Friday, July 24, 2015

I Still Have A Lot To Learn

I teach at a school just north of downtown Seattle and our student population is primarily drawn from the surrounding neighborhoods, which are largely comprised of middle class people of northern European heritage, although there is a sizable population of people of Asian ancestry living here as well. I don't think about race a lot in my day-to-day life and that's because I'm a white male and have that luxury.

I've taken part in several #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations and protests over the past couple years, where I become immersed in the subject of race, where I try to shut up and listen, and where I become filled with the sadness and anger that are the natural human response to injustice, both overt and institutional. Then I get to go home and not think about it.

As a third grader in Columbia, South Carolina, I was bussed to a school in a black neighborhood as part of court ordered school desegregation. Most of the kids from my white suburban neighborhood were enrolled in private schools as a response to bussing, so when I arrived at Atlas Road Elementary School, I found myself a member of a racial minority, and had experiences that I imagine are somewhat similar to those experienced by every racial minority. Then I went home and returned to my unconscious life as a white boy in a world in which being white is considered the norm.

Scientifically speaking, race is not a real thing, but racism is. I am aware of my own prejudices, those knee-jerk assumptions I make about people I don't know based upon superficialities like skin color. I wish that I could always be color blind, but I live in a society that is obsessed with race, and I've spent my life marinating in it. As much as I intellectually object to racism, I know that I am, at least in part, a product of my surroundings. I don't think I continue to harbor those prejudices once I get to know a person, because then I have deeper, more concrete things upon which to hang my judgements, but until I do, I strive to guard against allowing my pre-judgements to slip into my behavior.

Of course, I make a fool of myself sometimes in my white liberal guilt, dancing around the subject of race, pretending it's just not an issue for me.

     Me: "You need to talk to that guy over there, the tall one with the earring and mustache standing beside the counter."

     The person I'm talking to: "You mean the black guy?"

     Me: (pretending I just noticed the only black guy in the room): "Yes, I guess so."

It makes me cringe to write it down, but I do this kind of thing all the time, just as I often find myself being overly friendly or solicitous when first meeting a black person. I so want them to know that I'm not one of the bad guys that I don't act like myself, which is an act of racism all by itself. I know this about myself and I'm working on it.

I don't think I'm self-deluded when I tell you that I believe I am truly color-blind when it comes of people of other racial groups, such as Hispanic or Asian or Arabic. Of course, I could be wrong -- there may be a whole new epiphany awaiting me in the future -- but my struggle right now is in overcoming my knee-jerk prejudices about my fellow African-American citizens. I am ashamed to admit it, and even if I am a product of my culture, that's not an excuse: it's on me, it's my responsibility.

I'm also ashamed that our nation is, in 2015, debating the Confederate flag, racial profiling, and the institutional racism that leads to black Americans being grossly over-represented in our prisons, unemployment lines, and soup kitchens. And that's also my responsibility.

My role in this is to listen and reflect, and as ashamed as I am, I am also grateful for our national conversation about race, one that I have too often danced around in my white, male liberal privilege. This doesn't mean I'm ashamed of being a white male, it just means that I know I still have a lot to learn. And learning this will make me a better teacher by making me a better representative of the human species.

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John S Green said...

... don't we all... the first step to self revelation and connecting with children is to admit that the world is an open book.

klygrrrrl said...

I appreciate the willingness to be self-reflective and be out there and public about that process. In reading your piece though I had some concerns about what you felt was the proper landing space for your learning - to be colorblind about race. While many of us (white) folks have been taught that that is the ideal and will make us less/not racist, it actually is a very problematic approach. I've linked to a useful article that helped me learn more about why being colorblind doesn't actually help me be the kind of early educator my kids and families need. I would love to hear your thoughts on this once you've read it and had a chance to think on it.

Teacher Tom said...

Thank you for your comment klygrrrrl, although I haven't really landed anywhere except to say, I know I have a lot to learn and I'm listening. Being colorblind, I expect, is impossible for most of us having grown up in this society.

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