School & District Management Opinion

Am I Good Enough? The Burden of Privilege and Poverty

By Marilyn Rhames — April 24, 2013 5 min read
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When my younger sister took a job at a prominent suburban high school, one of the most affluent schools in Illinois, she couldn’t believe her eyes. Students received Porsches and Mercedes Benzes for their 16th birthdays and parked them in the school’s parking lot. They had house parties at their mansions that rivaled an inaugural ball. In fact, the school built a million dollar digital music studio and radio station on its sprawling campus because the students wanted one.

One time, the students asked my sister to teach a dance class after school to prepare them for prom. After some back and forth with the administration about pay, my sister told the students that she wouldn’t be able to teach the class. They were livid.

The kids complained to the school administration, who in turn chastised my sister. “Don’t ever tell our students what they can’t have,” they told her. “They can have whatever they want. We just have to figure out how to give it to them.”

That’s the definition of privilege. While many of these “privileged” kids suffered from depression, suicidal thoughts, and drug addiction, the message they consistently received at home and school was that they deserved the very best.

Most of my students, and other students in poor communities across America, get told the exact opposite—though words are rarely used. They live in food deserts, where the only place they can buy their milk and eggs is at the local gas station or the corner candy store. Their school’s playground equipment is 30 years old, rusty and unsafe. Even the special education services they are mandated to receive by federal law come intermittently because there are too many kids on one teacher’s caseload.

That was my life when I was coming up. And because of it, I still find myself asking, “Am I good enough?”

I suppose rich white kids from the suburbs and poor black kids from the ghetto may both ask that question, but for different reasons. Even today, I have to actively defy my internal default response that’s set to “No!”

When a leadership position at my school opens up, I battle within myself as to whether I have the skills to do the job. But then I watch a 25 year old with only three years of teaching experience waltz in and confidently own the position. That’s what privilege will do for you.

And privilege exalts privilege. Before you know it, everybody who has grown up in privilege is your boss and those who haven’t are your co-workers. And if those who aren’t privileged do finally become your boss, they have battle scars and harrowing stories about their rise to the top.

Hiring qualified people from low economic, minority backgrounds may seem riskier for employers. While anyone hired to a new position will need a measure of mentoring, I imagine that people from my side of the tracks might appear to be a bigger investment; after all, we often require more time and effort to norm ourselves to the dominate, privileged culture.

The intangible qualities like our life experiences, diversity of thought, or ability to relate to other disadvantaged people are too often dimmed by the color of our skin, the ethnic pronunciation of our names, and all the negative stereotypes that go along with it.

I watched in amazement as the students at Lane Tech High School in Chicago staged a heated protest over a book the district abruptly pulled from the suggested reading list. The protest was covered by both metropolitan newspapers and the evening news. The students were outraged that their right to be taught from a particular book in school was retracted; after all there is such a thing as freedom of the press.

Lane Tech is a selective enrollment school, which means that only top-scoring teenagers in the city can earn the right to attend there. These students, like the ones at my sister’s former school, take great pride in their privilege.

When the hoopla was over, the school district put the book back on the list.

All this was occurring at the same time CPS had 149 schools on the list of potential closures. The district finally announced its decision to shutter 54 neighborhood schools because they are “underutilized” and underperforming. This move will affect more than 30,000 students in the city, causing many of the kids to walk twice as far to school, through rival gang territory.

Parents, students and teachers shouted, cried, and pleaded at hearings upon hearings, and protest upon protest, asking the district not to close the schools. Almost all of these schools are located in poor, minority neighborhoods. No privilege. No voice.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel says he is doing it to help the community and the schools—communities he’ll never live in and schools his children will never attend. The new CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett asked, “Where were the parent protests when the schools were underperforming?” How condescending.

I have done Christian missionary work on and off for years, and rule number one is to never think that you are better than the people you are trying to help. The advancements you bring to the community must be in collaboration with the community, not forced onto them; otherwise, your good intentions will inevitably fail.

I grew up on welfare checks and food stamps. In fact, I still live in the ‘hood! Several of my brothers and sisters were laid off during the recession, and they are still unemployed. I am not ashamed of who I am. I am not ashamed of my family. So why do I sometimes still ask, “Am I good enough?”

Last year I was nominated for a Bammy Award for excellence in teaching in the category of “Education Commentator/Blogger.” I was too embarrassed to ask anyone to go online to vote for me. I told myself, You don’t deserve it. You’ll never win. It was a self-fulling prophesy.

I attended the black-tie ceremony in Washington, D.C. It was distinguished and elegant. But it wasn’t very diverse; only one or two people of color graced the stage to receive an award out of about two dozen. I accepted partial blame because I didn’t advocate for myself.

I was honored with another nomination this year, and things have changed. I’m no longer ashamed to ask you to please vote for me!

The best way for me to answer the question, “Am I good enough?” is to consider my daughters, my husband, my mom, my friends, my church—my God—and I have no other choice but to answer “Of course!” If I don’t believe in myself, how then can I truly love and respect the people in my life? They are my joy and reason for living.

I suppose for many people, they never reach that conclusion. Perhaps that’s why there is so much killing on the impoverished side of town.

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.