I’ve shared the photo at the top of this post before, but I’m sharing it for a different reason today. I’m sharing it because of Ferguson, and because of a very small incident that happened when I was back in the classroom last spring that might shed just a small shard of light on what is happening here.
I use this photo as the desktop background on my work computer. I use it to remind myself of things I think I need to keep at the forefront when I’m working:
- I was privileged to attend school during a time when class sizes were small, even in a largely working-class community.
- I attended school during a time that is much different from now.
- All of of the teen-agers in our secondary schools were once this young and vulnerable, and they carry the children they once were in their not-as-cute bodies and deserve just as much tender care as we find it easier to give younger children.
I did not put it on my desktop to remind me of my white privilege, even though I’m well-aware of the concept of white privilege and work (as I’m able to in my role) to address issues of inequity in my very diverse, economically disadvantaged school district. Because even though I’m aware, it is still hard for me to see it.
I saw it one day in May, though.
I was teaching a lesson about persuasive appeals, and my desktop flashed on the projector. Seriously, it was just a flash, a few seconds as I switched from a PowerPoint to a Word document.
One of my African-American students asked, “Who are all those kids?”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s a picture of my first-grade class.”
I started to go on with what I was saying, and I heard her sorta mumble, sorta under her breath, to her friend (not me), “Where are the black kids?”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly. Or maybe I just wanted to think I hadn’t, because I was afraid of the question and where it might lead. I just wanted to get on with the persuasive appeals lesson. But I didn’t want to ignore her question. That felt wrong.
“What?” I asked. Just in case. Buying myself a few seconds.
Her friend snort-laughed, a little. “Aw, she heard you!” she said.
“Nothing, never mind,” the first student said, and I knew that I’d heard her question correctly.
That few seconds wasn’t enough to come up with a good response. “There weren’t any,” I said. “It was a while ago.”
There was an awkward silence for a few beats, and then I went on with the lesson. Only later was I able to unpeel the layers of that moment.
What would it be like, I wondered, if I were not a member of the privileged race and I knew that my teacher, who is, had grown up without anyone like me in her classes at school?
What did it mean that this student was so attuned to issues of race that she noticed what she did in a image that only flashed before her?
How much was race an issue in my struggle to effectively teach this student? (Because I did struggle, as did other teachers of hers.)
I went through the whole of my public education without having a single teacher of a different color. Not one. That means I never had to question whether I was going to be judged or misunderstood or disliked because of mine. I expected to be treated fairly, which means I was able to focus on learning reading, writing, math, science, history–not on keeping myself safe.
There were very few students who weren’t white. That means I never had to worry that my peers were going to judge or misunderstand or dislike me because I was. Sure, some of them did–but I knew it was because of my personality. I didn’t have to wonder if it was because of something fundamental to my very being. I was able to focus on learning how to build relationships, not protect myself from those with whom a relationship was not possible.
I am sharing this anecdote, small as it is, because it helped me see how much I still take for granted, how much I don’t see. I am sharing this anecdote because it comes from liberal Portland, Oregon, where (I think) we like to think that we are much more progressive on matters of race than in other parts of the country–say, Louisiana, where Cane was raised.
What Cane tells me is that the racism here is more insidious in some ways, because it is more underground. It is harder to see. What I know from my professional life is that even here, where we like to think things are different or not so bad,there are on-going inequities for my students.
One small example that comes directly from my small world: Among the elementary schools I serve, the wealthiest have double the library circulation of the poorest. That means the children in the poor elementaries are accessing fewer books–which means less access to learning–than those in the wealthiest. I think it goes without saying (but I’m going to say it anyway) that the poor schools have a higher number of non-white students.
This isn’t deliberate. No one is saying: Let’s keep the books out of the hands of the poor, colored kids. There are multiple factors at play and a lot of good, well-intentioned people are working hard to change this. But on some level, that just doesn’t matter. It’s the reality that matters. Despite good intentions, there’s been inequity.
I hesitate to write on this topic not only because it is uncomfortable for me and off the topic many of you come here to read about, but also because I fear saying the wrong thing and being misunderstood and being irrelevant. What can I, a privileged, middle-aged white woman, contribute to this conversation? Shouldn’t I step aside and let the voices of others, who have been directly harmed by the inequalities of our world, tell this story?
But I am writing on this topic, here, because I want to walk the talk I spouted in our last post and because I believe that the stories we tell and the information we share are the things that bring change. I can only tell my own. I would like to be a person who can do something more active, more direct, more clearly vital. But I really can’t. We all do what we can, and this is what I can do. Maybe it is only when all of us who are both privileged and usually silent start to speak up, speak out, that things will change.
Really, this kind of thing is about home. Maybe Ferguson isn’t my community or yours, but the same kinds of injustices that created the events there are happening everywhere, all the time. I want everyone to have the kind of home I do, one located in a neighborhood, a city, a state, a country where I feel free to walk and drive and gather with others without fear of unjustified harm.
Still, I think others have a more powerful perspective than mine, and I want to spread it (something else I can do). Below I’m sharing just two other voices that have been shared with me this morning. The first is from a woman of color, the other from a Canadian. Although I think people like me need to speak out, I also think that those of us who are white Americans need perspectives outside our own. Hope you’ll click through. And if you have time for only one, I’d choose the first one.