Lisa Delpit’s thought-provoking book, Other People’s Children, provided me with much needed insight regarding the complexities involved with teaching students of color, particularly for white teachers. I found myself nodding my head throughout various sections of the book, empathizing with those “poor white teachers” who needed help teaching “poor black kids.” As I started to think about my own experience I wondered if this book had a counterpart, a guide for me, an African American female teacher with predominantly white male students. But I didn’t go searching for the guide, because it was important for me to investigate my own insight into this sensitive area, before seeking out corroboration, corruption, or compassion of and for my sentiments.
To be clear, this is NOT a guide, and I do NOT have all the answers, or any answer for that matter. I simply want to share some of what occurred in my teaching life a couple of months ago, something that caused me to think about my own role in the lives of other people’s children.
Delpit (2006) writes that “in order to resolve the monumental problems we face providing a quality education for poor children and children of color, we must open ourselves to learn from others with whom we may share little understanding” (p.131). But what happens when there aren’t many “others” in the classroom, either due to lack of racial diversity or simply a dearth of divergent thinking. From where will students gain an authentic cultural understanding? Thus, I felt compelled to create an experience that forced students to investigate “others,” in an effort to gain greater cultural and human understanding.
In all honesty, my 2015 “Privilege and Power in America Project” was an emotionally enervating experience that stretched me as a teacher and a human being. Parts of me wanted to give up or at the very least, refrain from doing this project ever again! This winter was the third time I launched the project that asks students to examine invisible privilege and connect how systems of privilege translate into certain types of power. The project begins with students creating an individual list of privileges they possess or lack based on race, ethnicity, and gender, generating a class list, interviewing a diverse sample set of the public to collect their views on the subject, investigating current statistics in societal systems (i.e. education, criminal justice, employment etc.), then honing in on one issue to elucidate in an original TED Talk presentation for the public.
Of course I expected the usual confusion about the concept of invisible privilege, followed by a smidge of doubt and denial, then a slight lack of recognition, subsequent awareness, a tinge of outrage or apathy on the part of a few, and finally followed by a full realization of social injustice on the part of many. It would be just like the two previous years, and I would end the project with self-gratification, knowing that I had moved three 11th grade classes, and potentially our entire world, one step closer to social solidarity by enlightening these young, developing minds with consciousness of invisible privilege.
And the award for Social Justice Teacher of the Year goes to…Michelle Sadrena Cla-… But this wasn’t that kind of year.
On day one I brought students into my office and filmed their response to the question, “What is invisible privilege?” Answers ranged from nervous laughter, to the tautological response “a privilege that is invisible.” There were fewer than five students out of sixty-two who could provide an accurate response, and I was thrilled because this meant I was going to rock their world with new knowledge and discovery!
I assigned Peggy McIntosh’s “Invisible Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” in preparation for a socratic seminar the following day where students would respond to the question, “How does/will white privilege impact you personally?” In previous years, to my dismay, the most repeated commiseration throughout each socratic discussion was something along the lines of “I never thought about how bandaids don’t match all skin tones. That is so wrong.” I would bite my tongue, because I wanted to shout, “How is that is the major injustice issue you gleaned from the article?!” However this year was different. This year most students looked deeper into the content and made meaningful connections through inquiries like whether or not upbringing played more of a role than race when it came to privilege and how people born into privileged systems should respond once they have been made aware. I thought, “This group is taking a serious look at the issue of invisible privilege!” So you can imagine my surprise when this year affected me more emotionally than any previous year.
Howard Zinn once stated, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” (also the title of one of his books) and as I struggled with my own hypersensitivity to make sure that I did not intentionally or unintentionally indoctrinate students with my own convictions, I realized the difficulty in maintaining neutrality when it comes to systems of privilege. I had a difficult time balancing my professional role as a teacher and my personal identity as an African-American woman. Though the majority of students were open to engaging in this unexplored reality, there were a few who vehemently and vocally resisted from the onset of the project. They expressed dissenting opinions on the purpose of exploring this subject matter in the first place. Generally, I view student voice as a triumph,, because it means I have successfully empowered them to speak their truth. Yet when those truths contradicted my understanding of basic social justice philosophy, I was not prepared to immediately respond to “our children” in a thoughtful way.
