I am aware that some people may be offended by this post. If that happens, just know that that isn’t my intent.
I recently finished reading the novel, Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult, who is one of my favorite modern authors. I just can’t stop thinking about some of its messages.
I previously wrote a post entitled My White Privilege and another one called Admitting Your White Privilege Doesn’t Make You Racist, but now, after reading the book, I think that I have to disagree with the title of that second blog. I think that it does make me racist. Not racist in an “I hate black people” kind of way, but in a more hidden manner.
Towards the end of the novel, one of the attorneys makes the distinction between active and passive racism. Active racism is blatantly obvious to the outside world; it is those who consider themselves to be white supremacists, those who yell obscenities to those who look different from themselves.
Most people do not fall under that category. More people are passively racist, even those who, like myself, are sometimes aware of our white privilege. The attorney in the novel provides examples: not asking why there is only one black person hired in your workplace, not asking why slavery is the only item covered in a child’s textbook in terms of black history.
I am a high school English teacher in an urban school district. My classes are composed of mainly black and Hispanic students. I like to think that I am helping to reverse the problems accompanying racism.
But then the book has a character on the jury who is just like me. She feels like she couldn’t possibly be racist as a result of the students she teaches in her classroom. But is that enough? Does she understand their struggle? She is actually the person that the public defender is most nervous about, since she has racism lurking beneath the surface, racism that she is completely unaware of.
I wrote a blog acknowledging my white privilege, but do I truly understand the extent of it?
I try to connect with my students in the beginning of the year by writing them a letter in which I open myself up to them. I explain how my upbringing wasn’t all sunshines and rainbows. I want them to feel a closeness to me so that they can be vulnerable in their own writing, particularly in their college essays.
I teach them all year that they can reach their dreams if they work hard enough. But is that really true?
Did I become a teacher as a result of hard work and determination? Absolutely. But did my skin color facilitate the process? I’d have to answer that as “absolutely” as well.
Is hard work and determination truly enough? I don’t think I can honestly say that it is. Sure, people will name a bunch of members of society who happen to be black and also successful. Barack Obama is a name that comes up quickly, despite the fact that he is only half black. Oprah. Will Smith. Colin Powell.
Sure, there are examples, but the problem is that they are still the minority, and I would argue that they had to work harder to get to their place in society than a white person in the same position.
Did I work hard to become a teacher? Yes. But I didn’t have to prove myself through a mask of black skin.
I had a mother who, despite being a single mom working multiple jobs to put food on the table, knew that my education was key. Yet she, too, was white. Had she been a black single mom, life would have been even more difficult. She may not have been hired at some of the jobs she had. She would have been viewed even more negatively than she already was for being a single mom. People may have simply assumed that she had been promiscuous, not even considering that she could have been divorced, and for valid reasons at that.
I will never be able to say that I fully understand the black experience in America, no matter how much I learn about it. I am fascinated by it since I teach so many minority students, but I can never truly understand. I also read the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration and the Age of Color Blindedness by Michelle Alexander since I am so frustrated by the racism that pervades the American justice system. But can I say that I truly grasp it? No.
I was given a gift of privilege from the moment of conception: to be a white baby born in the United States. I could have been born in a third world country. I could have been born with the odds stacked against me. I could have been born poor and black in America. But I wasn’t. My whiteness was and continues to be my pass.
If I am pulled over by a police officer, I do not have to fear being shot for no reason. I will not likely have my car searched for drugs. I have a good chance of getting away with a warning for speeding because I am white.
I can wander aimlessly through department stores without being watched by employees who think that I may shoplift.
I can be hired at a job and not have people brush it off and say that I was just a result of affirmative action and a school meeting its quota.
In the afterward to her book, Picoult writes that “In America, we like to think that the reason we have had success is that we worked hard or we were smart. Admitting that racism has played a part in our success means admitting that the American dream isn’t quite so accessible to all.”
She explains how she asked white mothers how often they have to talk to their children about racism and they said that it was discussed either rarely or never. When the same question was pointed toward black mothers, they said “every day.”
Picoult says that “ignorance is a privilege, too.”
I can pretend that I’m not racist by ignoring racism. But could I ignore such racism if I were black? No; rather, it would be a part of my daily life. I can ignore racism if I choose because it doesn’t directly affect my life.
I can say that I understand because I will soon be marrying a man who is half black and half white. But he is still viewed by most as a white male, thanks to his light complexion. If he cuts his hair short, he can hide behind this false whiteness. He knows better than to grow his hair out into an afro before a job interview.
If we have children, I don’t know yet what they will look like. Will their quarter of blackness haunt them? Or will they get my blue eyes and trick the world into thinking that they are Anglos to the core?
