White blindness

Michael Jackson in Thriller

Why are white people in America so unaware of their white privilege? asks Quora.

Lacey Sheridan, a retired teacher and administrator, tells an anecdote about a substitute teaching a class of 10th graders, all of whom who were black. She showed them how to write a cinquain, a five-line poem, based on their names.  As an example, she used Michael Jackson, who’d just made Thriller.

 I began by writing “Michael” on the board, and then asked for two words describing him. There was a sharp division in the descriptors between the boys and the girls, with the boys opting for denigrating remarks about his sexuality. After a sidebar to discuss unacceptable language, I used “gloved, mega-star” from the girls and wrote them under “Michael.”  Line three became “singing, dancing, laughing” and line 4 was “curly-haired, light-skinned, graceful, lithe” and we ended on “Jackson.”

Then everyone had to write their own cinquain, including the teacher.

Without exception, every student had referenced being black in their self-descriptions. Terms such as “mocha-skinned,” “ebony,” “cafe-au-lait,” “coffee colored” and “sienna”  abounded.

When Sheridan read her poem, the class was stunned. “You didn’t say anything about being white,” a girl said. The teacher had described herself as being red-haired and slender, but had said nothing about her skin color. She told students that white people don’t describe themselves as “white.”

Grumbles, remarks and a “Yeah, right,” from my friend in the back of the room.  I tried to clarify by explaining that, if asked, I would describe myself as “Irish” or “Irish-American” or just plain “American,” depending on the context.  Complete disbelief. Further effort. “We don’t think about being white because we’re the majority. You focus on being black first because you’re in the minority.”

. . .  I asked them to read the poem about Michael Jackson that was on the board.  Then I said, “I’m not asking for a show of hands, but how many of you described yourselves as heterosexual?”

. . . After a few beats, my rear-room challenger looked at me and said, “It never entered my head.”  One of the girls asked, “Is that what it’s like, being white?  I figured white folks thought about being white all the time.”  Lots of nodding and verbal agreement from her classmates.  I said, “We don’t have to think about it; we just take it for granted.”

Students were amazed.

Equity or racism?

“White culture” includes “promoting independence, self expression, personal choice, individual thinking and achievement,” according to training required for administrators (and optional for teachers) in Oregon’s Gresham-Barlow district. A belief in upward mobility also is “white,” according to the training documents obtained by a school board member.

The Portland-area school district spends $100,000 each year on an “educational equity” conference, reports EAG News.

“Many white people in Oregon have no idea that our schools and state are immersed in white culture and are uncomfortable and harmful to our students of color, while also reinforcing the dominant nature of white culture in our white students and families,” one of the conference documents explains.

Administrators and teachers are told to stop “blaming when students don’t meet standards” and instead start “examining our beliefs and practices when students don’t meet standards.”

One participant is quoted as praising the “journey” that led him to realize: “I am a white male racist with power and a stake in the dominant culture for that is what has allowed and given me social and financial success.”

This approach to “equity” sounds incredibly racist to me. Not to mention “harmful to students of color.”

OK, I’ve checked my privilege

“Check your privilege”is used to silence white male college students, writes Tal Fortgang in the Princeton Tory.

“Check your privilege,” they tell me in a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.

The phrase judges people based on their skin color and attributes their success “to some invisible patron saint of white maleness,” writes Fortgang, a first-year student who plans to major in history or political science.

As it happens, Fortgang’s grandfather and brother fled the Nazi invasion of Poland and spent World War II laboring in a Siberian camp.  Their mother and five younger were shot and dumped into an open grave.

His grandmother survived — barely — a death march to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

They came to America.

It was their privilege to come to a country that grants equal protection under the law to its citizens, that cares not about religion or race, but the content of your character.

His grandfather started a wicker business and prospered. They educated their children and taught them their values.

I am privileged that values like faith and education were passed along to me. My grandparents played an active role in my parents’ education, and some of my earliest memories included learning the Hebrew alphabet with my Dad. It’s been made clear to me that education begins in the home, and the importance of parents’ involvement with their kids’ education—from mathematics to morality—cannot be overstated.

The values we pass on perpetuate privilege, Fortgang writes. And it’s not something we need to apologize for.

Critics say he doesn’t understand white privilege.

In the Columbia Spectator students Dunni Oduyemi and Parul Guliani wrote that Fortgang shouldn’t take “check your privilege” personally. “Recognizing the fact that white men benefit from the kinds of racist and sexist structures on which American society is built isn’t meant to diminish his accomplishments,” they write. “It’s meant to remind us that white men don’t have an inherent predilection for success — the odds have just been stacked in their favor.”

