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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Quick Hit: The Tough Conversations

I’m all worked up about this.

First, go here and read this.  No, really; I’ll wait.

You’re back?  Okay; now, revisit this:

“The Morgan State comments were Holder’s most extensive on the subject of race since early 2009, when he gave a speech during Black History Month that generated controversy and reportedly infuriated President Obama’s chief of staff at the time, Rahm Emanuel. In that speech, Holder, the nation’s first African American attorney general, referred to the country as “essentially a nation of cowards,” (emphasis mine) arguing that Americans were not comfortable enough with one another to discuss the issue of race candidly.”

We ARE largely a nation of cowards; I think that Holder is spot-on with this.

Here’s the thing; I think that we ARE afraid to talk – especially to kids – about things that matter.  I posted a comment on someone’s facebok wall this morning (I forget whose now, but it’s not important).  The post was a lament of the general disinterest of a lot of young people in politics and voting.  You want to complain that young people are apathetic about voting? How about letting their teachers talk about current events and topics that most parents and administrators are afraid of because they’re “sensitive.” Give young people the environment and support they need to learn how to think critically about important things; race, poverty, sex and sexual identity, privilege. Unless and until we can have honest (and yes, sometimes difficult and uncomfortable) conversations about these things, we’re never going to progress beyond where we are, and where we are is not okay – not by a long shot.


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Quick Hit: Please, Watch This

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Quick Hit: This

This is going to be the cornerstone of all my research units from now on:


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I’m Taking Bets

How well do you think students will be able to follow these directions?  This is what they’ll find on their Blackboard pages while I’m away in DC next week:

There’s a lot here; please read it all carefully.

For your final paper, you’ll produce a researched essay in which you state and support a position on an issue of your choosing.

I would suggest (strongly) that you craft your position around the issue that you researched for the analysis paper, since most of your research for that topic is already done.  If you decide that you want to veer off in a different direction or go in-depth with an aspect of your analysis that you didn’t have time or evidence to pursue in your last paper, however, you’re more than welcomed to do that.

As part of your pre-writing work, please read ALL of the “Debate about Animal Rights” and the “Debate about the Death Penalty” essays in your text (4 essays, pgs. 422-454).  Please note the organization of these essays, the ways in which the authors emphasize and support their main points, the way the opposition is addressed, and how the essays conclude.  Work on identifying not only topic/purpose/audience, but also strategy; HOW does the author craft his or her essay to achieve the desired effect on the reader (what IS the desired effect on the reader)?  How are the essays similar, and how are they different?  Which essays were most compelling to you, and why?  BE SPECIFIC; point out passages or strategies that you found especially effective and articulate the differences and similarities you find in the essays.

Please note, also, the language that each of the authors employs; what is the general tone of each of the essays?  I have noticed that our class is still struggling to find a professional tone; I’m not asking you to become someone you’re not – to change your voice entirely while you’re writing – but I do expect you to know – and to be able to employ – a professional, academic tone when such is required.  That means using the correct words in the correct ways, crafting complete, complex, and coherent sentences and paragraphs, and being able to organize your thinking into a sustained and thoughtful essay that is easy to read and understand.

That means drafting.  At some point during the week, you need to connect with AT LEAST TWO of your classmates to workshop your first draft of this essay.  Please come to class on the Tuesday we return (the 29th) with a complete SECOND draft – along with the notes and feedback from your classmates – you will be graded on this – and be ready to workshop.  Note the attachments above; use them to help you give thoughtful, careful, and meaningful feedback to your peers (author’s note; here, I attached three PDFs; one that articulate the purpose of peer review and two that offer different strategies for both giving and receiving (and using) feedback).

Please also continue to read and critique opinion pieces from the newspaper, and to listen to analysis from NPR.  Listen to the strategies, notice the language, and pay particular attention to introductions, support, and conclusions.  Providing evidence of these pre-writing exercises will count toward your crafting grade (see below) and will help to make your writing stronger.


Come to class on the 29th with all of your pre-writing (including your first draft and all your revisions) and a complete, printed copy of your second draft.


