Drinking the Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
May 21 2011


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.

6 Responses

  1. adrilicious

    I’m so glad you wrote this. I’m so glad you shared this. While I don’t have personal knowledge / experience with dealing with white privilege, I can say this: Awareness, both of how racism works, how it concretely privileges some folks and explicitly oppresses other folks is probably is crucial – you’ve done that. I think it’s inherently uncomfortable. I think holding onto that discomfort is also pretty important. I think it’s important for there to be a space where allies can work on and focus on themselves. I’m gonna email you with the contact information for one of my favorite white anti-racist allies. She’s amazing and can maybe connect you to some folks who you’re near.

    In the past, I’ve worked in the framework (as an ally against homophobia) am I complicit or am I, in this moment right here, moving against homophobia. This has helped me frame my actions and go back and try to address things that I’ve f-ed up.

    Still – I think there’s a difference between challenging biases and taking responsibility for addressing them and simply stating the appearance of bias and just rolling with it as if it’s someone else’s job to address (I think you know what I’m getting at here).

    Anyway – hopefully this doesn’t sound condescending ’cause it really isn’t my job or in my power to define things for other people – but I really feel good about you as an ally (and I’m thankful for that).

    • Wess

      ‘Thank YOU!
      Space to work and focus on ourselves sounds like it’d be interesting and productive, and I would love that contact info– but it also sounds a bit like… it could be easy to miss the point, maybe? I feel like it could easily be a misled conversation between a bunch of well-intentioned but clueless white people, who could end up defining things weirdly or excusing too much.
      … Or maybe (probably) not everyone is as clueless as I feel :P

  2. Ms. R

    Thank you for writing this. I feel like you framed your thoughts more eloquently then I possibly could. I also feel like this is such an important issue to bring up, because no matter what our race or background, how we see the world will effect the children we teach.

  3. Another thanks for writing this. I’ve been trying to figure out the role of a space like this and the reason (well, okay, probably not the reason) and purpose of the discomfort–how to use it for good instead of just a frustrating mire of thoughts and feelings and an overarching desire to do good/right but being unable to. It’s helpful to know others are going through the same.

  4. GOOD WORK. Today I mentioned something about two male teachers and said they were allies, then followed with, “What do you think allies means?” The response from Bryant: “GAY?” to which the class burst into laughter. I said no, though acknowledged it might be a reasonable guess, and when the laughter continued I responded with, “If it didn’t, it wouldn’t matter. It’s not bad.”

    The response from Sierra in the back corner, the calm in my storm of every fifth period class, was, “Yes there is. They will burn in hell.”

    I ignored it.

    Writing about these kinds of things is not even square one, it’s like square 47. It takes a lot to register when discrimination is thick, to point it out and remember it, to remember to talk about it, to repeat it to yourself, to expose it. To acknowledge it as SOMETHING. Especially the blurry ones. There are no answers, there are no handbooks. Especially because I think the answers are constantly changing with time and circumstance and tone and eye contact and awareness.

    I have no good conclusion. But it was good of you to write this.

  5. kristinmihok

    I appreciate the honesty in this post and it has caused me to reflect on my own beliefs about white guilt. Thank you for opening my eyes a bit.

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