Excuse Me, Your Privilege Is Showing (White Privilege in Ed Reform)

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose, Race32 Comments


It always starts when someone brings up a point about race within your “own” ranks.

Whatever that means.

I’m OK with taking on the role as education’s Race Man, but the more I write about it, the more prevalent these discussions become. It’s almost as if people are waiting for [insert name of favorite White leader / blogger / activist / ed professor] to come in and tell you what you need to hear instead of listening to the concerned citizens of color right next to you, so let me come out and say this: this ride has many seats, so if you fall into the following, sit in all of them at once.

People within education reform ostensibly fall into three rails: the education reformers, the neo-lib-conservative conglomerate that calls themselves education reformers, and the maker-spacers / ed-techers who don’t want to get too involved with the politics because it’s so yucky-ucky-ucky. In all cases, everyone’s in agreement that these reforms and laws aren’t about rich students, but poor students. The dialogue always goes rich-poor-rich-poor when in reality, we also mean “richwhite-poorblack-richwhite-poorblack.” Most of us get that even when some of my White brethren have a hard time saying Black and use African-American instead. (It’s cool, but I’m not African American. I’m Black. See?)

What I and so many of us also see is that race also works as a sort of shield for people whenever they want to take a higher moral position on things, yet these aforementioned rails don’t want to tackle racism (and sexism and classism) within their own ranks.

How often do we put race as a corner discussion? How often does a White person need to speak up whenever there’s a lack of diversity before a person gets it? How often does a person only get it when the blame isn’t on them or when a Black person pats them on the head and says “It’ll be OK?” How often can you count on the leaders of your movement to be anything other than White?

That’s why when people say, “Oh, talking about white privilege is divisive,” I’m quick to point out that white privilege itself is divisive, and the more you treat us as if we should just shut up and fall in line with whatever the leader says, the more we’re inclined to step away even if we agree with the leadership’s politics.

If you’re an educator on any level, you can’t escape out of the race discussion either. How do you discuss school without discussing who attends, who teaches them, who they learn about and who funds their schooling? How do you discuss school without looking at your colleagues and comparing them to the make-up of the student body? How do you discuss school without struggling to sift through the pertinent angst all people of color feel in a set of reforms that’s specifically meant for children of color?

This discussion merits depth and honesty, and it shouldn’t just find a home in my blog. I’m fortunate I have an audience for these thoughts. What of my other thousands of colleagues who don’t? You better listen.

Comments 32

  1. Mr. Vilson, Larry Ferlazzo pointed out this piece on Twitter, thanks to both of you.
    Perhaps the answer to the equity question and public representation is the same answer – when more People of Color believe in their own ability to the point of persisting in learning, growing, becoming resilient in the face of social challenge and develop into strong voices and leaders (like you), we’ll get more diversity! (But you knew that.) Culture creates chasms for us, when there are no role models.

    1. Edit of above:

      “Perhaps the answer to the equity question & public representation is the same answer – when more People of Noncolor stop believing that their own success and persistence is due to something innate in them and recognize that they are also due to a combination of privilege, social status, and wealth, then we’ll get more diversity!”

  2. I hope the first comment was tongue in cheek–but I fear it was not.

    The words shine a spotlight on Jose’s point, and it reflects what too many teachers believe–if these kids would just persist/grow/bounce back/develop and pull themselves up by their Nike-straps, the problem magically disappears. But it’s never us, it’s always those people.

  3. The NCLB with its testing and replacing public schools with charter schools was and still is an attack against black and hispanic students. The real program is the fact that the government wants to stop putting money into urban schools and sell them to corporations. Cities lack a sound tax base and it is easier to convince parents that the urban public schools are failing and charter schools are better. Suburban parents pay more attention to what is going on in their child’s school, they show up on report card night and they generally support their neighborhood schools because they take an active part in what the school and their child is doing. All of these educational reforms have nothing to do with caring for students it is all about making money . The new common core standards, all of these so called research on students learning, the new words (effective, ineffective, rigorous) were created by what individual or group? No one cares about students in America, especially if you are black. If the government really cared about black students or hispanic students they would improve the cities by creating jobs, helping all public schools, supporting urban families and have black and hispanic teachers involved educational reform.

