Friday, February 10, 2012

White Privilege, Classroom Discourse, and Being Other

Where No One Speaks English (April 2011 by M.A. Reilly)
As a small child living in Ireland, my grandmother practiced speaking Irish, a Gaelic language, with other children secreted behind the tall hedgerow that skirted the lane where she and her family lived.  Such were the times in the decades preceding the Republic’s freedom from Britain--a time when British rule still prohibited the Irish from speaking their language of home. From the Anglo-Norman Invasion of Ireland in 1169 through the subsequent centuries of conquest, colonization, and genocide--speaking Irish remained a punishable matter.  Irish culture, language, and music were banned by the British through the Penal Laws and through institutions, such as the national schools. Irish Catholics were considered subhuman. Consider Cambridge historian Charles Kingsley (1860) who in a letter to his wife wrote:
I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black one would not see it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as out own.
Or Oxford historian James Anthony Froude who in describing the Irish wrote: "...more like squalid apes than human beings...unstable as water...only efficient military despotism...the wild Irish understand only force."
Prior to the Easter, 1916 uprising, Michael Collins, a republican leader said:
We only succeeded after we had begun to get back our Irish ways; after we had made a serious effort to speak our own language; after we had striven again to govern ourselves. We can only keep out the enemy and all other enemies by completing that task. The biggest task will be the restoration of the Irish language (quoted in Ó Fiaich 1969: 111).
More than one-hundred years after my grandmother learned to speak her language of home behind a hedgerow, I sit here in the United States, thinking of this woman I never met, of a country, I too left, and wonder about the intersections among occupation, language, and stories. What does it mean to have to leave your language, religion, and rituals behind in order to survive? What does it mean generations later, when one’s native tongue is strange sounding to the ear? 

Although these matters have historical importance, they are also relevant and contemporary as situating some as Other remains with us, (in)forms our actions, and demonstrates our values and core understandings. One only needs to pop into 10-minutes of the current Republican ‘debates’ to see other being displayed.  I want to suggest here though that we can (and I hope do) also look more closely at the work we do at schools and perhaps become brave enough to see our own hand at work in othering, especially for those of us who are White and middle class.

Years ago at York University, Edward Said delivered a speech in which he defined imperialism, colonialism, and empire.  Said said:
As I shall be using the term--and I'm not really too interested in terminological adjustments--"imperialism" means the practice, the theory and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center that rules a distant territory. "Colonialism," which is almost always a consequence of imperialism, is the implanting of settlements on distant territory. As the historian Michael Doyle puts it, "Empire is a relationship, formal or informal, in which one state controls the effective political sovereignty of another political society. It can be achieved by force, by political collaboration, economic, social or cultural dependence. Imperialism is simply the process or policy of establishing or maintaining an empire.”
My grandmother lived under colonial rule. At the close of the 19th century as a child in Ireland, she was subject to British rule, an empire surely in decline, but nonetheless still a permanent force operating in her daily life. Although Empires collapse, the groups who have been privileged via the Empire often remain privileged well after the collapse, as the belief system that has set them apart and above from others is institutionalized and becomes the bearer of what ‘normal’ and ‘right’ is. I want to suggest here that much of what has informed what is ‘normal and right’ via past (and current) Empires filters into our classrooms and schools, is reflected in our definition of literacy as a singular, decontextualized matter.  We see it in the text choices that fill our classrooms, the way we limit essay and narrative to ‘correct’ forms, and the belief and practice that literacies can be represented as a finalized list of skills. We operate as if there was one 'correct' discourse and those who do not have this discourse are inferior. We have not come that far from the thinking that informed Kingsley and Froude. Such thinking permeates our daily work and may be less than visible to us, depending on who we are and how we live. 

As a white woman, middle class, and the mother of a child of color—white privilege is oddly noticeable, foregrounded.  In this post I want to take a few minutes to situate it, reveal it in its subtle and not so subtle forms as it operates in our schools.  W.E.B. Du Bois warned in 1903: “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”  In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois wrote:

Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.

