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White Privilege is Easy

Over the next month, teachers will be taking part in a social justice roundtable discussion in the CTQ Collaboratory and on Twitter with #CTQCollab.

One idea that I have found to be true in American society is this:

Power Protects Power

This idea is translated into action when a person, in a position of authority, uses their power to protect people like them, or those who hold similar interests. Conversely, it also happens when an authority figure imposes their reality on those without power, even if it is without intent. The second happens every day in our classrooms. In our streets police have use excessive force to apply the law and when their actions constitute murder they are not tried in court. In schools we teach children to master standards in order to supply a workforce to meet the needs of global industry. Our schools are an institution, built by the powerful, to protect its power. From the Common School Era to the Common Core era schools are designed to supply a steady workforce ready to participate in our consumer society. In each of these situations the people in power, who benefit the most, are white men. Just like me. White men who live in the dominant culture, who have the most influence over society’s mechanism like commerce, legislature, and politics benefit from this invisible privilege.

The dominant culture protects the dominant culture.

Over the past 21 years I have taught African American children almost exclusively. For many of my students I was the first white man to ever demonstrate love and compassion towards them. Or, to simply put their best interests first. For some I might be the last white man to do this. One of the hardest parts of being a Head Start teacher was knowing that no matter how well I developed their emergent literacy or taught the basics of numeracy, it might not matter. Years down the road they could still be crushed by systemic racism.

Many of my students can’t remember me years down the road. It might not matter that one time they had a white male teacher who cared what happened to them.

It is complicated to write, as a white man, about the brutality and racism in America’s policing practices. I have not experienced the detrimental end of systemic racism personally. I have only seen its damaging effects on the students and families I serve. But, talking about our justice system might give us a glimpse into our schools as well. I am breaking my silence on the killing of America’s black and brown children.

White privilege needs to see itself for what it is, a invisible mechanism to protect white (the dominant class’s) interests. I don’t want to write this to apologize for being white. That wasn’t my choice. However, my actions are my responsibility. I realize that if I don’t publicly say I don’t support the way white privilege operates in our country, then I am supporting that privilege.

I can’t speak without a qualification. I have benefited from the privilege our schools institutionalize. I went to a well funded, mostly white, high school. After college I had no problem getting a job. I was hired off the street to be a house painter with no experience. I have never been arrested but I have been stopped by police and not wrestled to the ground. I have not been followed by security while shopping in my neighborhood store. My skin and my school led me into a world where the system works. I do the right thing, keep my nose clean, and I get to live the dream. There is justice and fairness for me. Actually, it is more than justice, it is privilege. It is easy. That's not the way it is for black and brown children in America.

The system of privilege doesn’t work for children of color. In fact, as was mentioned by historian Isabel Wilkerson on the Diane Rehm show, we have all been poisoned by toxins of bias. It is almost in the DNA of our daily interactions. I am not immune to my biases. In 1989 I came to Richmond from a white suburb of D.C. I quickly realized that, as a white person, I was not in the majority unless I was on campus. I started working in a grocery store just like I had in my suburban cocoon. As my father said, “Everyone has to eat, it’s a common denominator, when you work in a grocery store you have to be able to talk to all kinds of people.” When I moved here I could feel a soft shield go up each time I came into contact with Richmond’s people of color who made up this city. Then I noticed, when I looked up from my shield, that the people of color that I met, looked me in the eye. Sometimes they smiled or said, “Good morning” or “What’s up.” They did not acknowledge my privilege and so I felt accepted. Since I began working in high poverty neighborhoods I push through that soft shield to smile and say, “Hi” or at least acknowledge strangers I meet in my everyday interactions, no matter their color. It has helped me to deaden some of the effects of bias toxins on my reality. But, those toxins are always here. Pushing through white privilege doesn’t necessarily get easier, even when you decide not to use it, it just gets deeper. There is always another level of recognizing and accepting the “other” in our lives.

This is how I came to realize that white privilege not only protects itself but it steps on others to do it. I realized, when I felt anger and frustration and even fear for his future when a little 3 year-old boy aims a stick as a gun and “pow pow pow’s” his friends, and me. Then I realized I was not seeing what he was seeing. I was seeing: a future gang member, a thief, a killer. He was seeing: monsters, zombies, and supervillians. The disconnect between our experiences was the visceral experience of race perception as a member of the dominant culture. But, because I was the authority and I had the power, my perception won. When I understood this, I realized that the same type of interaction might happen when white police kill black and brown children. They are not living in the same world, and because the police have the power, their world wins.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about the need for police to focus on problem solving and de-escalation in their policing practices. I was struck by the similarity of this to Haim Ginott, noted child psychologist’s, quote:  “In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

The only way I have found to build up an immunity to my biases is through listening. It is my job (as Time Kaine has described), as a member of the white privileged class, to work to see others’ perspectives. That is the most insidious part of white privilege. It is so easy. It is easy to be ignorant, desensitized, or closed-off from the rest of the world. White privilege means I can make it in our world without learning the codes of other cultures. I can even make mistakes and not  suffer consequences. Pushing through the soft shield and listening to my students’ voices is how I realized my students were fighting monsters. It is how our schools and our policing system can learn to serve the community and its children. By listening closely from outside of our comfort zone.

We all participate in this process. We can work to create a more just world. All of us -- parents, teachers, administrators and the public --  have influence in our schools. Unless we can create school systems that are just, from funding to practice, we will always have two worlds, the white/privileged one and the other. There is no justice unless we create it. We can humanize or dehumanize our classroom at every turn. It starts with one act: trying to understand how that person in front of me is seeing me. Will my student see me as having their best interests in mind? Am I authority? Am I one of the privileged? Do I love them? And in turn it is my responsibility to seek justice in our exchange, to see them for who they really are, and to listen.

Image by: @jmholland

 

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