as "erect posture, leg and arm swing synchronized with posture and pace, a steady stride and a straight head," and in what Neal calls a "stroll," defined as a "deliberate swaggered or bent posture, head held slightly tilted to the side, one foot dragging, and an exaggerated knee bend."

Neal and three colleagues then showed the tapes to 122 middle school teachers and 14 education students and asked them to rate the aggressiveness of the students, rate them as achievers and determine whether they'd be likely to need special education classes.

The results: Teachers rated both black and white students using the "stroll" as lower in achievement, higher in aggression and more likely to need special education classes than the black or white student using the standard walk. They rated the white student doing the "stroll" as even lower in achievement than the black student doing the stroll.

Neal insists that her study doesn't imply all black males walk the same way. She watched first-hand as her four brothers adapted their own styles to fit into a variety of contexts, a talent she calls "code-switching."

Michael Blakey, a Howard University professor of anthropology, adds that the "stroll" has been adopted by adolescent males, both white and black.

But it originated with blacks. The results of Neal's study imply, Blakey says, "that walking styles have been stigmatized, like many other aspects of African-American identity."

One Atlanta high-school student cautions that things may not be so simple. The subjects in Neal's study wore typical teen clothing -- blue jeans, T-shirts and athletic jerseys -- but in real life the stroll is only part of a style package, says Malik Barry-Buchanan, 17, a senior at North Atlanta High School.

"The majority of people who are walking this way are also going to be dressed