I have been working in a very racially diverse area for the past few years, and, while we do talk about race and what it means to be white, Black, or Latino/a (the three races most represented at our school), we rarely unpack privilege and what it means to experience privilege based on your race, gender, size, sexuality, or any other factor.
This year, however, I decided to teach Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy, to my students. From the first chapter, they were hooked. The descriptions of the racism Wright experienced while growing up in the South caught their attention right away, and sparked a sense of injustice in them. When I reminded them that this was not so long ago in our country’s history – Wright would probably represent their great grandparents’ generation – they were even more angered. When we came to Wright’s realization that Black boys were brutally beaten in the street by white men, one student inevitably brought up Trayvon Martin, and how his murder was a racially motivated crime. Since it was almost the 20th anniversary of the riots in LA surrounding Rodney King’s brutal beating, I brought up that, as well. Students began to discuss the injustices they face because of their race, and the resounding conclusion was a simple one: This is not fair; this is not right.
A real “teachable moment”
In a true teachable moment, I realized my students needed to have access to the language used to express the unfairness they see in the world, and at that point, I brought in Peggy McIntosh’s famous 1988 article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” and had the students read from it. Some of the ideas, like being targeted by police or being called “a credit to their race,” they were familiar with. Some of the ideas, like not being able to find a bandaid that was the color of their flesh, got them thinking about how deep white privilege truly goes. The scariest realization for them was that this is not a thing of the past, but very much something we deal with in the present.
As a white woman, I examine my privilege right along with them. I think it is important for them to know that, as their teacher, I am not above this, teaching it down to them. I have enormous privilege based on my race, and it is important that they know that I am aware of that.
It breaks my heart to know that my students will have to deal with these injustices and hear about the Rodney King’s and the Trayvon Martin’s in the news for quite some time. However, I do have faith that our hope as a nation rests on the shoulders of this generation. Just the fact that I am able to “unpack the knapsack” with my students is a testament to that hope. Identifying white privilege – or any other privilege for that matter – is the first step to a more tolerant society. From building awareness, we will move to what they can do to make our small corner of the world a better place. Hopefully, I have some future activists in my midst, but only time will tell.
Photo Credit: rosmary