Saturday, June 27, 2020

White Privilege Chronicles: Education is Designed for Me

I always thought education was the great equalizer.

One of my first pivotal realizations happened when a 5th grade boy used to hang out in my apartment. He struggled to read three-letter words. I was baffled by that because there was nothing I knew that made him different than anyone else who came over to my apartment. I decided to go across the street to the school in my neighborhood and visit with the Assistant Principal about it. When I explained the situation and asked why that might be, she simply shrugged and very matter-of-factly stated, “Maybe he has reached his peak.”

Her comment shook me.

I volunteered at that same school for many years. At one point, the school was chosen to have the internet installed. Other schools had already received the internet by then, but I was happy it was finally happening in our school. Workers came in during the day and entire classrooms were displaced--like the first grade classroom who’s new surroundings became the main floor hallway for a week so the workers could install the internet in their classroom. It was noisy and distracting...but it seemed like the price we had to pay in order to get up to speed. I thought nothing of it until a friend of mine...a teacher from Allen, Texas (a suburb of Dallas), came to visit. She asked why it was so noisy and why kids were in the hallways. I explained that we were finally getting the internet. She looked puzzled. “That would *never* happen in Allen!” she explained. I was confused. It had never occurred to me that it could be done differently. In her school, the workers were required to work at night so as not to disrupt the kids’ learning. That made so much more sense! I wasn’t sure if it had never occurred to our school administrators or if they just didn’t want to spend the money on overtime. Either way, kids’ learning was disrupted for a good bit of that semester.

Again, at the same school, a friend of mine began subbing. She had a college degree, which is required of substitute teachers in Texas, but she had no teaching background or experience and her degree wasn’t in English, which was where she was placed. She was asked to teach fifth grade English Language Arts. Fifth grade ELA was really important back then because fifth grade was the year they had to take TAAS, the state standardized test, and had to pass Reading, Writing, and Math in order to move on. My friend subbed for several days in a row and then was asked if she would be a permanent sub for the rest of the year. She taught that class for the majority of the school year. These fifth graders’ entire future was determined by how much they could learn from a substitute with no prior experience.

One could say that was just my experience in one school, but I have been in more than one urban school in my career and things like these aren’t uncommon. I have more stories.

Where you live determines what kind of resources your school gets. Kids’ in urban communities have to work harder to learn.

I can already guess what some might angrily comment, “Not all teachers/principals are bad!” “We need to weed out the bad teachers!” “DISD isn’t like that anymore!” But while each of those statements may be true, there is a SYSTEM that has been created. Here are some facts:

  • Teachers in urban schools still don’t believe that their kids are college material. It shows on a survey DISD does with the teachers in their schools every year. I’ve sat on SBDM (Site-Based Decision Making) Advisory boards of at least five schools and hear how teachers options for students. When teachers don’t believe kids are college material, they teach them differently. They prepare them differently. Less resources are put toward college and more are put toward technical education. 
  • The state dumbs down the requirements of what it takes to graduate from high school. The state of Texas used to require four credits in each core area: math, reading, science, and history. But graduation rates were low. It didn’t make them look good. So instead of trying to figure out how to improve their educational system, they created, “A new, more flexible graduation program” where students only have to have three credits in math, science, and history. They achieved their goal. High school graduation rates went up and the state looked better to the outsiders. However, it didn’t do the kids any favors. Competitive colleges want to see that kids have taken more core classes and more *rigorous* core classes. If a school isn’t pushing them to do that, kids take what is required. Kids and parents don’t find out until they’re trying to apply to college that they didn’t have a rigorous enough transcript to make them attractive to the competitive colleges. Even then, many of them don’t really know why the colleges aren’t accepting them. They did what was required so they assume it is some deficiency on their part. Instead, the system created a lack of opportunity for them.
  • Many schools across the nation have started offering more technical education options and make them sound exciting by calling them “collegiate” or “early colleges” or even just flat-out calling them “technical institutes.” Money is invested into them, they look fancy, and marketing teams go to town. While some are truly AS (Associate of Science “Associate’s”), others are AAS (Associate of Applied Science) degrees, which simply prepare them to go into a technical field after high school. The argument is that those kids will “make more than I do” when they get out of high school. While this may be true for some, the $50,000-$75,000 salary right out of high school is not what everyone gets. And the truth of the matter is that a college degree will give a student way more options as they navigate their future. If you want to argue with me, please help me understand why the competitive private schools like Greenhill, St. Mark’s, Ursuline, Hockaday, etc. aren’t promoting these pathways in their schools.
While I truly want to believe that education is the great equalizer and that we all have the same shot at making it big in life, I have learned it’s not true.