  4. As a white teacher with a student body of 100% students of color, I worry about this. I’m hoping that I do right by my students. We have honest conversations about what life was like for me in middle school & how much harder they have to work to be successful–that it’s not fair but right now it’s reality, but sometimes I look around in the city where I live & think that educators/”reformers” are overwhelmingly so white & so young. There are so many programs that encourage people to climb the ladder as fast as possible without spending much time in the classroom. It worries me. Thanks for your thoughts and a reminder that I do have a voice that can help.

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  5. That first comment…
    “When more people of color start believing in their own abilities…”

    I worked in a school for 8 years where I was told to “stay in my place”. I watched as others with limited abilities were given opportunities that I was not yet I was their “go to” for 100% of the work that they were given credit for.

    Let me be real in saying that for some, black and smart can be a “threatening combo”.

    Watching a lesser qualified white applicant get a leadership job over an extremely higher qualified black applicant is still normal for many of us.

    Do you want to know how I got my first teaching job in the place that doesn’t hire black? I tutored the superintendent’s kids in her office in front of her. Yes, I had to “prove” myself. No one else had to do that.

    The day that these conversations can cease will happen when a person like me can walk into a room to do a training (in my case, tech) and NOT be met with surprise because I am black.

    Or even in my current job as a district level tech specialist where my ideas are often overpowered by the man/woman in the room who are saying no different…

    Some of us are still fighting for our voices on a daily basis.
    Personally, I don’t fight to be heard. Instead, I just do…speak…teach and share. I do this knowing that for some, it won’t even matter until a certain blonde haired blue eyed man says the same…truth

    Coincidence or Priveledge

  6. …And even when there are more authentic, probing, honest conversations about diversity and privilege in many of our schools–beyond the scope of policy, and entering the territory of pedagogy and practice–many folks’ concerns as teachers and leaders, as parents and children, as people of color and white folks, remain relegated to some ‘value added’ territory of affective, environmental, or ‘cultural’ conditions which are understood as secondary to the ‘real’ business of learning.

    Many folks continue to view ‘diversity’ as a matter having primarily to do with ‘cultural sensitivity’ (which implies that a normative, primarily white constituency, should be sympathetic to the ‘plight’ of people of color. That’s not it.). When do we shift our collective conversation to one about cultural competency at the core of the learning experience itself–every bit as critical, and inextricably intertwined with, those ‘twenty-first century skills’ we can all list off on 4, 5, or 6 fingers. . . Can we foster an understanding that ‘diversity’ isn’t only about ‘representation,’ ‘fairness,’ or ‘community’ to which learning and teaching are tethered–but that cross-cultural competency is essential for all children to collaborate, to create, to think critically, to communicate, to solve problems, and to learn to function in a democracy?

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  7. You’re right: “poor” is a substitute for students of color for most educators. You’re right: most white educators don’t want to confront their/our own racism. I had the honor and privilege of teaching in a mostly black high school, and now that I’m in an almost all white high school after my school was closed, I find myself dealing with flashes of rage I thought I’d dealt with. It’s disgusting to me that it’s 2013, and I still have to explain my students’ racism to them and still have students tell me they shouldn’t have to learn Spanish because those Mexicans should learn English. it’s hard not to be angry.

    1. When I was a young teacher, I met a black woman who opened my eyes to something that I never forgot. She was talking about her son who was off at baseball summer camp and she was feeling really sad about a letter he sent home. He told her that sometimes all he wanted to do was get better at playing ball and he didn’t want to have to think about race all the time.

      It isn’t that we don’t need to check ourselves or that we’ll solve it all if we just ignore race; it certainly isn’t that we’re post racial. But, a 24/7 diet of race relations is a good way to warp a kid. Sometimes you do more for a kid when you let them focus on their game.

      1. Post

        OK, so.

        What that Black kid will also notice, as I and so many others have noticed, is that trying to ignore race wasn’t going to work. Instead, we have to confront our issues with race head on. We can’t turn our skin colors or facial features off, so 24/7 is ridiculous. I don’t think about white privilege every second of my life, and no one should, lest they either feel defeated or angry (or both). It’s just a matter of putting the conversation out there. For a minute, I’m starting to think you’re trying to explain away this conversation instead of trying to work within it. Perhaps this post was about you before I knew you.

        1. I’m not sure what you’re saying when you say “perhaps this post was about you before I knew you.” I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with anyone. I’m just thinking as I type on your blog. I’m interested in the discussion and testing out my own ideas as well as reading yours and others. I’m putting it out there because I’m interested in your thoughts on the matter. But, I put it in the wrong place because it was supposed to be its own comment. It’s not related to any one else’s comment. (It appears related to Carina Hilbert but it isn’t.)