I think those two sentences contradict each other.  If the odds were stacked in his favor that diminishes his accomplishments.

And it ignores the real privileges he enjoyed: He was born in the U.S., healthy and intelligent, and raised by loving and supportive parents. That’s a huge advantage in life, but not one reserved for white males.

Teaching ‘white privilege’

“Teaching is a political act,” said Kim Radersma at the 15th annual White Privilege Conference in Madison. “You are either a pawn used to perpetuate a system of oppression or you are fighting against it.” A former English teacher, she is working toward her Ph. D. in critical whiteness studies at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, reports the MacIver Institute.

A white person who “does anti-racist work” is like a recovering alcoholic, Radersma said.

“We’ve been raised to be good. ‘I’m a good white person,’ and yet to realize I carry within me these dark, horrible thoughts and perceptions is hard to admit. And yet like the alcoholic, what’s the first step? Admitting you have a problem,” she told the session attendees.

White privilege causes the racial achievement gap, Radersma said.  Students of color can’t learn as well from white teachers, she believes. 

A white attendee said her family had donated school supplies to a first-grade classmate from a needy family that had moved from India. Now, she realized that was wrong, she said. “It was like ‘well why don’t you swoop in and save the day and give her all this stuff because we can afford to do that for them’ kind of mentality,” she said.

Radersma agreed.

“It’s that savior mentality, like ‘save them, because they are not like us,’ and that normalization of whiteness. Whiteness is best and those poor others aren’t as good as us,” she said. “So, we need to think of them and give them our sympathy and our charity and our generosity, which is so demeaning to the people on the receiving end.”

So it’s not OK for whites to help non-whites. (What about whites helping poor whites or blacks helping poor blacks?) How can whites help except by constant self-abasement and going to conferences? Perhaps quitting teaching is a good first step.

The White Privilege Conference is a “useless” waste of money, Niger Innis, national spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, told the Wisconsin Reporter“You want to really do something? Educate a black kid,” said Innis, who is running as a Republican for a U.S. House seat in Nevada. “Give parents and students an opportunity to go to a private, parochial or a good public school.”

The conference received at least $38,000 from hotel room tax revenue, University of Wisconsin schools and the City of Madison, according to the Wisconsin Reporter.  In addition, Madison sent 30 to 40 city employees. Eight staffers from the state Department of Public Instruction took part and Janesville School District used a Safe and Supportive Schools grant to send 92 students and 12 staff members.

People who argue that all teaching is political wouldn’t be very happy if Darren injected his political views into high school math classes, he writes on Right on the Left Coast.

Rich student, poor student

“The higher education system is . . . a passive agent in the systematic reproduction of white racial privilege across generations,” concludes a new report. Latino and black students — even those with high grades — are more likely than whites to go to community colleges, where their odds of graduation are lower.

Linking financial aid to graduation rates will penalize colleges that enroll low-income students, two new research papers warn.

An interesting defense

Hereis the charge: some people claim that Wisconsin’s ed-bureaucracy, which we will call “DPI”, because that’s it’s name, seems to have endorsed throwing students into concentration camps. Well, that’s not really what is going on at all, but you might not know that from reading the defense. What is actually being claimed is that there seems to have been a recommendation made by someone, somewhere, that certain white people working under the auspices of a federal program in Wisconsin, through the DPI, might consider engaging in a program of psychological self-flagellation and submission to public criticism, all in the name of making them conscious of their “white privilege” (and unless you are completely out to lunch, you will notice that this is also an exercise in doing everything possible to keep them from exercising said privilege, assuming it exists in the first place).

Te crux of the criticisms is that it seems to have been recommended that the white people in question wear white wristbands, and submit themselves to uninvited discussions about what those white wristbands represent. Things go obviously (but not I think, unjustifiably) Godwin from there.

Here is the defense against the charge: No DPI official, or any VISTA volunteer, has used, requested, or encouraged, anyone in any school to use the wristbands as ‘reported’ and shared by external groups that thrive on spreading rumors and misinformation. The defense, and it is a defense, also notes that the wristband materials were provided to VISTA (that appears to be the federal program) volunteers after their training, as they left, as part of a supplemental packet. That packet was also posted to the DPI website where you can now find this defence, though the document itself has been removed.

I am not writing this post to preach about the merits of the white-privilege-awareness industry. They’re a group of people with strange ideas that, like most ideas, probably have some grain of truth to them. No, the reason I’m writing this post is to point out that, as far as defenses go, this one is an absolute disaster. On the one hand, it is a great defense because it creates a straw man charge and refutes it… With a sneering scare-quoted dollop of ad hominem on top. That’s good stuff.

