I stood in front of my students at the beginning of the school year. We were about to start our first unit built around Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The unit was going to require many mature and sensitive discussions about race, both in the text and in our own lives.
To paraphrase, “I’m white,” I said unabashedly, raising my hand. Some of the looks I got ranged from This guy is nuts to WTF?!?! Some were just blank.
Still, I continued, “I cannot claim to have been the object of racial scorn or prejudice. I cannot claim to know what it feels like to be considered different or a minority or to be judged based on my skin color or culture or religion. But I will always listen and try to understand, try to be empathetic, as we work together to challenge systems that have been unfair to people of color for far too long.”
Would I have started out a discussion like this my first year teaching in Bridgeport, CT, or even when I was a more established teacher at a private, international school in Westchester, NY? The answer is no.
The easy way out would be to say that I was not comfortable enough with myself. Digging deeper, though, it was because I was colorblind at the time. Part of me really did believe that we, as humans, were all equal regardless of culture, ethnicity, creed or gender and, by extension, were therefore treated equally.
However, that was the perspective of a naive educator with minimal experiences with minority individuals, someone who disregarded upbringing and opportunities afforded to oneself and instead cited individualism and hard work as a means to better one’s position. And that was the end of the examination of subject for me at the time. Either you did put in the work or you didn’t – and there was no in-between.
Because that’s what was comfortable. The “in-between” was unsettling. It made me feel uneasy to consider that others did not have the same privileges I did and that their futures might not be as bright as mine because of those chances I received that they did not.
I, though, was not ready to look into myself for greater understanding, for I was still on the defensive. I resented any assumption of white privilege and felt as if I was being personally blamed for an inequitable system that was in place long before I was.
I had worked hard to earn my degrees and my position – my respect. And the assumption that special treatment contributed to my opportunity was a flagrant affront to my dedication – really, my pride. I always reminded myself that I was not an oppressor. In fact, I thought as an educator in an under-served, urban setting I was on the frontline fighting for educational equity and providing my students with the best possible opportunity to succeed. And I still am.
But that doesn’t mean that I was not the beneficiary of a system systematically stacked in my favor. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had the opportunity to attend schools with strong academic track records that others did not; I had the opportunity to be taught by excellent teachers who prepared me for future success; and finally, I had the opportunity to go to college and not necessarily worry how I would pay for it. I’m where I am today in part because of these chances others simply do not have because of their ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
That acknowledgment, however, does not need to come with furious protestations and defensiveness. So many White Americans have simply never thought to ask themselves some of these questions posed by author Robin DiAngelo in White Fragility:
Did your parents tell you that race didn’t matter and that everyone was equal? Did they have many friends of color? If people of color did not live in your neighborhood, why didn’t they? Why did they live? What images, sounds, and smells did you associate with other neighborhoods? What kind of activities did you think went on there? Were you encouraged to visit these neighborhoods, or were you discouraged…
What about schools? What made a school good? Who went to good schools? Who went to bad schools? If the schools in your area were racially segregated (as most schools in the United States are), why didn’t you attend school together?
If you went to school together, did you all sit together in the cafeteria? If not, why not? Were the honors or advanced placement classes and the lower-track classes equally racially integrated? If not, why not?
When was the first time you had a teacher of the same race as yours? Did you often have teachers of the same race as yours? (35).
Pointing fingers and ruminating in the past does not lead to progress; neither does assigning good or bad over-simplifications to complex racial issues. However, in order for a racially divided nation to continue to grow, the past must be examined and acknowledged to learn how to move forward together. For me, and likely so many who grew up in white, homogenous, middle-class communities, I never considered just how much I had in comparison to others, in particular members of the Black community. One of my earliest memories of racism was a neighbor who railed against the only black family on our block for “bringing down our property value.” I was no older than seven or eight, yet I never really thought about those words until a few years ago.
Racism certainly wasn’t a conversation in my parents’ or grandparents’ house where I was raised. They oftentimes recounted my grandfather’s immigrant story to support this: If my grandfather could emigrate from Calabria, Italy, learn English under duress, do well-enough in school, survive the Great Depression and fight for his country in WWII, and THEN run a successful canning business, any American citizen could realize their dreams. That is what they believed, and that doesn’t make them evil in any way.
And I believed that for a while, the ideas of American individualism and meritocracy – that is, that everyone can achieve whatever they want in this country if they were willing to work hard for it. And then we went back to comfortable, insular existences, shielded by a false belief that all Americans have the same opportunity, which unfortunately is not true.
I’ve always told my students whenever they’re trying to grow up too quickly: Once you know, you can never forget.
So, here are some facts:
According to a June 7, 2018 piece in The Hill, “College graduation rates are 24 and 17 percent higher for white students than for their black and Hispanic peers, and the richest kids complete four years of college at almost four times the rate of the poorest” (Bridgeland & Martin). The correlation the author is drawing here is that access to quality activities and teachers, in addition to being in a school that supports you instead of condemning you, DOES directly affect one’s success inside and outside the classroom.
Furthermore, a 2017 study from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which charted and analyzed standardized scores from 1992-2005, found that whites across the board performed better than Black and Hispanic students:
What’s more, the number of Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans living in poverty is significantly higher than that of Whites living in poverty. Note that the below chart uses the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which factors in one’s income combined with the value of assistance one receives from the government:
Simply falling back on the tired pull yourself up by your bootstraps to achieve the American Dream narrative will not do anymore. Better questions need to be asked that get to the root issues that have tied our segregated communities down for far too long. Change, though, has to start within the hearts of the majority.
Like any change, it will not happen overnight. But that doesn’t mean we stop working to have conversations and stop trying to deconstruct prejudicial power structures. As DiAngelo writes, “Stopping our racist patterns must be more important than working to convince others that we don’t have them” (129).
The White majority does have these tendencies within ourselves and built into all structures of society. That realization and the soul-searching that comes with it – no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel – is where real change begins.
For denying this reality means the majority is complicit in it. And when that rings true, there really is no US at all.