Today we had the second in a round of community conversations designed to help our school have discussions about race and privilege. In the first rounds students led conversations about identity that centered around family traditions, food, culture and holidays. Today we split into affinity groups based on race and discussed the benefits and challenges of looking a certain way.
I was in the European American faculty group which was so large it had to be divided into two rooms. The other groups for faculty were Asian, African American and interracial and those were much smaller. We started the conversation with a discussion about our heritage. I said “I’m Irish, but I don’t think it affects who I am. If I was German I don’t think that my life would be any different.” Most teachers felt similarly to me and the discussion felt a little pointless. Someone asked if anyone identified with their ancestry and a few mentioned having certain holidays or food or traditions from their European country of origin. The point of the conversation was to think of one myth about being white and it was proposed that the myth was that we should all be lumped together because of our skin color and that we came from lots of countries. People seemed to have trouble with the fact that we were put into the white box. I pushed back. Do you really think about your ancestor’s country all that much? Would you life be very different if you didn’t eat certain food on holidays? Do you think about your race every day when you interact with the world? They all admitted that we didn’t and we decided that a benefit and challenge of being white was being able to not think about our skin color.
We had the inevitable discussion about our student’s lack of awareness of their privilege and our professional responsibility to do something about it. We talked about a school exchange where students trade schools for a day with a struggling school and one teacher says it’s like “yeah, field trip! We are going slumming.” Another equated it to a field trip to the zoo. We also wondered how it would make the kids feel from the disadvantaged school. What are we supposed to do with our privilege? It’s so easy to get lost in academia. They read Kozol’s Savage Inequalities in class and then forget about it as soon as they are done with their essay. Life is stressful and full and it’s hard to be bombarded with inequity. It’s hard to be white and even talk about race without worrying that you’ll say something incredibly offensive. I remember my first year teaching when a group of students told the administration I was racist because I gave them some statistics about the achievement gap. I was also called into the principal’s office for the comment because he wanted to make sure that I didn’t think that I was at “one of those schools” you hear about in articles about the achievement gap. I wanted to ask “why were you so desperate as to hire a 22 year old with no experience then?”
After the conversation we went back to class and I asked the students what they had talked about. The big theme was that sometimes the school prevents potentially offensive messages in the school plays because they offend a few people. They thought that it was better to offend and have conversations. It’s a tough call as an administrator. I made the point that reading Huck Finn is not condoning the use of the n-word or the racism it describes. I told my students about TFA. About crying on the floor after class. About how I used to fail 40 % of my students and now I fail none and my grading is much harder now.
We talked about how 100% of my school now goes to college and only 50% of my old school graduated. I told them how hard it was. Some admitted to having no idea what other schools were like. One offered that the best we could do was try to make a difference and to give back. Couldn’t we be doing more of that now? We spend so much time on sports(which are great), school activities and fill our days too full to actually interact with less privileged students in the community. And I’m not sure what exactly to do about it. At some point hanging out in our privileged white world becomes immoral but also at some point spending our whole life in misery becomes counter productive. They asked me if I had a culture shock when I arrived at my new school. I told them I was in shock that my printer worked and couldn’t believe kids would complain about the food. 20 minutes later we were working on Calculus. Lost in integration and far away from thinking about what is happening at other schools.