Monday, March 18, 2013

White Privilege

I've been struggling to explain white privilege to a few people lately.  It's easy to think of the idea as just another type of racism - of course I don't have any extra privilege because I'm white - that would be racist!  We're all colorblind here!  Unfortunately, white privilege is very real, has been studied, and affects many people in a variety of negative ways, including white people.

I can walk through an expensive clothing store and not be followed.  I can buy bandages that are my skin color.  I don't have to worry that if a landlord doesn't accept my application, it's because of my race or skin color.  I can behave badly, and not have someone chalk that up to my race or have to feel like I'm representing everyone who looks like me.

Those are only some of the examples I've thought of.  There are more here and many other places online.  It's easy for me to think of ways that I get treated differently (not usually in a good way) because I'm a woman, but it's less comfortable to think of all the ways I benefit from the general prejudice and stereotypes in our society.

A friend who is a grad student in geography sent me an article that I found extremely interesting, entitled "Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California." (reference at the end of the post).  I've only read about 1/5 of it so far, partly because I've been swamped with work and partly because I am having so many emotions while I read it.  Partly I'm astonished that someone/many someones have studied something I've been noticing for years and never knew a name for.  There's a reason trucks can go on 880 (the freeway that goes through the area I used to teach in) and not on 580 (the area that runs through the hills where the upper middle class and upper class white people live.

The first thing that stood out to me from this article was that it was a church denomination that commissioned the first study on environmental racism in the 1980s.  I'm not sure if they called it environmental racism then but I'm pretty impressed because a church has no reason to study that except that they believe in equality and justice.

There was more that made me think, and I hope that the excerpts below will bring up thoughts for anyone reading this as well.  My comments are probably a bit disjointed because I've found that when I feel very passionately about a subject I have trouble being coherent and I'm also very tired.  So I'll just leave you with some quotes from the article:

A focus on white privilege enables us to develop a more structural, less conscious, and more deeply historicized understanding of racism.  It differs from a hostile, individual, discriminatory act, in that it refers to the privileges and benefits that accrue to white people by virtue of their whiteness... White privilege, together with overt and institutionalized racism, revewals how racism shapes places.  Hence, instead of asking if an incinerator was placed in a Latino community because the owner was prejudiced, I ask, why is it that whites are not comparably burdened with pollution?

In this scenario, whites do not necessarily intend to hurt people of color, but because they are unaware of their white-skin privilege, and because they accrue social and economic benefits by maintaining the status quo, they inevitably do.

Evidence of white privilege abounds.  It includes the degree to white whites assume ownership of this nation and its opportunities, people of color's efforts to "pass" in order to access whiteness, whites' resistance to attmepts to dismantle their privilege, and, conversely, even whites' efforts to shed their privilege.... whiteness pays off and whites wish to retain those benefits.

The final issue of white privilege is, at whose expense?  It is impossible to privilege one group without disadvantaging another.  

"Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California, by Laura Pulido, from Annals of the Assoication of American geographers, Vol 90, no 1.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Some adults find it hard to talk to children.  While I'm not advocating talking to strange children (well, they're all strange, I actually mean strangers talking to children), there is a secret I've learned if you ever need to have a conversation with your college roommate's kid or your boss's children.

If you ever want to get a child to talk, bring up birthdays.  Specifically their birthday.  A birthday is the one subject that every single child is absolutely enamored with because it revolves around them. You won't even have to ask much - just ask them when their birthdays are and most kids will be off and running.  Shyer kids might take a little more prompting, which is when you bring up cake or presents or birthday parties.

One of the first things I always did in my classroom was to make a birthday chart.  They have fancy ones at the teacher supply stores, but you can get any kind of calendar or posterboard and just write down names and birthdays. (This is much trickier when you have Jehovah's Witnesses in your classroom, as they're not supposed to celebrate birthdays.  I have only ever had one Jehovah's Witness in my class and he was pretty bummed about it so I tried to play down birthdays all year, but it was tough.)

It doesn't matter that much how you celebrate the birthdays as a teacher - whether that's with special pencils or cupcakes (in the few areas that still allow kids to bring sweets to school) or a special birthday hat - the important thing is to make the kid feel special, and for a reason they didn't have to ear.  It's a free celebration.  If the child's birthday is on a weekend or in the summer, you need to do the closest day or the half birthday, anything.

Some kids don't have a whole lot to celebrate.  Some kids are never celebrated at all.  One day a year teachers can help a little and celebrate kids for just existing - not for earning anything or getting a certain grade, but just for being themselves.