But it also admits the very thing it wishes to deny. Compare:

No DPI official has… encouraged anyone in any school to use the wristbands as ‘reported’


Subsequently, that entire resource packet was posted to the VISTA website

Rule 1: admit nothing!!! Do they not know this?

The “VISTA” website of which they speak is actually the DPI’s VISTA website. It’s where you find this defense, written by DPI officials. But how did these materials get on the DPI website if not by the acts of a DPI official? And isn’t this obviously encouragement?

But now we see that I am wrong, and that this is actually a stunningly adept defense. There is phrase used… “Encouraged anyone in any school”. You might think that this means that no one associated with any school was encouraged to use the white privilege packet. But that is clearly not what it means at all, because as noted above, the posting of the materials to the website seems to qualify as “encouragement” on any account. What it actually means is that no encouragement took place in any school. The website is not a school.


The subtly racist peanut-butter sandwich

A peanut-butter sandwich could be racist, according to Verenice Gutierrez, reports the Portland (Oregon) Tribune.

Last year, a teacher used peanut-butter sandwiches as an example in a lesson.

“What about Somali or Hispanic students, who might not eat sandwiches?” says Gutierrez, principal at Harvey Scott K-8 School, a diverse school of 500 students in Northeast Portland’s Cully neighborhood.

“Another way would be to say: ‘Americans eat peanut butter and jelly, do you have anything like that?’ Let them tell you. Maybe they eat torta. Or pita.”

And maybe this is incredibly patronizing.

Guitierrez, along with all of Portland Public Schools’ principals, will start the new school year off this week by drilling in on the language of “Courageous Conversations,” the district-wide equity training being implemented in every building in phases during the past few years.

Through intensive staff trainings, frequent staff meetings, classroom observations and other initiatives, the premise is that if educators can understand their own “white privilege,” then they can change their teaching practices to boost minority students’ performance.

Scott teachers met in the first week of school to read a news story and discuss its inherent “white privilege.” A few teachers had the courage to object to the school’s lunch-time drum class, which is open only to Hispanic and black boys. About 65 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

At least one parent has a problem with the the class, saying it amounts to “blatant discrimination and equity of women, Asians, whites and Native Americans.”

“This ‘club’ was approved by the administration, and any girls who complained were brushed off and it was not addressed,” the parent wrote anonymously.

“When white people do it, it is not a problem, but if it’s for kids of color, then it’s a problem?” responds Gutierrez. “That’s your white privilege, and your whiteness.”

When white people create an explicitly whites-only school class or club . . . ? Does that happen in schools?


$130K for book on ‘white privilege’

Omaha Public Schools spent $130,000 to buy a “cultural proficiency” book for 8,000 teachers, administrators, support staffers — even janitors, reports the World-Herald.  A Cultural Proficiency Journey: Moving Beyond Ethical Barriers Toward Profound School Change  tells educators to “take action for social justice” by opposing “white privilege.” The district used federal stimulus funds to buy the books.

Employees will be asked to read several chapters each quarter and then meet in study groups to discuss the book using a study guide produced by the district. For teachers, the study sessions will count as professional development.

School board President Sandra Jensen said the district doesn’t endorse everything in the book, nor does she expect employees to adopt the authors’ positions. The book is intended to open a dialogue, she said.

“The purpose of providing this resource is to help staff see that people come from a multitude of different backgrounds which cause them to respond differently to the same set of facts, depending on their personal perspectives,” she said in a statement. “Recognition that one might have a certain perspective is critical to treating all people equally.”

However, the book tells teachers not to treat all children the same or try to be “color-blind.” Instead, they should recognize and “esteem” the group identity of students of color.

The book has been used in San Diego and Atlanta schools, the authors say.

My father went to Omaha public schools and was graduated from Central High in 1940.  Things have changed:  Omaha schools are now  35.7 percent white, 29.9 percent Hispanic, 29.7 percent African-American, 3.1 percent Asian-American and 1.6 percent American-Indian. I’d bet teachers have heard already about diversity being a good thing.

In fact, I know they have.  Twenty years ago, I visited a friend who works for a small-town Nebraska school district. The state had sent out a diversity consultant, who was shocked to realize that 100 percent of students and staff were white. (“There were a couple of Native American kids, but they moved,” my friend said.) To “train” teachers to be sensitive to diversity, the consultant divided them into groups by religion. This did not help working relationships, my friend said.