Recognizing Privilege

When we fail to recognize children’s social identities, we erase fundamental aspects of who they are and who their families are.

— Ann Pelo, Rethinking Our Classrooms, Volume 1, page 40

I was instantly drawn into Pelo’s article by the anecdote of the three little boys playing mother to their babies; besides agreeing with her assertions on the importance of cultural identity and thinking how innovative and intentional she and her staff were being with their research and curriculum planning, I drew a lot of inspiration from this reading. I drew inspiration from the knowledge that there are people, maybe especially in the education profession, who are as committed to inquisitive and explicit and relevant anti-bias work, in trying to create anti-bias attitudes in others, and in recognizing our own cultural identities and “perspectives” (40) in order to do this work, as I think we all ought to be.

On Monday, I was part of a group that co-facilitated a discussion on readings that addressed race/culture/diversity and equity in a schooling context. It was wrought with emotion, with discomfort, and it was quickly apparent to me that I’ve been relatively sheltered in this uber-liberal, politically engaged city. My opinions about race relations and the ways in which racism and sexism have been institutionalized are ones I learned from my undergraduate education in a liberal university, my political beliefs (very liberal), as well as my own experiences. They are the opinions of most, if not all, of my friends. They are the opinions I have accepted as factual and I defend them with vehemence.

So sitting in on some of my classmates’ discussions on Monday and hearing opinions that didn’t mirror my own was somewhat of a surprise. I might say I was even a little disappointed? Partly because I’m self-centered and I want everyone to agree with me and tell me how right I am, but mostly because I wanted to know that my fellow future-teachers would be as dedicated to being anti-“colorblind,” as I am. And as I was reading “Playing With Gender,” noting that Pelo lives and works in this wonderful city, I began forming explicit reasons for why I think the way I do, why I agree so much with Pelo’s analysis of the importance of culturally relevant and anti-bias work.

Living in a liberal, highly educated city means most of the people I know acknowledge that being white comes with certain privileges in America. This is not to group all individuals of one race together and assume they all share the same experiences, but to say that there are groups of people (with some exceptions, of course) who have been and continue to be excluded from educational, economical, democratic successes and are marginalized by our government and society.

I once had it explained to me by a professor, who was explaining a reading (and of course I can’t remember the author), that being white is the “normative,” and everything else is the “other.” And because white is the norm, and because of the historical actions that created and protected the hierarchy of race, the inherent benefits of being white that we often think are a thing of the past has actually continued and is just as relevant today as it was during the Civil Rights Movement.

It’s hard to label whites as being privileged, because there are many people from many different backgrounds who are also privileged and there are innumerable white people who live in the margins, but I think it’s impossible to ignore the concreteness of white privilege (even while it’s a complex, often abstracted issue). One thing I would posit is that white people are judged little by the color of their skin; since white is the norm, everyone accepts that white people  should be differentiated by their individual identities. Do black, teenaged boys get this same privilege? A white privilege is not to be held to a stereotype as other races are; a white privilege is that everyone accepts that white people are different from each other. On the other hand, people of color often have similar experiences and while we often quickly identify with someone else from our minority group, it’s still disheartening to be held to a stereotype knowing you possess an individual identity that exists without those stereotypes.

If anyone actually reads my little ramblings here, I hope they don’t assume I’m hostile to white people or that I think white people should be punished for their privileges. I think hostility towards people who are white because they are white is misdirected hostility towards the institutionalization and inherency of the benefits of being white. I just think if you are lucky enough to have any privilege at all, you should make sure that privilege stops being a privilege and make sure it becomes the norm. Also, these same arguments could be made for the state of gender equality in this country. Boy, do men have it good. 😉

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1 Comment

  1. Excellent thoughts. Race does matter, but not in all ways equal. One thing White people almost never have to deal with on any regular kind of basis is comments made to and about them based solely on their skin color. They may be showered with a variety of other slurs that know no race boundaries (based on socioeconomics, geography, gender orientation, and so on), but rarely can they recall a litany of race based comments. If they CAN tell you anything in particular it’s often because it’s so rare that it’s memorable.

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