What I Have Learned About White Privilege

 

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When I walk into my classroom on the first day of school each year, I am always nervous. It’s not because I don’t know what to do or say, or because I am unsure if things will go well. I don’t know why I always have butterflies in my stomach, but maybe it’s because there are all these students sitting quietly in their seats, faces turned toward me, waiting for me to begin.

There is a palpable anticipation on their part and they are looking to me to set the tone for how our class will proceed. That first day, every student is new to me. And though they might have heard about me from older students and I might recognize some of them, this is the first time they are a student in my class. And it’s a little awkward. They don’t usually get my jokes that first day or realize that I am most comfortable when I’m being goofy. It takes us a little while to form into the class that we will eventually become. They have to learn about me and my quirks and I have to learn about them. But mostly, it takes us a while to really gel as a class because I have to earn their trust.

My first few years as a teacher, I didn’t understand that teaching was all about building a relationship with my students. Naively, I thought it was about lesson plans, grading papers, and classroom management. I eventually learned that what good teaching really comes down to is me going out of my way to show students that I am on their side, that I am for them and that I believe they can do the work. I must do this over and over and over. My first job is to “win them over;” after I’ve done that we can get down to the business of learning Geometry.

I used to think it was obvious that I was on their side… I’m their teacher! Of course I want my students to be successful, of course I will help them if they need it, of course I have time for them! But I teach high school mathematics. By the time students get to my class, they have already decided that they either like math or they H-A-T-E math. It then becomes my challenge to convince those students who feel uncomfortable and even a bit suspicious of me that I truly am on their side. I don’t have any control over my students’ past experiences that shape their views of mathematics. I have to take each student as he or she comes and many come with a history of feeling like an outsider in math class.

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Somewhere along the way I realized that there is a very particular power dynamic that exists in a classroom between teacher and student. Not only am I the only adult in the classroom, but I am also the one that assigns work, controls their grade, and judges their behavior as acceptable or not. These are perfectly valid reasons for any student to be wary of me during the first few weeks of school; students who have had bad experiences in previous classes will be even more justified in wondering if I can be trusted. Am I the kind of teacher that is going to sigh deeply at them when they come in two minutes late? Am I going to make sure they feel my frustration when they sheepishly admit that they don’t have their homework… again? Even worse, am I going to shame them in front of others because they don’t understand a concept?

Because I am the teacher and I have the power, I have to be very careful with my words, my tone, my actions, and even my facial expressions. It’s up to me to show my students over and over that I can be trusted. I can’t just say it once and expect them to believe me. It will not do to simply assume that my students rightly interpret my subtle attempts to show them that I care. I must over-communicate my position that I am on their side and that I believe in them because, given their likely background, they will have a hard time trusting me. I first have to acknowledge that the power dynamic exists and then work within that construct to help my students flourish.

There are also power dynamics that exist in our larger culture. These range from obvious ones like the dynamic that exists between high wealth and low wealth groups, to more subtle ones like the tension that can exist between people who were born and raised in a place and those that are newcomers to that same area. And there are definite power dynamics that exist in our culture because of race, but this is one of those things the majority white culture doesn’t particularly want to acknowledge. I get it. By admitting that whites have a kind of privilege not enjoyed by minorities, it feels like I am happily identifying with my ancestors who took it for granted that they were privileged. It feels distasteful and, honestly, it makes me feel… dirty? It’s hard to explain the emotions that swirl around in my head/heart/stomach, but it feels similar to the nervousness I feel on the first day of school. I don’t want there to be a power dynamic and I certainly don’t want to benefit from it. It feels very uncomfortable to admit that I have some sort of “power” that is accessible to me simply because I am white.

But admitting that a power dynamic exists doesn’t mean that I am endorsing it.

