White Privilege in the School House

by: Debby Irving Special to the AFRO
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While White Americans awaken to the realization that Black Americans are hunted, harassed, and killed on a regular basis by U.S. law enforcement, a quieter racial discrimination, and the White privilege to inflict it, goes largely unnoticed. These perpetrators neither make the evening news nor get put on trial. Protesters don’t march the streets demanding justice on this front. In fact, in liberal White communities, the perpetrators of this particular White privilege are hailed as heroes, noble professionals making a difference in the world.whiteoped2

Consider me, a White former public school educator, Exhibit A. Increasingly I understand how my White privilege set me up as a classroom teacher to participate in obstructing educational access for students of color. Worse, that same privilege allowed me to not even know that obstruction was in play. It’s impossible to solve problems we don’t know exist, and core to the White privilege problem is that not seeing it is effortless – at least for White people.

I brought to teaching the colorblind idea that all students had an equal shot at educational opportunity. After all, America’s level playing field extended to the classroom, right? Yet along with these ideas, I brought a host of unexamined behaviors and attitudes that tilted the classroom playing field in favor of my White students.

For starters, White students could see themselves and their trusted adults in me. My patterns of speech and movement were familiar to them. No matter how nice I may have been to all of my students, White children enjoyed a lack of racial tension. The same goes for White parents. Whether it was back-to-school night, parent-teacher conferences, or a simple phone call home, White-to-White interactions rested on in-group ease that felt natural, not divisive, to me.

And while I was quite sure I didn’t have a racist bone in my body, I can now see how I differentially interpreted behaviors along racial lines. A White boy jumping onto a chair in excitement made me smile, remembering my own spunky childhood self and friends. A Black boy doing the exact same thing, in contrast, triggered a spark of anxiety, a sense of losing control, and a lightening quick urge to assert my dominance with a firm, “Down, now.”

In addition to these proactive manifestations of White bias and privilege, I brought a host of reactive attitudes and behaviors. When White parents showed up more often for back-to-school night and parent-teacher conferences, I attributed the pattern to superior parenting. It never occurred to me that the school environment, parents’ history with schools, or even I might be oppressive to parents of color. When students of color appeared disengaged or restless, I ascribed it to engrained stereotypes: less intelligent, less ambitious. Never did I think to ask myself, “What is causing this student to disengage?” The privilege of thinking I already knew that answer created one lost opportunity after another.

White privilege also manifested in my parent role. Each year I contacted my kids’ teachers to volunteer as room parent, never once seeing that as an act of entitlement or displacement. When I strolled into the principal’s office each spring to ask that my children be assigned to this not that teacher, and put with Johnny but not Susie, it didn’t occur to me that most parents of color neither do that, nor even know it’s a common White practice that results in a kind of informal tracking.

All of this, and I’ve not even mentioned devastating institutional policies and practices like zero tolerance, standardized testing, White-created curricula, emphasis on individual achievement, or on ‘academics’ at the expense of languages, arts, and sciences where many students of color engage more naturally. Nor have I touched upon bias in hiring practices. White privilege saturates American education.

Growing up in a culture that conditioned me to think of racism as a problem belonging to everyone but White people, I both created and observed racial differences with a kind of silent judgment that spared my complicity in every case.

Sadly, my story is ubiquitous. In “The Culturally Inclusive Educator,” Dr. Dena Samuels explore the impacts of white privilege amidst shifting demographics. With educators 85% White, and a student population that’s decreasingly White, not understanding dominant White cultural norms and impacts threatens not only to obstruct education for students of color, but to pathologize the resulting natural, human behaviors. It’s a reckless White privilege, this ability to inaccurately imagine oneself prepared to educate in a multicultural world.

Most White educators truly want to see all students thrive; most can be trained to increase those odds. And, most are willing to make the painful paradigm shift to see that they, not the disengaged, are the elephant in the room. It starts will understanding the power of racial and cultural identity, most importantly, one’s own.

Debby Irving is the author of “Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race.” She will be speaking at The Friends School of Baltimore at 7:30-9:00 p.m. on Sept. 25. It will be a candid conversation about race, culture, identity and privilege.

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