In the opening chapter, Du Bois asks the critical question of the last and I want to suggest this century as well: How does it feel to be a problem? He deftly surrounds this question with the discourse we speak:
Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.
It is this ‘real’ question that we need to attend to, say aloud so that we can get beneath it and wrestle with how we situate those we consider ‘other’. Situating another as a problem represents imperialistic discourse--a belief, still with us today that informs pedagogical and content decisions, language and special education policies and practices, as well as how we situate ‘potential’ – a pernicious term if ever there was--on some learners and not others.

I had occasion a few years ago to speak with an elementary principal, Dr. Fallon (pseudonym). She explained that she did not think of the children at her school as children of color—of any color.  She did not see color, nor did anyone at the school, she told me. She insisted that the faculty and staff simply saw children; not their race.  Dr. Fallon is white. As I listened to her, I realized that she deeply believed she and the faculty were race neutral.  Such thinking is White myth-making—stories we tell and retell ourselves that allow us to remain polite, non-confrontational, removed.  If we claim to not see race, then we need not attend the underbelly of racial discrimination—the ways children get situated as problems.

As I listen to Dr. Fallon, I was equally aware of the function of memory and recalled a story I had been recently told about a child, a teacher, and the failure to see race at the school where she had indicated all were race neutral.
“When you can act like a third grader you will be allowed to sit with the other children,” Mrs. Carls, a teacher tells Jae. It is early October.
Jae, who is shy, easily embarrassed and desirous to not stand out in social settings gets up from the table where he normally sits and moves across the classroom and sits by himself at the one desk located away from the other children.  He has been caught talking loudly to a friend seated across the room, again.
This “event” is the last one in a long series of challenges that have happened only a few scant weeks into a new school year where Jae has been seen by his teacher as being a problem. One might wonder if other children in this classroom call out?  Or fidget?  Is it truly possible that only this one child does both? Is it so unexpected that an 8-year-old will do such things?
Earlier that day, Jae had yelled, “Yes!” out loud apparently disrupting his class after hearing an announcement calling for the boys and girls to try out for the school patrol.
“Aaron didn’t hear the announcement,” Jae would later tell his mother.  “He had to know. We were waiting for this. I didn’t mean to yell. I just got excited and wanted him to know we could try out. I didn’t want him to miss it.”
Being able to be part of the school patrol is a privilege reserved for third graders. Jae and his friends had been waiting until they were in the requisite grade. It would be an opportunity Jae would not come to know at this public school; a school situated in a largely white suburb. Because he blurted out, “Yes” and called across the classroom to a friend to tell him the announcement, he was left behind when his teacher and all of the other children went to the tryouts.  This was his punishment for talking out of turn.
Jae’s mother didn’t hear this story until later that night well after she had picked her son up from school, but said that she had noticed that he was extremely quiet and withdrawn throughout dinner. Hours later, in tears, he finally told her the story. She would learn that it was not only being left behind that injured Jae, but also his belief that his teacher did not like him as he is ‘different’ from the other children. The other boys, Jae would explain, can call out.  
“What did you do in the classroom by yourself?” Jae’s mother asked him.
“I wasn’t allowed to do anything. I just had to sit there with Mrs. Nomba (an aide) and wait until my class came back.”
It would be an hour later when the white teacher and the 18 white children came back to the classroom—their voices raised in the excitement that marks such occasions. Here they would find Jae, embarrassed by his misdeed, sitting alone.

It is in these small, perhaps even to some--inconsequential moments--that we need to pause and look critically for “White privilege” is an institutional matter. Peggy McIntosh explains: “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious."  She continues by saying that her schooling “followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow ‘them’ to be more like ‘us’."

I think again of Jae’s primary grade experience and wonder what did he learn about his self-worth that day?  What did being left behind echo?  How might it have reinforced racially charged encounters he had already experienced? What is the weight of memory a child of color carries and how might teachers better understand such weight? What has Jae been learning each day in the classroom since?  What undercurrents of white privilege that is reserved for boys and girls whose skin is light and whose eyes are round has Jae internalized?  What did his white classmates learn that day about children who are located as “other’ by their teacher?

These are not small matters; ones we can tuck away with pleasantries and polite conversations alongside promises to do better next time. We need to talk openly and at length about the ways that white privilege permeates our schools and communities—even if it means feeling discomfort. We need to look inwardly at our own actions and assumptions and critically and honestly interrogate ourselves. How do our actions reinforce privilege for some? How does such history inform how we see and fail to see children?