While I may have joined others in the past of lamenting that only about 6% of our kids in urban school districts classify as “prepared for college”...and while I might have blamed the other 94% for not doing enough...I have learned that the system is not designed for them to go to college and access the same opportunities that put them in a competitive college or workforce arena. I have learned that this is what makes it possible for us as White people, to continue to dominate the CEO, Board President, and top-level administration positions in our society.

Monday, June 22, 2020

White Privilege Chronicles: I'm not a Racist

About twenty-five years ago, I attended a Dismantling Racism weekend retreat. I went because I wanted to demonstrate that I was down with the cause. Internally, though, I was extremely nervous and quite afraid.

The workshop was designed to get White and Black people in the same room and to be honest with each other. It required White people to LISTEN to what their Black friends and participants had to say. While I wanted to believe I was ok with that, I had been in circles where people of color talked about things that White people had done that were irritating and I was afraid this was the opportunity for the tables to turn. I felt like I was opening myself up to Black people pointing out all of the ways my actions had wronged them. The thought of that confrontation made me extremely nervous.

I think I would like to tell you (and reassure you) that the confrontation doesn’t really happen in situations like that. I would like to tell you that the weekend was very pleasant and that we had a kumbayah moment. But it wasn’t and we didn’t. The weekend was just as uncomfortable as I’d expected.

At the beginning of the weekend, like many others in the room, I explained that I wasn’t taught to treat people differently. My parents raised me to be kind to everyone. I talked about the time a Black missionary stayed with us and how my parents helped him financially as my proof that I was taught not to discriminate.

The leaders of the workshop accepted my comments, but continued to push all of us on our kind memories and challenged us to go deeper.

As we sat and thought in silence and then listened to one or two others figure out some things that may have affected them in the past, my memories started coming back as well...

  • My aunt gave me a “n----- baby” rag doll for my sixteenth birthday. It didn’t even occur to me how wrong that was until college, when I started to tell a Black friend about my doll and stopped myself mid-sentence, realizing how inappropriate that was.

  • On the way to church, I heard black people jokes (and can still remember one of the jokes).

  • When showing pictures to my aunt and uncle after a mission trip, my uncle asked, “What are you doing with all of those n-------?” 

  • When visiting home after living in Dallas for a little while, an adult I was very close to matter-of-factly told me, “Janet, don’t you go marrying no black person.” (I think the “n” word was used, but I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt). 

  • A family member had hollered out a bus window at some people calling them “wetbacks.” 

I was shocked at what I ultimately well as what I had repressed.

We did another activity where Black people were asked to sit silently while the White people came up with a list of their privileges. The White people at the table sat for five or ten very long minutes trying to figure out what privileges we had. We couldn’t think of a single one. A Black lady who I had considered a friend sat beside me and watched incredulously, desperately trying not to speak and shout out all of the privileges we weren’t saying. I thought sure I had ruined our friendship.

Our friendship wasn’t ruined, but I was forced to acknowledge some ugly truths. I was forced to acknowledge that racism exists, whether I want to believe it does or not. I was forced to acknowledge that although I don’t see my privileges, my privileges impact others...and the people they impact are extremely aware of them, whether I am or not.

I was like the Emperor in The Emperor’s New Clothes. Growing up, I was sold a story. As long as I was nice to people, I couldn’t be racist. If I worked hard for what I had, then others should too...and if they didn’t have, it was because they didn’t work hard enough. The story made sense to me and I believed it.

But at the retreat, people called me out. They pointed out ways that, like the Emperor, I was not seeing how the things I had been told about Black people and how my privileges impacted my own thinking. They were trying to reveal to me what people of color already knew, whether or not I chose to listen.

I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to believe that I could be racist. It felt better when other [usually White] people affirmed that I was doing good things. It felt even better when other *Black* people affirmed that I was doing good things.

I look at that weekend and am thankful that the people in that room were willing to call me out. It wasn’t comfortable and it wasn’t fun. And it wasn’t the last time it happened. I realized I had a choice. I could leave the weekend and proceed by hanging around people who affirmed me and made me feel good about my actions or I could pay attention and use that as a starting point to go find some anti-racist clothes.

I chose to find “clothes”...but that’s not to say that I haven’t been exposed since. The reality is, whether I acknowledge it or not, my racism exists and is embedded in me. I don’t think I’ve heard a relative say the “n” word in 20 years, but often it’s the more covert stuff that is more dangerous.

In order to do different and be different, it is my responsibility to listen and learn. There are documentaries, conversations, and books all available for my consumption (even more so now than there were then...though they weren't completely absent back in 1995 either...but it took a little more effort to find). Today, if we listen, there are even people (literally) shouting in the streets.

I have learned that the shame doesn’t lie in stating that I am a racist. People of color already know that’s a part of who we are. Instead, it’s what we do with what we know.

