The issue of race continues to surface in all areas of American life. As Americans are confronted with real expressions of racial strife coming from a new generation of protestors, educators must be the first to dig for understanding and meaning in their profession. In this guest post republished from Tom Rademacher, an English teacher in Minneapolis, MN., he thoughtfully considers the power of white privilege in difficult times. In May of 2014 Tom was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He teaches writing and writes about teaching at Mr. Rad’s Neighborhood.
I’m a White guy. I see White people, especially White males, say that talking about race is what perpetuates racism. I see males, especially White males, threaten rape and murder or encourage women to kill themselves who have spoken out. I’ve been thinking about how the privilege those guys are so aggressively protecting is the same privilege I benefit from. I’ve been thinking about how badly I don’t want to be one of those guys, about how to be a better ally than I have been. I’m working on that, doing work on that. One of the first steps I’m taking, and it is a challenging one for me, is to understand that there are many places, times, and situations where the most important thing I can do is shut up and sit down.
As a White, straight, cis-gendered male, I am so often treated as precious. I am thanked for being there, for trying at all. My struggle, my emotions at addressing my role in receiving privilege, are often valued above those actively expressing the pain they feel in being denied it. This is encouraged and enforced again and again in conversations by the tears and anger of White women and men. This is obvious in the frequency with which we turn conversations by and about people of color into conversations about us.
In the days and weeks after Eric Garner and Mike Brown’s killers were not indicted, there was a telling duality of stories on Twitter. #AliveWhileBlack told the stories of Black people encountering the sorts of violence, dehumanization, and oppression that has led again and again to tragedy and death. They were evidence of the need for healing, the need for anger, and the need for action being demonstrated in the national movement of protests. The second story, #CrimingWhileWhite, showed the stories of White people recognizing their privilege by recounting stories of getting away with behavior that would often have ended in the arrest or death of Black people.
I know some people loved and supported the #CrimingWhileWhite stories, but to me, it was at best ill-timed to talk about how easy life can be while white in a time of deep grieving over the loss of black lives. At worst, and I certainly took it at worst, it was another time that White people centered a conversation that is not about them to be as much as possible about them. It was a celebration of White people moving just slightly further than the starting line on understanding racial privilege while people of color are dying. During a period where so many people were expressing profound pain, I saw conversations loop around to pat the backs of white people who were involved for “being there,” for engaging at all.
The privilege to ignore the conversation is real, and so we often accept the privilege of only hearing enough of the reality of racism to get us involved, but not so much that we turn away. We push the conversation away from anything that will truly challenge us, especially those of us who feel like we already “get it.”
We want to understand only enough to feel like we understand, but not enough to really feel it.
We need to stop only talking about White privilege so we can congratulate ourselves for saying we have privilege. We need to talk explicitly about the privilege not to be murdered, to not have a member of your community murdered and be asked to make space for a conversation about whether or not they deserved it. The privilege to have children without the weight of bringing them into a world that will see them as a threat. The privilege to not have to protest to have your life matter.
I say “we” intentionally. I mean me. I mean all White people. If we are already talking about those things, we need to talk about them more. We need to take responsibility for the fact that very few White people truly engage in the conversation, very rarely talk about race in spaces that are all White. We need to talk about race in groups of White people where it is uncomfortable to talk about them. We need to use our privilege and protection to promote the voices of people of color. We need to call out White people who are abusing and marginalizing people of color. We need to step into conversations without first waiting to make sure it is advantageous for us to do so.
I’m saying “we” because it’s uncomfortable for me to do. I so badly want to say, “most, but not me, not all of us,” but when the voices of people of color are being minimized and marginalized, when their experiences are being questioned, when their lives are being devalued, it is by White people. When conversations about race are being derailed or dismissed, it is by White people. When someone is saying, “I know your children aren’t being fairly educated, I know they’re being unfairly arrested, I know nearly every image they see of themselves is a negative one, but this isn’t about race,” it is a White person. It is White people, and it is arrogant, selfish, and ignorant for me to pause those conversations for one minute to say, “but not me.”
White privilege is not polite, is not sterile. It is a dangerous, messy, frighteningly powerful piece of my experience, of my daily experience.
Still, we turn away from the voices of people of color who challenge us too much. We value voices, primarily white voices, who will frame the conversation for us gently, who make us feel valued and empowered in a conversation that is about us already being unfairly valued and empowered. We flock to the picture of the cop hugging the kid, huddle around the warm fire of twitter hashtags that make us feeling like we are doing something, doing enough. We wear hoodies and hold signs that say “I AM TRAYVON” because us too, because we get it, because we don’t want to stand with the thing others are fighting against or admit we are complicit. We are willing to talk about race, so long as it’s on our terms, and so long as we are included in every possible solution, every list of heroes, every possible space and conversation, so long as we get to talk first and last.
A few months ago, there was a huge protest of the Washington team name in Minnesota. The event was planned by Native people and featured a slate of predominantly Native speakers. During the protest, there were a few men near the back of the crowd trying to direct people away from the stage, tried to get them chanting and “occupying” parts of the sidewalk. These men, all White men, were shouting things like, “let’s make this a real protest.” At a protest that was specifically about fighting the marginalization of Native people, these white men were actively trying to push their voices above those on stage, were actively criticizing the demonstration organized by Native people for a Native movement.
The same behavior has been repeated again and again by white “allies” in response to the national fight for Black lives. White people are criticizing, translating, and co-opting a movement that is not theirs, weighing in and “devil’s advocating” about how Black communities should properly react to the shooting of Black children. We talk about the number of times we’ve watched the Eric Garner video like it is currency for our caring, and then jump on our soap box to tell anyone who will listen what should happen next, what will “fix” it. We speak to Black people who founded, organized, and inspired the movement like they don’t understand what it means to protest. We say, “Let us help by telling all you Black leaders what you obviously don’t understand, let us tell you how to create a movement centered on the lives of Black children.” We say, in so many ways, “let White people talk.”
We feel that our anger at oppression entitles us to an opinion, but our entitlement is that oppression. White people need to support this movement without leading it, need to amplify voices other than their own. White solidarity shouldn’t erase the voices of Black people who are telling us exactly what we’ve refused to hear for so long. It should alarm us if White writers and thinkers are the primary voices of the experiences of color in our lives, telling us of something they’ve read, of a story a friend told them.
It should make us uncomfortable if nothing we read about race makes us uncomfortable.
We police Black voices with calls of being impolite, for being “unproductive” to White listening, for showing a fraction of the anger for large offenses that many White voices show for very small ones. We accuse them of being racist for conversations that name race, that don’t make room for the devaluing of their children and coddle grown-ass White people who haven’t found a moment in life yet to really think about race. We let White people not listen by attempting to translate for messages that need no translation.
I will keep saying “we,” because I am a White male, and because we have a problem. We have a problem listening, we have a problem not talking, we have a problem not being in front and in charge. We have a lot of work to do, and we need to do it without celebrating every small step we take, we need to do it with an understanding that the work is necessary and we are behind. It’s time we sit down, listen, and be led.