This is the second installment of a three part series reflecting on my experience as a first-year teacher in an inner-city public school. While each part stands alone, you should really read the first installment, well, first. Click here and then come back over to enjoy this second helping.
For those of you who do not know me and have not looked up my Theocult profile, I am white. I would assume that most people who read this blog are probably white, too. This blog is the kind of thing that people who are white like and would read (for other humorous things that white people like, check out this site). Because I was born white I have had the privilege curse reality of never actually having to think about my skin color. The only exception was high school prom, where I spent too much money and too many hours in a tanning bed trying to brown my fair skin. Most days I came out looking as red as a lobster and then reverted straight back to bright white. I have since embraced my natural skin color and accepted that no matter how hard I try I will always be white.
At the school where I work I am one of four full-time staff who are white. The student population is 100% black and aside from one teacher who is Latino; the remaining teachers are all black. For those of you who don’t live in St. Louis, racism is a big problem here (this is far too expansive of a topic to dive into in this post, but this video clip should give you an idea of what I am talking about). It is not a particularly common occurrence to see a white person insert him or herself into a black neighborhood or school unless one of two things has occurred – they had no other choice or they did it intentionally. I chose to work in a school where I knew I would be the racial minority intentionally.
I came across one of those infamous quizzes online recently called How Stereotypically White Are You? This quiz confirmed that I am “Pretty Darn White” and provided this blurb: You are pretty darn white. You sometimes miss on high-fives, but you have a good sense of humor about it. And even though the majority of your close friends are white, your larger group of friends is pretty diverse. I would say that is a fairly accurate description. I also had no idea prior to taking this quiz that “eating soup out of a bread bowl” was a meal choice typically chosen by white people. There are some funny, bizarre, and sad things about being white, but in all seriousness, race is much more than skin color. Race is inevitably linked to culture. Being white is a culture, just as being black is. Certainly it is not the only factor that affects a person’s cultural background but to pretend like it isn’t significant is both naïve and dehumanizing. Race is not the only thing (or perhaps even the primary thing) that matters about a person but it does matter. We are not “color blind” nor were we made to me. Sadly, rather than embracing and celebrating racial diversity in our schools and communities it often becomes a source of pain and division.
One of the greatest causes of division among the black and white community in the United States is privilege. You can choose to accept this as true or not but in America being white is linked with privilege [and power]. This does not mean that every individual white person has lots of money, a big house and a boat (although, my students frequently make assumptions that I am rich). What it does mean is that the dominant culture is white (regardless of racial statistics trending towards an increase in the number of non-white people in the US). On an institutional level America is primarily run as a country that is ruled by white cultural norms.
A blog about race that I came across called Between the Lines gives a pretty good definition of privilege:
“Expressions of privilege are… a choice, a choice to not value or seek to understand culturally different groups, even when members of those groups are our neighbors, our coworkers, our children’s classmates, and sometimes even our friends – a choice that, as any race scholar or activist will point out, is available only to members of the majority group. Members of racial minority groups, like members of other visible minority groups, must understand majority culture in order to negotiate it with any degree of success. This, then, is the real privilege of whiteness: The ability to make choices regarding which groups are worth listening to, when, and under what circumstances, and this choice is often so taken for granted that many of us make it with hardly any awareness of doing anything at all. And because this choice-making is silent and invisible, it is easily denied and, for the past decade, has been almost impossible to address in a structural manner, no matter how many writers and bloggers have written about it.”
“This, then, is the real privilege of whiteness: The ability to make choices regarding which groups are worth listening to, when, and under what circumstances.” Many Americans, including those who are white, work towards multiculturalism but at the end of the day most of the institutions running our country are as ethnocentric as they come. Throughout their lives, black Americans are continually asked expected to become “more white” if they want to have any chance of living a “successful” life.
Other than struggling to believe that pasty white skin was as beautiful as a bronzed glow, never once have I been expected to be something other than white. That is, until I started working at my school. To say that I have been flailing is the understatement of the year. By day two in my classroom I realized that I had been swept out of Kansas and was swirling around in a tornado on my way to a mysterious land that I did not understand and did not make sense to me. As I struggled, teachers made a regular habit of offering assistance or giving a bit of “helpful” advice. One day, my Principal pulled me into his office with another teacher where I was instructed that I “just needed to be more black” and that I should try to “channel my inner black woman.” I admit I was desperate so I tried some of the techniques that I saw my fellow teachers implement. It didn’t work for me. I felt inauthentic and my students laughed at me. Literally.
I have never felt more powerless than I have the last twelve weeks. My lack of experience in having to submit to a culture other than my own has revealed to me my own ethnocentricity and weakness in understanding and adapting to a culture that is not mine. Some days I feel like a foreigner wandering around in an unfamiliar land that I cannot call home. It feels confusing and disorienting and I struggle to know how I fit in this place. Then, there is the added dynamic of realizing that while I may experience these feelings each day in my place of employment that I am still part of the dominant culture in our country. While I feel very little privilege in my school, others may view me and my life quite differently and I have no control over that. Processing all of this is dizzying, to say the least. So, where do I go from here?
I am white. Nothing can change that. What can change is the level of awareness I have of being a member of the dominant culture and understanding that with the “privilege” I experience comes responsibility. My primary responsibility it so seek to understand the culture and privilege that I am a part of while also seeking to understand the ways that this privilege has been used destructively (both intentionally and unintentionally) and beneficially. I also have a responsibility to actively seek out those who are different from me and submit myself to their stories and experiences so that I may grow in empathy, understanding and compassion.
This is not an easy road and it requires great intentionality. It is my prayer for myself and those of you who read this that God’s desire and heart for the diverse and beautiful people He has created to be one with Him would supersede our desire to remain inside the barriers of race and culture that we have built for ourselves (and that have been built for us) so that we might experience a greater glory and beauty that we ever imagined possible.