Checking Privilege

HI!  Remember me?  I haven’t been writing lately, but I think that’s about to change; there’s a lot rattling around in my head that wants to come out, and here’s the most insistent bit.

SO, back story; the other day, a student in my CRITICAL THINKING class (that’s important, remember it) said, out loud and without any hint of hesitation, compunction, or shame, that he could tell, just by listening to a woman’s voice, that she was – and I’m quoting here – a “heavyset black woman.”

Some days, it’s all I can do to maintain my composure.

The naked racism imbedded in that assumption is just stunning, and it was made all the more fantastic by the fact that he defended himself when I called him on it.  “I can just tell,” he insisted, and then, to make it even better, went on to make assumptions about this person’s upbringing, education, and socioeconomic status.

But wait… it gets better…

Yesterday, I walked in to the classroom to find this kid – let’s call him Sam – engaged in a conversation with another student – let’s call him Peter – about the idea of racial diversity in the workplace.  Since it’s a critical thinking class and because I’m a big advocate of letting students’ interests drive the discussions in my classroom, I hung back and listened to them.  It seems that Pete has some experience in management (from what I gathered, he worked as a manager at a video game store for a while) and recalled a story about corporate making a push for the hiring of more employees of color.  Pete was totally down with that, but his problem was that, living as we do in a VERY white part of the world (I think our minority population is somewhere in the 13% range, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the greatest percentage of that number resides in our only two big cities in the middle of the state, each about an hour from here), the problem wasn’t finding qualified potential employees of color, the problem was finding ANY  potential employees of color.

Sam was having none of it.  His stance, rock-solid and above scrutiny, is that hiring people of color just because they’re people of color is just flat-out racist.  Pete countered that yes, hiring someone simply based on the color of their skin IS racist, but what about the under-representation of people of color in the workforce, in teaching, in positions of power and influence?  Why are there so few people of color in jobs that don’t involve manual labor or drive-through windows?  Sam’s response?  “Well, those people (“THOSE people;” he actually said “THOSE PEOPLE”) don’t have the skills or the education to rise above those kinds of jobs.  If they worked harder and got a better education, then they’d be qualified to hold better positions.”

I’m just going to pause here so you can appreciate what it took for me not to launch myself across the table and throttle him in front of everyone……

I did my usual post-mortem download on my way home from class and came away with the idea that Sam just isn’t ready to examine his privilege.  He’s convinced himself (though, probably, through no fault of his own) that he’s gotten to where he is based solely on his own grit, tenacity, and wherewithal.  He grew up in tough circumstances, went straight into the military (ding, ding!), and is now continuing his bootstraps crusade by attending community college and “working hard.”  Telling him that he has an easier time accessing things like education and employment because he’s a young, white male insults his sense of self; no one’s GIVING him anything, and he’s absolutely convinced that the access he enjoys is available equally to everyone; unlike THOSE people, he’s smart/plucky/resourceful enough to take advantage of it.  He’s an opponent of minimum wage increases because he thinks that poor wages are incentives to push people into better jobs and more education, completely ignoring the fact that people get stuck in cycles of poverty that leave them focused solely on survival; there’s nothing left for “self improvement.”  He doesn’t think that young black boys need black male teachers as role models; I brought up the NPR story about the effort of Call Me Mister program to seek, educate, and place black men as teachers in schools that serve black boys specifically so those boys can see successful, educated people who look like they do and know that they can be successful, too.  He doesn’t see race as a barrier to anything; in his mind, if you’re smart and motivated (he didn’t use that word, though; he said “not lazy”), and persistent, you can have anything you want.

My frustration over his inability to see beyond himself led me to question my own position of privilege and power, particularly as it relates to the educational settings in which I participate.  As I mentioned, I live in a very white part of a very white state; while I am aware of educators of color who work in the English department of Local U., I can’t say with any certainty that there are any people of color working at the community college (and, to be fair, I can recall the faces of more people of color working at the dining halls than I can in the classroom).  While I try to be constantly aware of my privilege and the access that it gives me to resources and opportunities, I find myself feeling a little like Peter when he was expressing his frustration at wanting to hire people of color, but of there just not being any candidates to choose from.  What kind of responsibility do I bear, as an adjunct with little to no influence in any hiring decisions my college(s) make, to advocate for the inclusion – if not the aggressive courting and recruitment – of teachers of color?  What responsibility do I have as a parent of students who attend my town’s high school, or as a citizen of that town, regardless of whether I have kids in school?

I have no idea whether Sam’s going to come to any kind of realization or even glimmer of awareness in the short time I have left with him.  He may never see beyond his own experience, and that makes me sad.  While I have him, I will continue to push him to think past himself, though I suspect he will continue to dismiss my efforts as those of a bleeding heart liberal.  All I can do is try, and to continue to make as much noise as I can about how desperately important accurate, respectful, and equal representation really is, not just for our kids of color, but for our girl children and our queer kids, too.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Checking Privilege

  1. Jen

    First, I’d like to say I’m so glad to see your writing again – I’ve missed it (and I do mean your writing not you’re writing, although that too). Second, kudos to you for not launching yourself to throttle Sam. It can be hard to see past one’s own privilege, but there are so many fallacies in his stance that really it almost seems like he’s choosing ignorance.

  2. He lacks contact with “others.” It is easy for him to make such a false conclusion due to geography. Further, it seems that he see his world through his lens as normal. I would ask him and those like him to make an effort to befriend a person of color. Engage in a meaningful conversation with them about their experiences. He cannot take such a position when I see folks of color who are struggling in this part of the country.

    There are always candidates, but one must make an effort to find them.

    As for you, I think you have the same power many of us have. The power to empower students to think about their privilege, as you are doing. Having them ask and respond to difficult questions about their surroundings. Encouraging your colleagues to invite folks of color into their classes as guests. I will come.

  3. Eddie, we only have three weeks left; I’m not sure what I can do with him in that time, but maybe we can plan a day you can come to visit between now and then.

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