Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Trying to Unravel the Complexities of Race and Privilege

 As a white teacher in a district with an increasingly diverse student population, but nearly exclusively white adult population (from bus drivers and custodians to Superintendent) I often worry about the impact it has on our students of color to be surrounded by adults who do not look like them, and who cannot relate to their cultural background. I feel the racial tension growing, and I feel powerless to stop it. It truly is frightening. I like to believe that I have the same expectations for all of my students, that is my goal, although I know they do not always believe that. Some feel that they walk into my classroom as if they are walking into enemy territory simply because our skin colors are not the same. I work to overcome that barrier. Sometimes I am successful. Earlier this year I had a "mama bear" moment with my blonde, blue-eyed daughter who was in the lobby of the school where I teach and she is a student (I can be rather loud). One of our African American students (male) happened to be in the lobby at the same time. He started apologizing to me, because I was yelling. He wasn't doing anything wrong. I didn't even know him. I was mortified. I apologized to him, introduced myself, and shook his hand, but left the building feeling that the problems in my school are so deep, and so unknown within the power structure of which I am a part.

At the same time, "racism" like "bullying" has become just a word to be thrown around by students -- regardless of color -- in an accusatory manner designed to throw adults off balance, and give them the upper hand in a situation.  It has become, for too many adolescents, a tool without meaning.  For example, I just finished my third year teaching Spanish, and part of my curriculum is to teach the color words.  Negro is the Spanish word for black.  Before I could even approach it linguistically, I had to handle the shouts from (mostly white) students "that's racist!"  The lone African American student to address the word with me, saw it in a reading passage, raised her hand, and when I approached her table, she whispered to me that she had an "n-word alert".  I wanted to hug her for the simple fact that she was so honest and unobtrusive, and never assumed that it was an intentionally harmful word use (although she did not understand it in context at that point.)  It took several lessons before my students as a group were able to accept the word negro as just another Spanish word.

 Shortly after school let out for summer, I attended a writing workshop as part of the Mario Einaudi International Studies Summer Institute (ISSI) given by author Sorayya Khan. One of the pieces she included as recommended reading was Kiese Laymon's essay "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America".  The perspective of an imperfect black man raised to exist in a perpetual stance of self-defense for survival was extraordinarily powerful. It made me sad, angry, ashamed, but most of all, I think, it will make me ever more conscious of the (invisible) struggle faced by our students of color.  

When I returned home from the conference, I finished Khan's novel City of Spies (a fantastic read) which includes this line by the main character:

"Being white is not being half and half.  it's being whole and knowing it"

Aliya is a young girl, half Dutch, half Pakistani living through the anti-American sentiment of the late seventies in Islamabad.  She is privileged, relatively, as her family has a servant, but she is only able to attend the American school because of a scholarship.  Her closest friend is the blonde-haired, blue-eyed American daughter of a diplomat of whom she is at times envious, curious, protective, and suspicious.  Although being mixed-race gave her skin light enough to "pass", by the end of the book she has fully embraced her Pakistani self.  That quote really resonated with me in the context of my racial reading and exploring, but I also find it incomplete as far as my own personal identity.

As a white American, (who fully identified as a Peach-American for most of my childhood, thank you Crayola) I come from quite a diverse background.  My father is 100% Ukrainian, but I did not learn this fact until I was an adult.  I was raised with "dumb Polack" jokes (mostly told by my father), thinking they were about me.  In middle school, it was "revealed" to me that I was actually "Russian", not Polish. This was Cold War time ("...we are defined by the wars we have lived..." is another quote from Aliya in City of Spies) and resulted in my being labeled a "Commie" my several of my peers.  My maternal grandmother identified only with her Irish father's heritage, but her mother was Quebecoise.  That was never discussed.  Neither was my maternal grandfather's mixed heritage (Dutch/German).  As a result, I've never felt connected to my own personal history.  I have never felt whole, and that is a loss I have felt at varying degrees throughout my life.  Robin DiAngelo, in her post Why It's So Hard to Talk to White People about Racism writes about "Suggesting that group membership is significant (challenge to individualism)"  as a "trigger" of "racial stress for white people".  My personal perspective is that group membership has not always come easily for me.  Perhaps part of that comes from my lack of feeling a connection with my heritage, maybe it's from fighting so hard and never managing to belong throughout my own years of school, maybe it's from a lifetime of having individuality valued above all else, maybe it's simply a matter of never fully having anyone to rely on besides myself, but that particular statement resonated. 

The video below gives a unique perspective on privilege, and walking in the shoes of another.

Clearly privilege comes in many forms.  Does white privilege exist?  Absolutely.  Any American who denies it is willfully blind or stupid.  But neither should anyone deny the existence of male privilege.  It isn't more or less.  The hurt isn't bigger or badder, but a little empathy goes a long way.  The audience who heard those two speakers -- who listened, probably learned a lot.  Carol Hockett, curator of the Johnson Museum of Art, shared these words at the Mario Einaudi International Studies Summer Institute last week "so much depends on your perspective".

Kristin Craig Lai, a white blogger, echoes some of these ideas:  "Race is real because it affects the identities and realities of everyone. Not just people of colour, everyone. Whiteness is not a blank slate, it is not the de facto absence of racial identity any more than maleness is the de facto absence of gender. The issue, for any thinking white person, is how do you inhabit and experience your whiteness? What does it mean to you to hold a racial identity that comes with so much privilege? What can you do to recognize your privilege and address it in a meaningful way? And if you answer that question with anything that sounds like, “Well I’m X so I’m oppressed too” you’re missing the point. Identity is a complicated and ever shifting thing. If you engage in the “more oppressed than thou” game everyone loses. The point is to think consciously and openly about what kind of privilege you benefit from and what that means."

Marilyn Rhames wrote this EdWeek Blogpost that I loved. However, I was appalled by some of the comments that people, presumably educators, given the source of the post, made.  Others were more thoughtful, including one from a poster named Robin who called the "worst kind of racism...when one knows not that he knows not".  The fact is, we are not living in a post-racial society.  Systemic racism is part of the American culture, and we are all products of the culture in which we are raised.  It is inescapable.  The best we all can hope for is to continue to listen, learn, and heal.

If you're courageous enough, take this Harvard survey about implicit racism. You may (or may not) learn something about yourself.  (My results were inconclusive...for whatever it was worth...)

Some posts and articles I read along the way:

The Luxury of Invisible Privilege

Whiteness Is Not the Absence of Racial Identity

Join the conversation that we all should be having.

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