These papers will be graded on three components:

Craft  20/100 – the paper shows strong evidence of a command of writing as a PROCESS.  The writer provides plentiful evidence of “behind the scenes” work by articulating a clear topic/purpose/audience, showing evidence of careful and engaged pre-writing activities – including significant exposure to professional examples of the genre – and engaging in a vigorous and attentive workshop and revision practice.  Significant and substantial revisions are evident from first to final draft, and the author is able to both offer feedback to others and engage critically with his or her own work using peer feedback and employing critical reading skills to his or her own writing.


Content 60/100 – the paper is well written and complete.  The introduction is engaging and thorough.  The organizational structure establishes relationships between and among ideas and events, presents a logical progression of ideas, and is unified and complete: the paper maintains a consistent focus on the topic.  Credible, relevant evidence is provided to back up the author’s claims, and the opposition’s best counterpoint is addressed clearly, accurately, and fairly.  The author provides sufficient background for the reader to understand the “so what” questions and does not assume facts not in evidence.  The author demonstrates a solid grasp of the complexities of the issue, and is able to present a logical, defensible position to a neutral reader.  The conclusion is logical, reasonable, and satisfying.


Style 20/100 – the paper is written in a consistent, accurate academic voice, and sustained awareness of audience is evident throughout the paper.  The author is in control of the vocabulary of the paper; all of the words mean what the author intends, and word choice is precise, artful, and appropriate to the writing task.  All sentences are complete, and all paragraphs are cohesive (one idea per paragraph).   Sentence structure varies according to the writer’s need and are consistently clear, logical, and enjoyable to read.  Evidence is cited in proper MLA format, and the Works Cited page is formatted correctly.  The author does not employ rhetorical questions, personal pronouns, or faulty logic.


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Thought for Thursday


I was having a conversation with my students the other day, and they got me thinking.

As part of Black History Month, I’m giving them a bunch of quotes from black thinkers as their writing prompts, right?  The other day, I gave them Desmond Tutu’s “When you are neutral in the face of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

SO many of my students equated bystanders as equal to – or worse than – perpetrators.  They were willing to give a pass to people who truly don’t know – or don’t understand – an issue, but if you know something’s going down and you don’t do anything about it, you may as well have been an active participant.

I challenged them about this as hard as I could, asking them whether or not someone who fails to, say, jump in front of a gunman is just as responsible for the deaths of the people he would subsequently kill as the gunman who actually pulled the trigger, or asking about whether I’m responsible for a child’s abuse if I don’t challenge the mother who’s threatening them in the grocery store aisle.  While they were all a little uncomfortable at the idea of the INDIVIDUAL stepping into a situation (especially a dangerous one), they all pretty uniformly agreed that if you SEE, but don’t SAY, then you are just as culpable as the perpetrator.

I’m both heartened and a little disturbed by this.  I love that they understand the concept of bystanding and have been taught, at least on a conceptual level, that it’s our duty as human beings to stand up for one another.  No one admitted to actually DOING this, though, and it got me wondering;  is this, perhaps, why so many of the young people I encounter are just so clueless? If they don’t KNOW, then they believe they can’t be held responsible?



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Thought for Thursday: Open-mindedness

So, after having my kids watch Bill Nye the Science Guy “debate” Ken Ham the Creationist Guy, I’ve begun a discussion with my critical thinking students about the difference between “arguing” and “fighting.”  I was really very gratified this morning to see that, for the most part, the students were able to comprehend – and articulate! – the nuance between the activities.

They came up with the idea that “argument” is generally about an exchange of ideas; it’s an effort on the part of one party to offer the opposition evidence and proof that the speaker’s position has merit.  Argument is generally civil in tone, focused in scope and, while not devoid of emotion, is much more restrained and logical than it is emotional.  The end result, they reasoned, is to leave the listener with food for thought.  One doesn’t “win” an argument, they said;  it’s enough just to pry open the door of a previously closed mind, even if only a little.

“Fighting,” they decided, was less about an honest and earnest exchange and more about “force and power.”  Fighting is often a struggle for control or superiority; the object is to “win,” not to convince someone that your point of view has merit.  People in fights don’t listen to understand; they listen to respond (and, often, to refute).  Emotion is largely the controlling energy behind fighting, and rarely do people enter fights with the kind of open-mindedness necessary for any kind of meaningful consideration to happen.  Despite how lovely and polite the Nye/Ham debate was, they said, it was really a fight; neither man was likely very interested in seeing merit in the other man’s point.