This time it was a challenge to remain neutral when I was confronted with statements like this: “I just don’t like learning about race type things because it’s kind of like a game of who has it worse. And I don’t see the need to see who has the most negatives at birth.” or “The acknowledgment of white privilege creates problems that don’t actually exist.” Instead I wanted to respond in rapid succession with: “Are you suggesting that the most effective way to resolve inequality in the world is to ignore it?” and “Do you really mean to say that the problems created by invisible privilege don’t exist for you, so why talk about them?” But at this point in the project I was still relying on student facilitation of the discussion—so I said nothing.
Typically my approach is to allow students to organically challenge each other’s perspectives and come to their own conclusions or revelations throughout the course of the discussion. The only instances when I may intervene are when inaccurate information is repeatedly exchanged or when students forget to be “hard on the content, but soft on the people.” With this particular project, I needed to manage the tension between freedom of thought and focused and intentional dialogue. I recall speaking to a few students privately to encourage them to bring their voice into the space, even if it appeared to be the minority opinion, and even if it opposed some of the dominant personalities.
However, there were definitely occasions when what was said necessitated teacher intervention, such as when a student said:
White privilege affects whites in a negative way because of things like affirmative action, and things implemented like that because it’s actually inverting it so now we have opposite privileges, so it’s no longer white, it’s minority privileges…they are given chances, but it has a negative effect on certain policies….Affirmative action is saying that whites are better than minorities so we have to give minorities extra privileges….It’s reverse discrimination.
I did not want the rest of the class to leave believing this student’s statements were fact without challenging these ideas. Thus I designed a lesson on the history of affirmative action, how it started, how it has been revised over time, how it differs from state to state, who it impacts, and how it impacts them. I have learned that often times students regurgitate assertions they have heard from their parents or each other without ever investigating the truth of their claims.
I continued to listen to their perspectives, silently applauding when they challenged one another, and restrained my impulse to intervene, recalling Delpit’s (2006) assertion that, “If teachers are to teach effectively, recognition of the importance of student perception of teacher intent is critical” (p.168). My intent was for them to learn through this project, not through me. Thus, it was crucial that I remained cool, calm, and collected in the presence of these comments and so many more—comments that in some instances were emotionally upsetting to hear. But I knew that if I allowed my true feelings to show or if I reacted defensively, it would have hindered the learning process entirely. Students might have focused on my personal and emotional reaction, rather than deeply exploring the issue in its entirety on its own. Fearful of clouding the issue, I chose to remain resolute in the belief that the only way to combat ignorance is to respond with information, and trust that my intentionally designed project would ultimately challenge them to come face to face with real world injustices and dilemmas that demand answers.
That doesn’t mean that I didn’t want to go in my office and scream, or go home and cry, or stand in front of all of them and deliver a diatribe of countless instances of modern day injustice in America. Truthfully, every day for the first few weeks, I contemplated ending the project because I wasn’t sure I could evade my emotions, mind my mouth, or fake my facial expressions any longer. It was exhausting!
Below are e-mail excerpts between myself and one of my male students that demonstrates some of the ideas I encountered:
I find the subject of current racial problems in America boring and frankly unimportant, the “problems” that different races have to face today in America are generally very small issues that aren’t very pressing. I would rather learn about how real racial problems still exist around the world, like places where slavery is still occurring and certain racial groups are being persecuted…we could be learning about something a little more important, most of these problems we are looking into don’t really matter at all. Sorry if this comes off as angry or passive aggressive, I’m just stating my opinion, thanks for asking.
I think this is when it became impossible for me to remain internally neutral, though I did my best to maintain outward control of my emotions. I thought the most appropriate way to respond was with honesty and optimism.
Thank you for your honesty….as a US history teacher I do think it is important for students to be aware of, and ideally care about their fellow citizens living in the same country. Critical thinking involves looking at an issue from perspectives other than your own. There are still four weeks to go in the project so I encourage you to have an open mind, who knows? You may learn something! 🙂
See you Monday!
