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As February sat on the horizon, I contemplated blog ideas that would befit the month. I knew I wanted to write an article in honor of Black History month, but, quite frankly, I was nervous. I am very aware that my status as a white person makes it a delicate topic for me to attempt to navigate. I have always considered myself an advocate for equality. I see the different colors of this world as beautiful and inspiring. It is the very thing that makes our world a magnificent tapestry of which I am honored to be a part. Being an advocate, however, does not make me privy to the true trials and tribulations that affect minorities in today’s culture. I faced this truth head on last school year when I attempted a discussion with my freshman class about white privilege.
I am always looking for new ways to introduce my lessons and make them current and relevant to today’s students. I absolutely love teaching Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The issues that Lee dealt with in her book, written in the ‘60’s but set in the small, fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930’s, are still painfully relevant today. To begin our unit last year, I found an article written by Lori Lakin Hutcherson in which she discusses what institutionalized racism feels and looks like today. She eloquently explains white privilege, not as something that every white person does “wrong,” but rather an advantage bestowed on the white population, not because they’ve earned it, but simply because of the color of skin with which they were born.
Knowledge makes us more empathetic and thus kinder individuals.
To be perfectly honest, her article opened my eyes to the real meaning of the term. I, too, had failed to fully acknowledge the countless ways my life was naturally less complicated simply because I was white. I was excited to be able to open my students’ eyes as well. My goal as a teacher is to not only educate them on the curriculum, but to make them wise, kind, virtuous men and women that will work towards making this world a better place. Knowledge makes us more empathetic and thus kinder individuals. My hope was that being made aware of the difficulties that this black woman has had to overcome might encourage my students to accept the concept of white privilege and work towards ending it. I envisioned my students of color nodding in agreement, understanding that many white people are simply ignorant to the struggle, while my white students would sit, mouth agape, suddenly enlightened. They would understand that being the recipient of white privilege doesn’t automatically make you racist. The problem is in failing to acknowledge that it is real, and not working towards being an advocate for change.
The teacher gets schooled
Imagine my shock and dismay when the actual reaction to this article was anything but enlightenment. I was instantly hit with open hostility. My first thought was that they must be misunderstanding. “Listen,” I explained. “She’s not suggesting that you are at fault for being white, or that your whiteness automatically makes you the enemy. You just have to understand the difficulties that she endures for no other reason than she is black.” I work hard to foster an environment of mutual respect, and because of that they usually listen to my lectures with an open mind. Minds were far from open on this day.
The bursting of my white-washed bubble
Some of my white students started throwing around the term “white privilege” as a joke, or as a muscle they were arrogantly and ignorantly flexing. Instead of trying to combat the privilege, it seemed like they were wearing the label with pride. I was appalled and disgusted, and to be perfectly honest, I will never look at our student body in quite the same way again. I was suddenly excruciatingly aware that this, too, was a result of my white privilege. I had taught for fifteen years in my happy little white-washed bubble. I really believed that our students were above the hatred and bigotry so evident in so much of the world. I am now painfully certain that the reaction I received that day did not surprise my black students in the least.
The struggle to fight willful ignorance
Early in my teaching career, the response I received would have made me terrified to approach this topic again. Of course even then I wanted nothing more than to produce kind, unprejudiced students. But I also wanted to avoid ruffling feathers and offending people. Fifteen years in the classroom has brought with it both bravery and an even stronger conviction to expose my students to the realities of the world around them. I am not going to apologize for being white. But I am going to use the advantage of my skin color to be a warrior for justice. Refusing to acknowledge that white privilege exists is willful ignorance. We need to be educated so this ignorance does not continue to grow.
Just because it is easier for us to ignore…we cannot pretend it does not exist.
White people need to understand that we are equally responsible for fighting injustice. Just because it is easier for us to ignore because it may not touch our lives directly does not mean that we can pretend it does not exist. People of color are not given the opportunity to opt out of the fight against injustice. The sad truth is that there have been times when I have looked at my two sons, and the benefit of their race has hit me hard. I know that I am spared the fears that enter the hearts of black mothers when they prepare their sons to go out into the world. My boys were born with a natural shield against many of the dangers that black men will face, and that shield is nothing more impenetrable than the color of their skin.
Black History Month serves to challenge negative stereotypes that still exist, and honor the positivity and strength that a comes from overcoming incredible hardships.
Black History Month exists to remind the world that black people have always been contributing members of our nation. The month serves to challenge the negative stereotypes that still exist, and honor the positivity and strength that comes from overcoming incredible hardships. Nearly 90 years after it was first created by Carter G. Woodson, Black History Month is every bit as important as it was at its first inception. To celebrate the month, we should read books and watch movies that honor the achievements of black culture. We should recognize and respect the struggles that black people have endured. And we must actively fight the prejudice and discrimination that made such a month necessary in the first place.