Equity & Diversity Opinion

Racism and White Privilege: There Is Always More to Learn

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 16, 2017 6 min read
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Schools reinforce societal values...but should they? It is part of the intention of public schools, isn’t it? Preparing children to grow into contributing citizens in our society is certainly part of the curriculum. Educators carry with them the limits and biases of the society as well as the mores that make us a civil society. Without realizing it, and with no bad intention, schools reinforce the effects of racism and send graduates off who are holding those very societal values we have to change.

Racism Affects Everyone

Race and racism are serious topics. They flow beneath the surface and occasionally erupt just to show us, if we are paying attention, that they are still alive. Only if we intentionally tap into that hidden stream can we stop it at its source. Watch an Asian man, bloodied on a plane, or a Middle Eastern doctor wearing a hijab enter a hospital room or a person on a phone whose English is difficult to understand or a black man in a hoodie at your front door, it surges up and we put it down. Our purpose in having this conversation is not to teach, but hopefully to enter a place where we can reflect and reveal our own and others hidden voices so we can explore and listen and choose with awareness. It is prompted by a recent story we were told of an experience some teaching students had in a foreign country. It made us think about the nexus of cultural differences and racism and when and how one becomes the other. Here’s the story.

A student studying to be a teacher chose to be sent to Africa for some of her student teaching. She had been there before on a mission and loved the people she met, so the idea of doing a six-week practicum in Ethiopia was exciting. Upon arriving at the school she, along with the two other candidates who came from the US, came up against their first culture shock. In the town, they were surrounded by a group of men and each of them had their pockets picked. Because they were somewhat prepared, their valuables were safely tucked away but things like sunglasses and loose change were taken. It was the physical grabbing and the intrusion into personal space that led them to their first feelings of vulnerability. Next they reported for duty at the school. Although there was a language barrier, the teachers they were working with all spoke English, but often not when speaking to eachother leaving the students aside. This presented a second assault resulting in vulnerability. Questions they were asked included, “What does your name mean?” In Ethiopian culture names have important meanings and the fact that these American’s has no idea what their names meant resulted in a third feeling of estrangement and vulnerability. With Internet access, each of the students looked up the meanings their names held and shared them. That was received as a bridge of understanding. Yet the three American students still felt the sting of being viewed as a minority, as outsiders, a new experience for these three white women from America. They felt vulnerable and they wondered if those feelings were a result of racism or cultural differences with an awakening awareness about how people back home felt and were treated when they were part of the minority.

For them, we are hopeful that bridge building continues and common ground of professionalism and care will allow them to learn what they went there to learn and give what they went there to give. We also hope they can be teachers about white American women and our culture to those Ethiopians who become part of their lives for these six weeks.

White Privilege is Omnipresent

There are multilayerd lessons for those of us who live with white privilege in America and take it for granted. The first thing that came to mind was how our ELL students must feel. Just like these nursing students, the language they are surrounded by is not one they understand. The efforts on our part to teach them our language are important, but the underlying message is their language must be changed so we can unite and communicate and so they can learn in ours. We are teaching them to be like us. With the best of intentions, our message is clear or it can be so subtly misconstrued...they are less, we are more. The slide from culture into racism and the gap between intent and receipt.

We attach stories to things and people. Things have meaning as they become stories to us. Humans have always told stories. Team logos, car logos, and sneaker brands carry stories and meanings for all of us. So does the color of people’s skin. In her book, Waking up White, Debby Irving wrote:

I realize that for years, when I spoke about an encounter with a white person, I would say something like, “I met the sweetest lady this morning” or “One of my students brought me a delicious brownie today.” The term “white” was always assumed. On the other hand, for people of color, I was more likely to insert a label. “I met the funniest guy, a black buy, waiting for the bus today,” or “Rosie, my Haitian student, made a beautiful bracelet for me today.” People of color get labels, complete with narratives and stereotypes (p.89).

The media reinforces stories connected to skin color all the time. We see black men portrayed as criminals in television shows, news reports arrests referring to suspects as black, or Hispanic, or now Syrian or Iraqi, or Muslim. If a suspect is white, or Christian, it goes unsaid. This all perpetrates the underlying belief that those descriptors separate and identify someone not of the mainstream.

The media reinforces a very negative story about poverty and race. As white educators in order to best serve all of our students, waking up to the nuance of racism and how it plays out in our words and actions is important. If we don’t admit that we have bias, and reach for new stories, and question our own actions students won’t question their own. Consider this from Anaïs Nin “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

Opening Minds Begins with the Adults

Begin somewhere. Have a book study, or watch one of the many movies that have graced the screen recently. Reading or watching with others and having safe and open and courageous conversations can open doors. It will require patience because we all have learned to survive together even if we are beneath the surface feeling superior or fearful. The population of students in our classrooms now are growing more diverse. And, certainly, the adult world our students will enter will be more diverse. In the words of Hillel, If not now, when? If you want a starting place, these are some of the current films and books driving our thinking.

Waking Up White And Finding Myself In The Story Of Race by Debby Irving
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story Of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
The New Jim Crow Mass: Incarceration In The Age Of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

I Am Not Your Negro
Hidden Figures

Irving, D. (2014). Waking Up White and Finding Myself in theStory of Race. Cambridge, MA: Elephant Room Press

Photo by Emily Nickerson

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.