In retrospect I realize that my e-mail was slightly passive aggressive which is why the exchange continued. The student wrote back, saying,
…I never said that I didn’t find social justice and equality important. I was trying to say that those problems don’t exist in America, to be truly honest I don’t believe that equality is an issue in America. There is no need for social justice in America because there is no social injustice occurring in here…
At this point, I realized that not very much was going to be accomplished in this electronic tete-a-tete, so I endeavored to come to a resolution:
…perhaps during this project you might discover evidence that confirms or contradicts your current view. What is most important is that minds stay open and communication stays respectful regardless of differing views. Have a fabulous weekend!
And another white male student who truly meant well commented,
I live in a mostly white neighborhood…we are somewhat diverse, every third or fourth house is a minority group. And you can see the kids don’t act like what you would expect that minority group to act like. They act like they’re white, they act like they’re privileged, they act like any one of us would. The hispanic you see across the street doesn’t act like he is from Chula Vista he doesn’t act like he is from some neighborhood [where] he’s grown up around all Mexicans his whole life.
He was essentially saying that there are “good minorities” in the world, those who walk, talk, and act like “any of us [white people].” He failed to realize that his comment may have offended anyone in the room who was not white (myself included), or who did not meet his specific standards of assimilation. This student’s comment is evidence of a widely held belief that as long as behavior and speech are modified to match that of the dominant group, tolerance and perhaps acceptance are possible. Regardless of his insensitivity and ignorance, he is not to blame, nor are other students who share similar beliefs. How can we blame students who have never had a parent or educator enlighten their worldview through conversation and exploration? Students who struggle to speak about race, ethnicity, privilege and power do so because the adults in their lives struggle to do the same.
Thus, after weeks of articles, documentaries, Implicit Association Tests, field interviews, class discussions, writing assignments, student exhibitions of their Privilege and Power TED Talks and visual art pieces, as well as written project reflections, I still cannot conclusively measure the extent to which each student was impacted by this project. In their inquiry based TED Talks, they explored their own privilege and power-centered essential questions and educated the public on a wide array of topics including the objectification of women in music lyrics, the treatment of Muslims, and the disparity of educational resources across communities. Just about every single one of their reflections indicated that they have evolved and progressed into socially conscious, equity based activists. While the skeptic in me doubts their sincerity, the optimist in me believes that growth is a journey, so I should celebrate the every step. This experience was difficult, but I am a firm believer in Fred Devito’s quote, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.” How can I expect my students to embrace challenge, if I give it the cold shoulder, or more precisely, run in the opposite direction? No matter the cost, this work must be done, even if students may not realize its worth until years from now.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait years because about a week after the project ended, one of my students sent me the following email:
Dear Mrs. Clark, I have tried several drafts of this email, and been unsatisfied by each one. I have attempted to find the right words to express my feelings towards this class, the projects we have done, especially the most recent, and exactly how much I value you as a teacher and a human being…As for the recent project on privilege and power, I have learned so much. I was that person who believed that racism no longer existed in America, and I was resistant to changing my opinion. However, throughout this project, I obviously changed my opinion and believe that I am a better person purely because I now try to empathize with others. Anyone who says this project was not life changing was too resistant to new information in order take advantage of the opportunities you gave us. This project has changed the way I view others and especially the way I view myself. I realize how I am biased and how the stereotypes I hold onto can hurt others. Now that I realize my flaws, I can take steps towards addressing them.
I am constantly finding myself using what I have learned in real life scenarios. I use words or phrases that I never would have before in order to express my opinions and beliefs in a clear and concise way that does not offend the people I am speaking to… I have discussed this topic with my family and we have had long conversations on the different topics. Also, anyone traveling with me to games or practices has been fair game for discussions on race, gender, and privileges in America. I believe this topic is important enough to discuss with people I care about, and even those that I do not really know…Thank you for pushing me to be better and especially for helping me to get there.
And with that email, I am reminded that other people’s children are my children, at least for nine months, and I have a responsibility to raise them well, teach them how to think rather than what to think, unless their thinking is significantly unjust. In which case, I will let neutrality take a backseat, while I conduct the train of truth and justice.
The end…or perhaps the beginning.