And so, just as I’ve realized it is on me to show my students over and over that I can be trusted, it is on us, white folks, to show our minority friends, acquaintances and even strangers over and over that we can be trusted. It does not matter whether we want this power dynamic to exist–it’s there. Perhaps the first step in shifting the power dynamic is to look for it in our own lives and then work to elevate the voices of those around us who are often ignored. Perhaps we can begin to shift the balance of power in a significant way as we listen to one another and consciously decide that we are not content with how things are. Perhaps one day, the idea of white privilege will legitimately be a foreign concept to my children’s children.

2 thoughts on “What I Have Learned About White Privilege

  1. We can talk more sometime if you like but let me throw a few ideas to mull over.
    From all you’ve said, you were born into privilege. You din’t choose it or earn it nor was it under your control.

    Grant you privilege can give you power but sometimes it just gets you in trouble and powerless.

    Some might call privilege “blessing.”

    Privilege is not inherently evil unless you take unfair advantage of it an abuse others by it.

    Power is not wrong unless used wrongly.

    Many from underprivileged area seek an education in order to empower themselves.

    I stand to be corrected which is what I hope you’ll do but there are certain area of my life where having power is a good thing for all concerned, like in class or coaching.

    The cross seemed to be a weak thing but we know it was a demonstration of the ultimate power. The king became a servant so that by his power he might set us free.

    If I have some sort of power simply because “I’m white” then I’m white by God’s sovereign decree and will be held accountable for how I use it for good or abuse it.

  2. It has amazed me how as a result of the heinous racially motivated murders at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in my adopted city of Charleston, a conversation about America’s history with regard to race and the South has begun. I was moved by the outpouring of unity,love and compassion in the Walk on Ravenel Bridge between Mount Pleasant and Charleston. I was also moved by the willingness of the relatives of those who were killed to forgive the killer, and at the same time by the fact that they expressed their anguish and grief.
    Someone with whom I have been in correspondence for some while now and whose mother was a Drayton and African American posted your comment on facebook about how you as a Southern woman felt about the murders and about how you wanted a conversation to begin within the communities on the issue of race. I hope I got that right.
    I have deep roots within the soil of the Low Country, since my ancestor, Thomas Drayton, first arrived in Charlestown in the Carolina colony in 1679 on a ship from Barbados.
    On my Grimke side, I have both slave-owners and abolitionists and African American cousins. You may have heard of Sarah and Angelina Grimke. They were also advocates of women’ rights. This year a marker has been set up outside the family home in East Bay Street, Charleston, in recognition of their contribution. There is also a guided walk in Charleston which deals specifically with the two sisters. Mention is made of their biracial nephews, whom they acknowledged. Check out Archibald and Francis Grimke in google.
    I have indirectly involved in an initiative called “Coming To The Table” set up under the auspices of the Center for Justice and Peace-building at the Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Descendants of slave-owners and slaves are invited to the conversation, where the legacy of the trauma of slavery is put under the microscope as it were. Mutual respect and a willingness to listen are expected of the participants, even when they hear evidence which is given from a position of extreme pain over many generations. Fear I think is a component in the “mix” which drives people to extreme views from their perspective of “heritage”, especially if that heritage is under threat, as they perceive it.
    I would very much like to be in touch. I am currently living with my partner in the Philippines, and will be returning to the UK in November. If you have ever been to Charleston, you will know that the peninsula is divided by the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. The Drayton plantations are located on the banks of the Ashley – Drayton Hall and Magnolia Gardens. My ggg uncle was Rev. John Grimke-Drayton, who owned the latter in the 19th century. His aunts were the abolitionist sisters.
    In March 2007 we in the UK commemorated the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade and a small group of friends from Charleston came to London to attend certain events, including a service in Westminster Abbey, at which the Queen and Prince Philip and the Prime Minister were present. We also were at a reception on a replica slave ship, which docked just below Tower Bridge.
    I look forward to hearing from you in due course.
    Best wishes, Bill Grimke-Drayton.
    P.S. My skype name is billdrayton65. We are 12 hours ahead of EST.

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