White privilege. White anti-racist. White ally. White … hypocrisy.
I feel uncomfortable, and as complainy and self-centered as this post is, I promise I’m glad of my discomfort. It’s not that I’m guilty for my whiteness—I don’t think. I think I feel… just pushed. I feel a healthy dose of fear and shame, I think. Part of my privilege has been exposed to me, which of course is a good thing, like I say—but because my privilege to speak the way I want when I want now has more light on it, I feel silenced. And also… ashamed for forgetting.
I felt this way in one of the courses I took in college, just a year ago. The course wasn’t about privilege—it was about Self & Identity—but we did Unpack our Invisible Knapsacks of straight privilege. And male privilege. White privilege was mentioned, and we were highly encouraged to explore it, but guess what? The course was taught by a white woman. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that she gravitated toward issues that she felt were more central to her self & identity.
I read a little bell hooks, but not enough to know that saying so too often sounds sort of like name-dropping. And I thought and felt a lot. And then of course I had the privilege to forget what it felt like and focus on other things—and then come and teach. Children. I’m ashamed for not feeling my privilege hard enough in the first place for it to be something I couldn’t dream of forgetting about. I have the privilege of forgetting about it and living my regular old white privileged life, and I took advantage of that privilege. I’m ashamed for what I might have said or done or implicitly taught in the meantime, to my students or to others, because I had the privilege to forget.
Learning to see sexism shook my world—I didn’t forget about that. It’s colored every interaction and conversation and thought I’ve had since February 2010, when I first cried so hard about it I wanted to throw up. But now I’ve learned the terms “intersectionality” and “derailing” and “WWT” and I wonder if even feeling rocked like that by the privilege I don’t have blinded me to all the ways I continued to exercise the privilege I do have.
I’m scared to write about this publicly, because I fear I might naively say something ignorant or offend someone or expose yet another chasm of feeling between me, a white female who doesn’t “get it” and people of color. That fear is what makes me uncomfortable, and I’m grateful for it—but feeling grateful doesn’t change the fact that it’s fear. (“but,” I tell myself, “this is your blog! Surely you can express your fear all you want without worrying about dominating some discussion with your whiteness?”… but I just don’t know. I’m still taking up word-space. And still turning a discussion about racism around so it’s all about me.)
What can I talk about here? If I call out and apologize for my assumptions, will I be perpetuating something? Knowing I breathe this smog day in and day out, how do I open my mouth and know I’m not doing more harm than good?
My head has been spinning for three days. I’ve been reading and reading and reading, and I’ve felt more confusion than clarity. I’m told I’ll never understand, and I feel just how absolutely true that is. I want to understand, I want to DO something—but I feel like I’ve just opened my eyes and made the nauseating realization that the ground I’ve been walking on for 22 years isn’t ground at all, but people—how do I take a step in the right direction if I’m afraid every move I make will hurt someone or maintain some hurtful stereotype? If even talking about my own feeling of paralysis is probably derailing something productive?
I feel silenced because while I know my heart’s in the right place, I know nothing about the actual effect of what I say. I don’t know anything about anti-racism other than what I’ve read in the last 48 hours.
I don’t know how to even begin addressing race in my classroom or in my life. I don’t see enough of my privilege yet. I want to feel my whiteness in a similar way that I feel my femaleness–but of course I can’t, ever.
In my classroom, I’ve been what I now realize is conspicuously silent about race (which actually reminds me of another reason my head is spinning: “TFA claims it is apolitical. Of course, the disclaiming of politics is itself a political act.” –Alex Diamond, Rethinking Schools).
- I don’t let my students call things “gay” or call each other “faggot,” but I have no idea what to say when they call each other “nigga.” Is it racist not to address it, or is it racist to limit their own choice in how they refer to their own friends?
- I fumble and don’t know how to respond when they say our school is bad because this is where all the black people live. Is it racist to say it has to do with more than that, or is it racist to agree?
- I don’t say anything but ‘thank you’ when they tell me how pretty my eyes are—is it racist to ask them why they don’t think theirs are just as pretty and ask why they wear colored contacts so often, or is it racist to move on and thus implicitly accept that standard of beauty?
- Before TAKS, when the district made a quick request for a list of all African-American students and whether they were projected to definitely pass, maybe pass, or fail the test (due by that day at noon), I thought it was unfair because our school was obviously not considered in the timeline. Every other school could do so in a matter of minutes—our student population is half African American, so this deadline meant pulling teachers out of class and going through their whole roster with them. Was it racist for me to have difficulty immediately categorizing my students into black and non-black categories (i.e. ignoring the importance of race and being “colorblind”), or would it have been racist for me to have been able to sort them with ease?
I know I’m being the best teacher I know how to be for my kids–but I don’t know if that’s good enough. I know there’s not a “playbook” to memorize that tells me what is racist and what is not in every single situation I face. On some level, I still know that digging in and engaging honestly in discussions about race is better than abstaining out of fear or shame. So if I’ve hurt anybody with the words I’ve written (either today or anytime in the past year), please let me know so I can apologize and learn how not to continue to do so. But part of me feels that ignoring it (especially on a site like this, when so many of us are teaching children) like I have does more harm than anything I’ve actually written, so I guess we’ll let this pathetically confused and self-indulgent post be my first step in some kind of right direction.