I am not writing about the gross racial injustices that become front-page news. The ones read about from the comfort of one’s home and later talked about across expanses of lawn with all the requisite outrage truly intact. It seems almost, easy, to gather these stories and wear them as symbols of our sense of justice—as if such practice might absolve us from the seemingly smaller instances when we fail to stand up for what we know to be right. Yet overt hate crimes such as the heinous killing of African-American James Byrd, Jr., chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to death by three white men in Jasper, Texas in 1998 or the murder of Asian Mohammad Parvaiz, beaten to death by six white teens in West Yorkshire, England in 2006 have potential reiteration each time we fail to stand up and acknowledge the smaller, less obvious moments of racial injustice.


  1. Have you been following the situation in Tucson regarding the abolishment of Mexican American studies and removal of books from classrooms? (A People's history, Rethinking Columbus, etc.) The superintendent claims that having Latino students learn about their history "brainwashes" them to think they've been "victims of white oppression". Talk about racial injustice. Truly amazing. ~Sam

    1. I am aware of the Tucson matter and think it is wrong for all. The supt should resign.

    2. I agree with that district. Howard Zinn has been discredited as a historian.

  2. Subtle segregations occur within "whites" as well depending on their location. They carry an undeserved stigma, built by outrageously biased media and continued because of ignorance and unwillingness to see the Other.
    I speak from experience as I am a Romanian.
    I also think that there will always be a tension between the center of "power" and the peripehral cultures not because it is an already institutionalized system, but because it is easier to not care.

    1. Hi Cristina,
      Absolutely agree. In the example I give about my grandmother, she was a white woman living in Ireland. However, the Irish were not considered by many British at that time to be fully human. Just look at the quotes front he professors from Oxford and Cambridge.

      I hope I didn't suggest otherwise.

      Not caring takes some work, but perhaps not the same level of intensity as standing up requires, nor certainly the courage often required to do so.

      Thanks for broadening the discussion.
      Mary Ann

    2. Everybody says there is this RACE problem. Everybody says this RACE problem will be solved when the third world pours into EVERY white country and ONLY into white countries.

      The Netherlands and Belgium are just as crowded as Japan or Taiwan, but nobody says Japan or Taiwan will solve this RACE problem by bringing in millions of third worlders and quote assimilating unquote with them.

      Everybody says the final solution to this RACE problem is for EVERY white country and ONLY white countries to "assimilate," i.e., intermarry, with all those non-whites.

      What if I said there was this RACE problem and this RACE problem would be solved only if hundreds of millions of non-blacks were brought into EVERY black country and ONLY into black countries?

      How long would it take anyone to realize I'm not talking about a RACE problem. I am talking about the final solution to the BLACK problem?

      And how long would it take any sane black man to notice this and what kind of psycho black man wouldn't object to this?

      But if I tell that obvious truth about the ongoing program of genocide against my race, the white race, Liberals and respectable conservatives agree that I am a naziwhowantstokillsixmillionjews.

      They say they are anti-racist. What they are is anti-white.

      Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white

    3. Dear Anonymous,

      I have not heard of any of what you write about here and don't see that there is a genocide aimed at white people. The way you situate race in your response is problematic as it is offensive to me when you suggest that a 'solution to a race problem' is to assimilate non-white people into white countries. Is there such a thing as a white country? Not sure who everybody is, but I surely don't agree with what you write.

  3. Great post Mary! IMHO, we are all pretty much pack animals with a desire to belong. However, at the same time we are all very insecure. In a cruel twist of fate each of us is unique and different, from extremely different to very subtle. In this is the crux of the matter. We are uncomfortable with things we don't understand or perceive as different. We're all challenged by this and the challenge is like Sisyphous rolling his boulder. It never stops being a challenge and it never ends. Ignoring our biases, or claiming we don't have them is dangerous. It leads to behaviors in each of us that are hurtful and mean, and are veiled from our own eyes. Thanks for the reminder :-)

    1. Thanks John. Our response to how we think we know and feel is ongoing and evolving. Thank you for that reminder.