White Privilege

White privilege is a very hard concept for many White folks to get.

It was hard for me, too. For years and years as a young adult, I refused to believe that the color of my skin had privileged me. I felt the opposite of privileged–I felt my life had been one freakin’ long-ass struggle: I was in a ridiculous amount of debt from my undergraduate education which I had paid for; I had a dad who had been sick my entire life and had died of diabetes complications; my sister had done many an illegal act, had two kids in high school, and had married a crack head who had threatened to kill us; my mom was a religious zealot who constantly belabored the fact that I was going to hell. I grew up as barely middle class, feeling poor by comparison to neighbors and friends, eating hot dogs and chicken livers because they were cheap. I was raised being spanked to the point of almost being beaten (Spare the rod, spoil the child. –paraphrased from Proverbs 13:24). My life did not feel like the life of privilege, believe me.

I entered my mid-twenties feeling like I had just barely survived the life given to me.

Then I started teaching in Brooklyn and I met my students–class upon class upon class of Black and Brown and Arab and Asian inner-city kids.

Over years and years of working with them, I learned what sorts of privilege my skin color had given me. Privilege that I had not earned through the merit of my actions, privilege that I had not asked for, but privilege that I had benefited from and that I happily used to my advantage again and again and again and again and again.

When people say that the Trayvon Martin murder had nothing to do with race, I am filled with rage. It had everything to do with race, racial stereotypes, and racial bias.

I have been reading a lot since Saturday’s verdict. One of my favorite responses to Zimmerman’s acquittal is this blog: We Are Not Trayvon Martin.

Through anecdotal stories, people are writing about their White privilege as well as what it’s like to be not-White in America. Some voices are angry, some are soft, some are factual, but this one woman’s post moved me greatly. It reads:

I am not Trayvon Martin. I’m a  fifty-one year old white woman who teaches high school in LA. I have students who could have lost their lives this way. Students who have been belittled and marginalized because of the way they look and where they live. Students who regularly have to deal with racism — subtle and overt every single day. And every day at my school we work together to raise ourselves up, to reinforce in each other a sense of self-respect, hope for the future, a sense of connection to community. And then things like this happen. And I’m just not sure how we move forward, how I can help. How I can reassure young black men – and all my students —  that their lives matter, that they have wide open futures, that they live in world that values who they are. 

There is a Buddhist lineage called Shambhala, which I study; in this tradition, the time we are living in is known as the Dark Age – an age in which aggression, materialism, and ignorance abound. However, this is also a time in which the seeds of great change can be planted. A time in which Basic Goodness of humanity can be awakened so that we can create a society based on compassion and kindness.

I wish I could say something to the Martin family that would ease their pain. I am grateful for this opportunity to give them my condolences and to reach out to other people across the country who are as pained as I am about this young man’s death.

I am going to talk to my students about Trayvon’s death when schools starts in August. How that conversation will go, I can’t begin to guess. But it is a conversation that has to happen, and it has to keep happening all over our country.

A friend posted this from a friend’s blog (www.calvinsstory.com). It is from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In it, Atticus Finch, a lawyer, speaks to his son, Jem, about the jury’s conviction  of a young African America man who has just been found guilty of a crime he did not commit:

“Atticus—” said Jem bleakly.

He turned in the doorway. “What, son?”

“How could they do it, how could they?”

“I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it—seems that only children weep. Good night.

Our tears can water the seeds of change.

Amen, sister, to everything you wrote.

And, if you are one of those folks who is struggling with the idea that you–as a White person–have benefited from White privilege, here’s a quick intro video for you from my favorite guy Louis CK:

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5 thoughts on “White Privilege

  1. Thanks for sharing your words. Growing up my best friend was black, and it was always a struggle to understand and see first hand out she was treated differently in our community, and in the world at large merely because her skin differed from mine.

  2. Reblogged this on Memoirs of a Cait (Monster) and commented:
    Lori Ungemah on readwriteteach shared this blog post about White Privilege. I know this is an issue that I have talked with my aunt about extensively (in addition to male privilege). Do you find that most people are oblivious to this idea?

    As a teacher I am curious about what kind of conversations we can have concerning these issues. I know that in the district I worked at last year they taught To Kill a Mockingbird (from which the author of this posts quotes), yet most of the conversation in class was very base and centered on idea of courage. I think that issues of race and privilege would be much more engaging and interesting to discuss. But perhaps this is too uncomfortable for most teachers. Perhaps these notions/ideas might have been outside the grasp of many of my students who were mostly white and from an extremely wealthy/privileged community. But wouldn’t that make them all the more important to discuss?

    • I think it is just as important for White and well-to-do kids to be pushed to think about this stuff. Of course, sometimes teachers face more resistance from students who feel uncomfortable talking about racism, classism, sexism, etc. But I don’t feel that my job as a teacher is to make anyone feel “comfortable.” I am here to tell you if your writing sucks, that you need to think critically, and that you need to read. I also have the privilege of teaching in higher ed now, which frees me greatly from feeling fear of a school district (although I had great freedom in the high school where I taught…mostly).

      I think many White teachers (and White women are the largest percentage of the teaching population and data suggests that isn’t going to change anytime soon) feel nervous about opening these various versions of Pandora’s Box in the classroom. I have never taught White students, so I can’t offer much in terms of suggestion based on personal experience.

      Add that to my professional bucket list: Teach a class of White kids.

      • I would agree. I was disappointed that the conversation never geared towards this; unfortunately I was not the classroom teacher and had no control over it since I merely provided instructional support. But the students I worked directly with in the classroom to provide support are the ones that would have best benefited from this discussion because they were naturally engaged by it (they were the few African American students the class who were bussed in from the city) and who understood the issues in a way that a majority of the student didn’t.

        I don’t know I wish I could get to teach TKAM to older students because I find it interesting that the novel seems to think it’s ok to learn the lesson not to kill a mockingbird at the expense of a black man.

        On a side note. This conversation about race also reminds me of a discussion I had with a colleague regarding the school shooting at the elementary school past year and how the media represents individuals that commit violent crimes. It seems like when it’s a white male shooter they attempt to understand the individual more and contribute the crime to psychological issues or something of the short, but if a black man committed a similar crime he is demonized in the media. I have no empirical data, but I think this would be an interesting area to look into.

        Sorry lots of thoughts concerning issues of race.

  3. Pingback: Stupid White Privilege Revelation | readwriteteach

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