Ignoring racism or acting like it doesn’t exist perpetuates the problem. Racism does exist and when we say that it doesn’t, we’re doing a disservice to all of the people who are victims of racism on a daily basis.
When I tell my students that they can all achieve their dreams with hard work and determination, I am telling them a lie. Sure, they may achieve their dreams if they work hard, but what I fail to tell them is that they will have to work harder than I ever did.
They will have to live every day fighting against societal ignorance. They will have to dress even more neatly and speak even more politely in order to be respected. They will have to treat police officers with a higher degree of respect than any white person would, yet they may still be viewed as guilty.
They will have to conform to the standards of white society. If their natural hair is too kinky, too nappy, or too wild, they will be viewed in a negative way. If they happen to enjoy hip hop and rap music, they will be considered a thug. If they pronounce a word differently than me, they may be seen as illiterate. If their skin is too dark, they will be passed up for a job in favor for the light-skinned person who has no better qualifications, just less melanin.
I have my AP students complete what I call my “Be the Change” project at the end of the school year. One of my Haitian students brought up race as a topic.
She said how her mother had her use skin lightening cream as a child since she was so dark. She would be deemed more beautiful when her skin appeared lighter. She also explained how this is completely normal for black people; yet this is something that I did not even know existed.
Fortunately, she is now proud of her natural skin and she is an incredibly intelligent, talented young woman. However, she still has the odds stacked against her. She will still be judged more harshly than I was. She must push upstream against a current that is much stronger than the one I fought against. Her work ethic may be mistakenly viewed as a simple result of affirmative action initiatives. Why? Because she was born into the “wrong” skin color.
And people who are unaware of their racism will call her African American, because they think that the term “black” sounds racist or rude. Yet they will not even stop to understand that Haiti is nowhere near Africa. She is not African American at all.
I am confident in her abilities, but me trying to wave around my own life as a success story must be a bit of a slap in the face to students like her.
Congratulations, Miss Q. You got through being raised by your single mom. In Brookfield, Connecticut, a quiet, white, middle to upper-class town, close to your stay-at-home aunts whose husbands could pay the bills, so they had time to care for you. Or you stayed with your grandparents who had the privilege to be retired. You graduated magna cum laude at your white, private university. You got through Lyme disease, because you had health insurance that covered the cost of some of your treatment.
I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t think that racism will ever cease to exist. But I think that too many people today refuse to admit that racism is still a pervasive problem, which is even scarier than years ago, when our country was blatantly racist as a result of segregation and Jim Crow laws.
Today, our schools are desegregated. Yay, what a happy, non-racist country in which we live.
Oh yea? Enter my classroom in my high school and then enter the one just a few miles north. You will see that segregation still exists. No, it may not be forced by laws that forbid black students to enter the white schools, but it is enforced through societal norms.
Enter my classroom and you will see the books that my students use. “I love dicks” written on the side. “Butt cheeks” written on another. And that’s the vandalism I’m not embarrassed to include here. I assure you, it gets much worse. How can I pretend that these students are equal to the ones in the other town with the shiny new textbooks? These textbooks the students cannot even take home since we don’t have enough. No, scratch that, those students don’t even have textbooks anymore. Instead, they have the shiny new one-on-one laptops that they get to take home to their high-speed wi-fi connections.
My students aren’t equal. They will need to work harder to get to the place where the student in the other high school can get thanks to his skin color or his daddy. They will need to earn straight As while working all night as the dish washer at the local restaurant so they can help their mother to pay the rent, finishing their homework late at night (if at all), before getting up early to help their little sister get fed and ready for school while their mom is already out on her way to her housekeeping job that pays minimum wage and offers no benefits.
They will have no parent in attendance at Back to School night or parent-teacher conferences because their parent will not be able to pay the electric bill if they miss that night of work.
They will have every intention of passing class and trying to succeed, but their fatigue will get the best of them.
I, as their teacher, will offer extra help, but they will know that they have to rush from school to work and that they cannot stay any longer.
They could be a star football player, but they can’t waste those hours practicing when they have to be watching over their little brother, hoping that he can be the one who makes a difference.
They struggle to develop strong friendships since they move around with such frequency that they attend six different schools in just three years, building a wall around themselves that may seem harsh, but it is there to limit the pain of constantly evolving schools and relationships.
Would I be in my current position if I were born black? I can’t answer that question with any degree of certainty.
Would I have had the perseverance to work hard at school to maintain my GPA only to leave school and work all night? Probably not.
Has my white skin helped me to achieve the life I live today? Probably. It’s my ticket to the easy life.
That is the reality of white privilege.