In times of racial unrest white educators have historically turned to aspirational tropes in place of revolutionary ones. From white saviors in urban districts to zero-tolerance principals who successfully corral unruly students, there are many archetypal characters we call upon to euphemize the inequities that afflict American schools.
Kid Superintendent, a recent sensation in K-12 education, is the newest archetype that white educators have co-opted for their own comfort.
These archetypes—which often reappear to assuage white paternalist and maternalist attitudes during periods of radical reform—perpetually reassert themselves in our schools. Kid Superintendent functions much like his counterpart and near-eponym, Kid President, did almost a decade ago: to distract white educators from the obligation of reforming systemic injustices.
Kid President was YouTube star Robby Novak. Novak started making inspirational videos in October 2012 and, with some help from producer Rainn Wilson, went viral with his “pep talk” video. Soon after this viral debut, educators couldn’t get enough of Novak’s aphoristic wisdom and playful humor. In 2013 I attended several education conferences and professional development sessions that started with Kid President videos, asking us, “If life’s a game, aren’t we all on the same team?” then reminding us to “Change the World!” and “Be Awesome!” Teachers, too, streamed these videos in their classrooms and students everywhere watched Novak joke, sing, and dance as they completed corresponding activities.
On the one hand, Novak’s Kid President character was sweet, funny, and uplifting. On the other hand, his character infantilized Black men in positions of power for whom Novak proxied. Kid President became a superhit as Obama took office for his 2nd term. The timing of Novak’s fame was no coincidence. Obama’s presidency challenged some deeply-entrenched, racist ideologies. Kid President functioned as a way for white people to consume a revolutionary moment in political history as feel-good entertainment. As if to say, “Isn’t he cute?” Within this trope, the power of the office is merely symbolic; it can easily be suspended and transferred if exercised in a way that threatens structural inequities.
Kid Superintendent emerged in the summer of 2020 amidst history-making Black Lives Matter protests. Reading School District in Pennsylvania welcomed teachers back to work with an uplifting message from ”Kid Superintendent” Jermaine Edwards II. Edwards’s mother, Kristin Boyd Edwards, who works in the Reading School District, wrote the script for the video which riffed on the Kid President’s viral pep talk. Their collaboration was an excellent example of project-based learning. Edwards collaborated with his mom and industry professionals at Lone Cricket Productions to make a video for an authentic community audience. Edwards learned about pathos, public speaking, and dramatic performance. The project led to widespread public exposure where he further cultivated his presentation skills on local television. To educator practitioners this project was a stellar example of a student working with adult partners to exercise their creative talents and practice complex skills.
But dynamic school projects are not immune to ideological co-option.
The video begins with the district’s actual superintendent, Dr. Khalid N. Mumin, reading Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Kid Superintendent sweeps in mid-verse with a record-scratching, “Cut. I got this, Doc.” He interrupts Mumin and proceeds to comfort the teachers and staff, noting the difficulty of the year due to the “global pandemic, politics, and social unrest.” The literal interruption was also a symbolic one: For white viewers, it divests the pandemic and the revolutionary events of the summer of their gravity and invests them with levity.
Kid Superintendent debuted at the apex of the pandemic and a reckoning with racism in American schools. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor made educators confront uncomfortable truths about our police and justice systems, systems often entangled with education.
The intent behind the Kid Superintendent video was to inspire a group of educators, but cultural artifacts transcend their creator’s intent. For this reason, it is important to recognize the way that these artifacts can be appropriated to absolve groups of their responsibility in systemic injustice.
Just like Kid President, Kid Superintendent infantilized the figure for whom he proxied. This infantilization is especially problematic when there are so few African American superintendents in our country. Only 8 percent of the total superintendent population in the United States identify as persons of color and about 60 percent of those identify as male. The Kid Superintendent trope is part of a larger cultural tendency to infantilize Black men in positions of power they seldom occupy.
While we cannot discount the fact that figures like Novak and Edwards can also serve as sources of inspiration for young Black students who don’t see themselves represented in these positions, we must also acknowledge that white viewers appropriate these characters and their pep talks to avoid examining their own positioning within a racist system.
The Kid Superintendent video traveled the education circuit this fall. White educators tweeted it, shared it in e-newsletters and staff meetings. One district even created their own spin-off. Edwards’s character is charming, humorous, and hopeful, and we need to laud the imagination and skill behind it, while also examining it as the cultural force that it is—because an inspirational character like Kid Superintendent becomes polemical when consumed and shared amongst white audiences. Cultural artifacts such as inspirational videos can turn problematic when certain viewer groups appropriate their messages.
The white viewer of these videos feels comfortable with inaction and, worse, complicit with the status quo. The Kid Superintendent is one filmic portrayal in a long lineage of character archetypes that white audiences have turned to for ideas about our role during crucial moments in educational history. We must resist the urge to arrogate Black art to pacify our own feelings about racial unrest.