Two years ago, I wrote the speech below and delivered it to a room of educational leaders in my district. After I delivered the speech, someone in the audience asked me to do it again to a room of black teenage leaders. I did. Later I was asked to give it again to another room of educators. I’ve dressed it up a bit here, but the concept of white privilege is just about all I can think about these days, so I feel compelled to share, to break my silence.
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today I would like to talk to you about a subject that ignites me, one that I am passionate about: social justice. I direct energy and money toward advancing social justice issues, and I believe that as educators, we can be the tipping point for advancing equity of access for our students who are disadvantaged. I first became interested in social justice issues when I moved to Midtown Atlanta at age 25. Prior to that, I had only really been around people who looked like I do and who came from similar backgrounds as me. I actually did not know a person of color until I went to college. My high school was 99% white and at the time, so was my hometown. That move to Midtown introduced me to a population I had never known. I became friends with gay people and people of color. I had never known what I was missing in my homogeneous group of friends years prior. Fast forward a few years and I became a high school administrator at a very diverse high school, much like Marietta, just a bit smaller. I also enrolled in graduate school pursuing my doctorate. It was a course in that program that completely revolutionized me as an educator and as a citizen: Leadership in a Diverse and Pluralistic Society. It was in this course that I first learned about the concept, the reality, the force of nature that is white privilege and how it shapes my thoughts, my actions, and my belief system. In the course, we took a survey by Peggy McIntosh called “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In the survey, you give yourself a point each time you agree with a statement. Out of 50 statements, I scored a 48. Yep, privileged. Statements in the survey include statements like:
“I can turn on the television or read the front page of a newspaper and see people of my race widely and positively represented.”
“If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.”
“I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.”
“I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.”
There are 46 other statements, and out of the 50 statements in the survey, I agreed with all of them except for two. Two. I began to understand that white privilege is something that I must first acknowledge as reality, and then work through it to be able to truly start to understand, to lead, to teach those who are not as privileged as I am: a heterosexual, upper-middle class, white woman. In that course, I studied culturally responsive pedagogy and how biased our curriculum and our teachers are, what a disadvantage students of color experience when they do not have teachers who look like they do, when they do not study history that truly explores their cultural background.
Our students need to hear us dare greatly to discuss their race, their background, and how it shapes their self-image and their projections of their future. Do we continually tell our black and Hispanic students that they’re going to college? Do we believe that? Do we open that line of communication? Do we ask them how they feel when they hear another story of a police officer shooting a person of color? Today’s racial tensions are not new in our country, but they are the world that we are living in and they are shaping the world in which our students are growing up, shaping their view of what they believe the world has to offer. We must be color brave, not color blind. We must be willing to talk about race, about explicit and implicit bias, and work as educators to put texts in front of our students that show diverse protagonists. Our students of color need to see main characters who look like they do, and our white students need to see protagonists who look differently than they do. Especially with our young ones in elementary school, we have an opportunity to foster friendships between black and white and Hispanic students, to cross that line. Because we all know that as they get older, the racial divide begins and students are sitting in the cafeteria at what look like segregated tables. We have the power to change the narrative, to show them as the main character in their lives. We must also work with our classroom teachers to have these conversations. Why is our gifted population mostly white? Why are black students disproportionately represented in our discipline referrals? Why is the IB diploma program not proportionate to the rest of the school population? We can create pathways for equitable access for students from minority and disadvantaged populations, but we must first be willing to understand our own values, baises, and beliefs, and then we must be willing to start the conversation.
If not you, then who?