A few days ago, I gave you a window into my classroom. This post represented one lesson on one day in my entire teaching career. I was shocked, however, to find how many commenters believed that my taking 15 minutes on one day in my classroom to introduce my students to white privilege was representative of my entire teaching philosophy.
Perhaps, though, it is actually representative of my entire teaching philosophy. My students exist in this world, and this is a world in which privileges – many of them – stare us in the face on a daily basis. They have the right to be exposed to theories about those privileges, and to be able to make up their own minds about them. Keeping them in the dark and continually teaching them literature that is in no way controversial does not help them learn how to think, nor does it help them learn how to be productive members of society. I believe teaching my students to think and to express their thoughts is the absolute most important thing I could teach them. I just happen to use literature to do it.
Ours is also a world where a literary canon still exists. I try to teach works outside of the canon in order to show my students different perspectives than they might have seen before. One day, one of my students raised his hand to ask why we read so many stories by women. Always the teacher, I answered his question with a question: “Well, who did you read last year?” The usual suspects were called out around the classroom: William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe. I reminded them that all of these authors are dead, white and men. Then I told them I thought it was worthwhile to update their perspectives a bit by reading works by living, breathing people of all races and genders. They emphatically agreed.
Whether you want to call it privilege or something else, the cold, hard truth is that not everyone has the same opportunities, whether we like to admit it or not, even in 2012. No one knows that better than my students. In fact, they probably knew that better than I did well before I showed them Peggy McIntosh’s article about white privilege.
Along with a racially diverse classroom, mine is also socioeconomically diverse and made up of about half girls and half boys, some of whom are out to their friends, family and classmates. I have many, many perspectives seated in the desks in front of me. They don’t need me to tell them that some people have to work harder than others just to get to the same starting point, or that some people are fortunate enough to see themselves represented in the dominant culture while others aren’t; they already know that. All I did was give them the language to express that knowledge. As an English teacher, giving my students language to express themselves is my job.
In a subsequent discussion with these students, I asked them what other privileges were out there besides white privilege. Words went flying: male, heterosexual, monetary, age, size. One of the students even went so far as to say that the honors students had more privilege than the college prep students because they could misbehave and get away with more since they were already branded as the “good kids.” I had never even thought of that.
In the comments of my previous post, I was called “anti-white.” I was told that I should focus on “more important” privileges than just race. I was told that people who work hard deserve to be recognized, no matter the color of their skin. For as many times as I was complimented on my lesson, I was told that I shouldn’t be allowed to teach. To all of you, regardless of your thoughts about me or my teaching, I would say the same thing I say to my students: However you feel about this issue is up to you. I’m just sharing with you how I feel about the issue. In my opinion, I’m a pro-human teacher who believes in her entire being that life isn’t fair, but what is even less fair is hiding that fact from students.
Photo Credit: hpeguk