It was about here that I introduced their next project – an issue analysis – and talked about topic/purpose/audience.  Their topic, I told them, can be anything that’s part of our national conversation at the moment (and then I gave them a quick list of potentials; the minimum wage, healthcare policy, immigration, etc, etc).   Since this is to be an inquiry exercise, I told them that they weren’t to choose something about which they had strong feelings.  The trick to picking a good topic is to find something that you’re interested in, but that you don’t really know a whole lot about.  “For example,” I said, “I wouldn’t pick abortion as my topic for this paper because I’ve already made up my mind about it.  I’m WAAY over here (I outstretched my arms and wiggled my left index finger) on this topic; I believe that ANY woman of ANY age should have access to a safe and legal abortion at ANY time in her pregnancy for ANY reason.  Period.  I am, admittedly, on the far-left fringe of this issue, because in all the research and observation I’ve done around this topic, I’ve encountered nothing that’s been sufficient to compel me to change my position that I have NO RIGHT to tell ANY woman what she can or cannot do with her body.”

We continued on to the topic of audience, and here I talked about the people on the fringes, using myself as an example. (Arms outstretched again, wiggling left index finger) “I’m over here on abortion, right?  Someone else is WAAY over here (wiggling right index finger) and believes that there should be no such THING as abortion; that it’s ALWAYS wrong under EVERY circumstance.  We (wiggling both index fingers) are NOT your audience for this paper.  You’re talking to everyone in between us; the people who are unsure of where they stand, or who believe that it’s okay sometimes but not others, or who don’t know enough about the topic to make a decision one way or another.”

At this point, a particularly astute student asked a really interesting question.  “Professor Chili,” he asked, “what would you say to the person over there (pointing to my right index finger)?  What do you think about what they think?”

And here, dear readers, is where we get to the point of this post.

My honest, heartfelt answer is that I absolutely support that person’s right to think the way s/he does.  I wholeheartedly support that person’s right to NEVER even THINK about having an abortion, and to feel that people who do have abortions are entirely, tragically wrong.  What I DON’T support is that person forcing someone else to comport themselves in accordance with someone else’s beliefs or feelings, and therein lies the difference between the way different people think.  I often get accused of being “closed-minded” about some things, though I profess not to be.  I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of how I operate.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I’ve been presented with questions and challenges about my atheism – and the occasion of the Nye/Ham face-off has brought into sharp focus the divide between people who think and believe very differently.  I am fine with how others believe.  I have no problem if you (the general “you,” please; I got in trouble yesterday on a facebook post when the other folks on the thread weren’t hip enough to realize that I was speaking in general terms) want to reject scientific evidence or deny yourself medical care or give all your money to a church or devote your life to a particular faith.  YOUR life, YOUR choices.

Where I get itchy is when you try to make ME comply with your choices, or when your choices negatively impact others.  If you deny your child life-saving medical care, I am going to take issue with that.  If you try to use your morals to legislate my behavior (or that of my friends and family, or even, to be honest, complete strangers), I’m going to have a problem with that.  If you’re going to enforce your denial of certain scientifically-accepted premises on our schoolchildren, use your morality to hamper medical, genetic, or technological discovery and advancement, or use your faith as a justification to deny other people basic human rights and dignity, I’m going to make some noise.

The difference between “us” and “them” is that we’re okay with them believing what they want, but they are terrified by the fact that we don’t believe as they do.

Just after the debate, Buzzfeed posted a list of pictures of Creationists asking questions of people who embrace evolution.  Slate posted a response to each of those questions, and one of the points that was made was that, “There is more room for a god in science than there is for no god in religious faith.”

Let that sink in for a minute.  “There is more room for god in science than there is for no god in religious faith.”

That, right there, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the difference.  I have beliefs.  I stand for things, but I am not so wrapped up in those beliefs, nor do I integrate them so fully into my very identity, that I am threatened by people who do not think as I do.  More to the point, I don’t force anyone to conform to my ideology; I would never force someone to have an abortion, for example.  Many of the staunchly anti-choice proponents wouldn’t say the opposite and, in fact, have pushed legislation that has the effect of keeping women from obtaining abortion services.

That’s the difference.  Too many people don’t understand how big a difference that is.


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