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white aNd privileged…

November 1, 2011

©2013 by Karsonya Wise Whitehead

As always, I left my Stereotypes class with more questions than answers, more hope than sorrow, and more laughter than tears. This class has become an important part of my Mon, Wed, and Fri teaching routine. It is not often that you stumble upon a group of students who actually read all of the assignments, spend time thinking and talking about the class when they are not there, and who walk into the classroom prepared to try and figure this race, class, and gender stuff out. After spending four weeks on race and four weeks on gender, we have finally reached class. I purposefully save this discussion until the end because it is so much harder to deal with, admit to, and discuss openly and honestly. In the past, I have had students leave my class and come straight into my office either very upset with the tenor of the discussion or crying about something I said, they said (or sometimes, something they thought), or one of their classmates said. There have been times when what they heard me say was the polar opposite of what I actually said. Or other times when they thought that I was only looking at them when we talked about white privilege. See, I have the advantage of being in the front of the room so I can see everyone’s face. I know  the moment when they begin to agree (the head starts to nod, a slight smile appears, and they start leaning forward) and the moment when they completely disagree (the eyes widen, heads begin to shake, or eyebrows start to furrow). I get it. Race is easier to discuss. Most (if not all) of my students are familiar with enslavement, the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King, Harriet Tubman, Black History Month, The Long Civil Rights Movement, etc…and they agree that equality must be achieved, that people should be equal, and most importantly, they note that they do not personally harbor any racist tendencies or ideologies. Gender is also easier to discuss. Again my students believe in gender equality, they believe that women should make equal pay for equal work, they love and respect their mothers, they know that women have contributed to our nation (We Shall Not Be Moved), they believe in girl power, etc…

And then there is class. These discussions are much more difficult because they involve conversations around privilege, economic status, and the haves and the have/nots. It forces them to look at their own lives as examples of privilege and reexamine what it really means to be middle-class. When we talk about privilege, we are talking about entitlement, advantages, benefits that they receive but they did not earn.

In this class, we are really wrestling with this issue, trying to figure out what it means in our lives and how it has shaped and colored our experiences. My class is 98% white, 76% male, and 100% privileged. We spent time today talking about what would happen in America if the Tea Party was comprised of a majority of black people. We read Tim Wise‘s article \”What if the Tea Party was black?\”, watched Jasiri X’s video \”What if the Tea Party was black?\”, and spent the rest of the class trying to make sense out of it all. The discussion was heated as students argued about everything from who was controlling the Tea Party’s message to the changing face and fabric of the American racial fabric. One student after mentioning how he had traveled down to join the “Occupy Baltimore” protest and met up with about 20 people, 15 of which were men and women who are temporarily experiencing homelessness wondered if we should be talking about white privilege as if it was separate from race. Another student wondered what the world is going to look like and what the pressing issues will be in the year 2042, when whites will be in the minority (\”U.S. Census Report\. The student mentioned that he wasn’t nervous about the new America, but he was very curious. The best moment (for me!) was when a student mentioned how white people were afraid of President Obama because he was half-black and then I mentioned that President Obama was also half-white and that (so far) people of color were not admitting to being afraid of that part of him.

There was also a moment – about halfway into the class – when I realized that we, as a collective, were in the stream. We were having one of those rare educational moments when everybody was sharing, everybody was listening, and everybody was first seeking to understand before they were understood. These are the days when I love what I do…when I realize that these are the kinds of discussions that shape and shift people’s values and that challenge their worldviews. These are the kind of discussions that I enjoyed the most when I was a undergraduate at Lincoln University PA, a peace fellow at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana and a doctoral student at UMBC. It really was a good daY for teaching…and learning.

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