          My point is that kids (adults too) need to be able to get out of themselves and step away from their conditions and their labels. What are you when you aren’t self limited? Race keeps you connected to your tribe, but it also keeps you current with your pertinent angst. That’s fine and it is necessary. But, it can also be destructive. I’m an adult, fully formed and already carved into by my life. Kids are in development. What we do to them now is with them for life.

          I believe that sometimes the best thing we can do for them is let them be about their talents and their interests. Not as little 24/7 representatives of their tribe, but as little unselfconscious vessels for their passions. In this regard, everyone should have their moments of joy and being. When you’re hiking in the woods, or playing an instrument or reading something really wonderful. That little boy was articulating that need and his mother was feeling for him. And it woke me up. That’s what I would want to give to my children if I had them and it’s what I want to give to my students. No one says that he or anyone should avoid race, but I think it’s important that race not be on the front burner all the time in a child’s development. It reminds me of an old friend of mine whose father was a concentration camp survivor. As a kid growing up, his family was never allowed to have a single unmarred joy in life. When his mother’s sister had her first child, she came rushing home to tell her husband. He sat there and didn’t look at her and said, “I’ve been an uncle before.” The context of course is that all of his family was killed. This is of course important and real and part of their lives forever. But, it left no joy possible. I think that a self realized parent understands that a balance must be reached or they will be a source of damage for their own children. Maybe I don’t want to look at ugly a little bit, but I don’t think I’m wrong nonetheless. I think that’s an important piece of information for educators and parents to remember.

          I also think that it’s fruitful to remember that in some important ways we address inequity sideways. One of the little ironies of life is that sometimes you’re working it when you don’t think you’re working it. (It reminds me of my husband who never wants to talk things out. And I always always always want to talk about it. Did I say always? Well, it turns out that he’s right. Sometimes you need to talk, but sometimes all you really need to do is act as if.)

  8. Yes. Your second to last paragraph (the one beginning with “If you’re an educator…”) is what I’ve been trying to say for the last year. Getting teachers to talk to other teachers about race is painfully slow-going. I am frustrated by how many white people I interact with think they’ve “solved it” for themselves. They are unwilling to discuss race and the effect of white privilege and the systematic disenfranchisement of Black and Latino students on our public school system. It is really heavy lifting to get white people to move from “I’m not racist. People are all the same.” to “White privilege is real and damaging to our society. I will examine how I benefit from it and work to be actively anti-racist.”

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      1. So… thinking about what I meant and reflecting on some of the other comments that have been made on here since, I think I can unpack some of the “solving something for yourself” that some white folks are doing.

        When I first visited New Orleans, (a lot of years ago, and long before I was a teacher) somebody made a comment about “yankees” and then looked at me and said, “no offense”. And I had a weird moment, where I thought, “Oh, right. I guess I am a Yankee.” Similarly, when I was first in the classroom, my students would make comments about “white people” and look at me and say “no offense” and I would startle a bit because I didn’t consider myself one of THOSE white people.

        And I think one of the most insidious characteristics of white privilege is how you can not think about your race when you’re white. I walk around and I’m a person, not a white person. That makes the race conversations seem optional. And I think a lot of the folks who talk about not talking about it so much because it’s too stressful or uncomfortable… that makes sense if it’s optional.

        One of the things I’ve learned through teaching a bunch of non-white kids and having my own little brown baby is that race isn’t optional for them. It’s not optional and they are not just made uncomfortable by racism, they are disenfranchised and even endangered. (Ranisha McBride comes to mind as my step-son turns 16 in Michigan and gets his license.)

        So when I say they’ve “solved it for themselves,” I guess what I mean is that they don’t talk about it. They don’t make overtly racist remarks most of the time, and then they don’t have to worry about it, because it doesn’t come up. And those of us who don’t think of it as optional keep trying to start the conversation.

  9. I just Skyped with a class this morning. Things were fine when we brought up maker spaces and tech and writing. But then someone asked me about immigration and the racial make-up of my school (being in Arizona).

    I saw people shifting in their seats as I talked about how my students were treated, how some of them were now in foster care because they were citizens but their parents had been deported (it happens more than you think).

    I’m not sure I agree with white-black. It is often, in our region, a white-brown (for lack of a better term) issue.