Unlike the Emperor, I have decided that I’m not comfortable continuing to walk through the crowd naked. So when someone tells me I’m racist or have done something offensive, I believe them. (I don't like it...and it hurts...but I believe them). I then go back to the drawing board to find some new clothes...and try to have enough humility to thank them for letting me know.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

White Privilege Chronicles: I Know Your Reality Better Than You Do

In my early 20’s, I had moved into an apartment complex that was predominantly African-American. Every evening when I got home from work, the children in my neighborhood would come over and hang out. Just by welcoming the kids in, I had created a make-shift After-School program in my apartment.

I was working for a ministry at the time and a reporter caught wind of what I was doing. She thought it would be a good story. Fresh out of college and new to the big city, my ego swelled. The Dallas Morning News wants to do a story on me??? Of course I wasn’t going to turn that down!

The lady writing the article came to my apartment to visit a couple of times. Per usual, about twenty kids were gathered. She talked to them and had a photographer take pictures for the article.

When the article came out that Saturday, I eagerly went to the closest gas station to get a copy. It was on the FRONT PAGE of the religion section! Not only that, there was a small picture at the top of the VERY FRONT PAGE of the newspaper that beckoned people to look inside and read the article! I had made it big!

My neighbors weren't near as happy and told me so. I was crushed. I didn't understand why they were so upset. Looking back, here's what I learned:
  1. I hadn't bothered to ask permission from any of the parents to see if they wanted their children pictured in this article. Neither had the reporter or photographer. (What made any of us think it was ok to take pictures of children and splash them across the Dallas Morning News without talking to their parents?? Would we have done that in any other neighborhood? I'm pretty sure we would not have.)
  2. I wasn't the only person who was working to entertain and improve the quality of life for the children in that apartment complex. The apartment manager, who also lived in the apartments (and had for years), was often having little parties to keep the kids entertained and off the streets. She often threw the parties with her own money, yet no one had offered to do a story on her efforts...but, she was Black and was from that community so, for some reason, I guess her efforts didn't count.
  3. The article focused on how run-down the apartments were, as if the apartments being run down were the fault of the people who lived there instead of the fault of the owner who refused to take care of his/her if the people in the apartments created the rodent problem in the apartments instead of the owners refusing to provide enough pest control to get it under if I were the great one for subjecting myself to those conditions.
(Truthfully, and from re-reading the article, though I loved living in my apartments, I also felt the way the newspaper article presented me. I was doing good...and I hadn't thought to acknowledge the injustice of people living in those conditions and the gall of an owner who would perpetuate it.)

As I left my apartment that evening, one of my neighbors said, "That article was written by a white lady!" I shot back, "You don't know that!" We argued for a bit and I kept trying to convince them that they didn't know what they were talking about. But, of course, they did.

It wasn't that the reporter got the facts wrong. The facts were correct, but the slant was there. There's a way that white people write and talk about communities of color that I didn't understand then. We focus on the negative. We present the bad parts as if they're the fault of the people in the community instead of recognizing and acknowledging the systemic injustice that has occurred: the fact that people of color were forced to live in slipshod housing because they were redlined out of other neighborhoods...the fact that people of color were not allowed to even enroll in colleges until not that long ago...the fact that having less education has often meant lower-paying jobs, which means that being able to afford better housing isn't even an option.

We laud other white people as saviors and completely overlook the efforts of the people who live in those neighborhoods. Perhaps their efforts aren't to the level of what a white person can do. Again, that also has to do with systemic injustice...because the people in the community trying to do something typically aren't granted access to as many resources or gifted with a friend of a friend who offers grants and funding to pass that money along to them to improve their own community.

That evening, instead of listening to my Black neighbors and trying to understand what they saw and heard in the article, I, a White woman, worked hard to convince them that their reality was wrong.

Who was I?? ... Who am I?? convince another person that I know their reality better than they do?

But that is white privilege.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

White Privilege Chronicles: Being "Deserving"

Around my junior year in high school, our teacher/sponsor organized a trip to an FHA (Future Homemakers of America) conference in Louisville, Kentucky. This was a big deal and probably a first for all of us to visit a big city.

During our evening free time, a group of about six of us (all white, a mixture of guys and girls) left the hotel to walk around the downtown area and experience the city. As we walked, we began seeing bars on the windows. Not long after, a police car pulled up beside us and a white officer urgently told us, “You need to get out of here now! I’m serious as a heart attack!” Though we wanted to act bold, we knew he was protecting us and we quickly turned and walked in the other direction to get back to the hotel (and safety) as quickly as possible.

Fast forward about 10 years. As an adult, I moved into a neighborhood near Fair Park in Dallas, a neighborhood known for being predominantly African-American. A new Bank of America had gone up in Fair Park so I was excited to have one near me. (Financial institutions are unusual in African-American neighborhoods, but that's for another post).