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  10. Having discussions about race is scary. Period. There is just no denying that fact. It makes people uncomfortable. No one wants to say the wrong thing. At least that is my honest opinion.

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      1. I agree that we need to talk about these issues, but I have seen well-intentioned people skewered when attempting to be honest and open. Of course there really is no safe ground on the internet. Perhaps taking the risk is the only way to know if our thoughts and ideas are racist, to know who is offended. Of course if you read the comments on many sites it’s obvious that a lot of people just don’t care if they are racist. They often own their ignorance out loud. Keep on prompting Jose.

        1. No ‘safe ground’ in Life. Only engaged or disengaged, right? You’re right about the education received online & in person, often painful. Being willing to receive a painful lesson means becoming educated, and we are all becoming something. Some of you are more articulate than the rest of us, but what’s the point of being if we’re not trying to become something better? We should all learn to own our ignorance out loud & aim for improvement. I’m paler-than-pale and have a brown son that I love more than life. His father & I couldn’t make it work, seriously confused & ignorant in our own (unique, love-ugly) ways… but our child is becoming something new, someone better than both of us. I intend to learn a bit more before I leave, but what I hope most sincerely for our son is that he will continue to engage! Participate or bleed to death slowly

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  13. It seems I have stumbled upon your blog on a good week. Let me extend some of your words to reach a larger issue. “I’m quick to point out that white privilege itself is divisive…” I can say that any talk of social identities can be divisive.
    Let me pose an example. At happen to be a Residential Advisor at a University that has a decent social justice conscious. As a Residential Advisor, we are trained to talk about issues not just about race and privilege but all social differences. We brought up an event that was shut down due to inappropriate descriptions (a party calling for certain costumes). As a staff we came together to talk about it and even though we all agreed that the event was rightfully shut down, we came back to the problem of “Talking about it.” Some felt that “Talking About It” was in itself targeting them because they are the ones that were originally targeted and would inevitably have the most to say. Let me say again that we are trained to handle these issues but even amongst us, the topic was divisive.
    My question follows along these lines. How do we set up a space where we can talk about race and such issues? Yes, I agree that we need to talk about it. We can’t go colorblind and assume that all racism will just disappear if we tuck it away in the corner. How?
    I am a pre-service teacher looking to move into a high needs school (rural or urban). I am caught right in the middle of this problem. I am of color but I am not black. My family has moved from poverty to the middle class. Overall, I have privilege and I know what it was like to not have it. So how do I use this as leverage in the future?

  14. Similar to Heather’s comment above, I am a white female working (student teaching) in a school that is made up almost entirely of students of color, along with my colleague Vi who commented above (Hi, Vi!). I grew up attending a high school with a pretty diverse student population, yet my neighborhood was almost entirely white. Race was not something that we typically talked about in school, but I think this needs to change. Yet, in my placement school I find that the students are much less shy about bringing up issues of race than students were in my high school. I feel that these conversations are important, but I feel that I am not ready to facilitate these discussions quite yet. I am planning on teaching in a high-need area once I receive my certification, but these conversations are important anywhere and I should be prepared to have them. How do you think preservice teachers (no matter their background or future placement) can be better trained to facilitate conversations about race?

    Additionally, I’d like to point out your statement, “How often can you count on the leaders of your movement to be anything other than White?” as a powerful one. Are you talking specifically about the education reform movement, or social justice movements in general? My students have many passions and I want to be able to motivate them to stand up for their passions and know that they can make a difference. What are some first steps I can take to instill this confidence in my students?

    Thank you for this post, I plan on reading more of your blog in the future.

    1. Post

      Rachael, this merits a thorough response, but, because we’re blogging here, I’ll be brief:

      You want to check out any work by Beverly Daniel Tatum, but specifically Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria? and Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children. Maybe that can be a start, especially since it gives you some common terms to work from.

      Secondly, it’s about a shared experience. Making sure everyone feels comfortable sharing or listening, as so many of you have done here, is important.

      Third, I meant any of the ed reform movements, whether we agree with them or not. Now that you mention it, though, this post could have had the words “education” replaced with any social justice movement and it would still work. Sadly.

      Thank you!

      1. Thank you for that thoughtful response, Jose. I actually have purchased Lisa Delpit’s book, but have not had time to read it yet. It will be the first on my list over winter break. Thank you for suggesting Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book, as well. I am always looking for more resources for how to develop myself as a transformative educator, so this is helpful. I truly appreciate your advice.

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