I needed to get some cash so I had driven over to the bank one night around 9:00. I waited in the car until the African-American couple finished with their transaction and were walking off. I then walked up to the ATM. While standing there, a white police officer got out of his car and walked up to me. I was a little uncomfortable with him in my space, but he was an officer so I acknowledged him.

He asked me if I knew where I was. "Yes," I replied. He repeated his question with more insistence. "Yes," I replied. "I live here." Looking as if he questioned my ability to know where I was, he continued, "This is a bad part of town and you don't need to be here," he explained. "Where do you live?" he questioned. A little taken aback because I didn't feel like a stranger needed to know where I lived, I told him the street I lived on. He kinda shrugged (because my street truly was on the other side of Fair Park), cautioned me, and walked back to his police car.

From both of those incidents, I realized that the officers were being protective of me. That's what police do.

But what I realized after the second incident is that the officer approached ME. He didn't approach the African-American couple that was at the ATM before me. He didn't approach the people going in and out of the grocery store a few yards away. He approached ME. He wanted to make sure *I* was safe.

What I learned as a child and teenager is that the police are my friend, that they have my best interest at heart, and that I can trust them. What I have learned as an adult is that police protect people *from* the people in communities like the one where I now live, but are not necessarily there to protect the people who live *in* communities like mine.

Police protect the people they feel deserve to be protected. I am a "deserving" one. Apparently, the other people walking around the evening I went to the bank were not as deserving.

What is the difference? The only thing I could see is skin color. I'm guessing that's what the police officer saw as well.

Monday, June 15, 2020

White Privilege: Bootstraps

During my junior year in high school I was very involved in FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America). I had become the secretary of our local chapter and wanted to run for the District Treasurer.

I knew I needed to be creative and make my campaign something that stood out if I wanted to win. My mom (a stay-at-home-mom) jumped in to help. Before the internet was a thing, she somehow figured out how to make fortune cookies so we could embed a "fortune" in them: “Janet Morrison for Treasurer."

I got to school before sunrise that morning and boarded the bus to go to West Plains, Missouri (40 miles away). It wasn't until we had gotten off the bus in West Plains that I realized I had left the fortune cookies at the house! Panicked, I frantically called my parents and BEGGED them to bring them to me (bailing me out was not something my parents usually did). About 45 minutes later, my dad showed up, fortune cookies in hand.

Because my dad was self-employed, he didn't have to ask a boss to release him, nor was he an hourly wage worker who might have lost his job or, at the very least, lost a day's pay over his child's forgetfulness. He had a car, so it wasn't a question of figuring out how he would get there. We always had money for gas so the 80-mile round trip, though an inconvenience, wasn't an impossibility. All to bring me fortune cookies. All so I could win a political campaign.

It wasn't a landslide, but I did win. And in my mind, that meant I was the better candidate.

The reality was that I had advantages. I had parents who had the luxury to make all of that happen. Had I not had all of those luxuries and that domino effect of a mom who didn't have to work outside of the home, a dad who could leave his job, a family who didn't worry about hourly wages, a gas tank that was always full, the end result would have probably been different.

The other person may have only lost because they used the resources they had...and maybe those resources were simple markers and construction paper that weren't as flashy as homemade fortune cookies. Or maybe they had a working parent who couldn't take off to drive 80 miles to deliver their child's supplies that they forgot...not because they didn't want to, but because they didn't have a car, couldn't afford to take a day off without pay, or might have lost their job had they tried.

"Privilege" is our bootstraps that we like to think are due to our own hard work. "Privilege" is what helps us get ahead of our opponents and makes us think we earned it.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

White Privilege Chronicles--The Beginning

When I was a kid in first or second grade, my dad owned an oil business in rural Kansas. The business was about a football field away from our house and I often walked back and forth just to see what was going on and to hang out. The workers didn’t mind...or at least they never seemed to...but, then again, they did work for my dad.

Every morning, the big tanker trucks would leave to go into the fields. There was a gravel drive beside our house where they all had to go out. I don’t remember what I was doing...but I do remember one morning, walking across that gravel drive as a tanker truck was leaving for the day. I could have stepped up my speed to get out of the way, but I didn’t. I remember thinking, “He’s not going to run over me; my dad owns this place!” and continued sauntering across the gravel road. As I expected, the tanker truck slowed to let me pass.

Though no one told me I had power, I knew I did. At seven or eight years old, I knew I could stop a tanker truck. At seven or eight, I knew I would have no consequence for being defiant. Even though my parents would have scolded me had they been witnessing it, I inherently knew my dad’s employee was not going to expose me and, therefore, I would not get in trouble. My dad has power, ergo I have power.

And that’s how it starts.