Is it okay if a high school student says at the end of her year in tenth grade World Literature, "This class made me feel bad about being white?" I maintain that, if we are to create a new history that does not keep producing Fergusons and Freddie Grays, yes, this reaction is okay.
To be clear, I don't think guilt and shame are great motivators. When my student -- because, yes, this was my student a dozen+ years ago -- wrote this on her end-of-year evaluation, it's not like I jumped for joy or felt 100% awesome. I empathized with her as an individual, a young girl of 15 or 16 who was questioning her identity.
And yet, I also knew that I had spent September to June doing things to help her embrace her identity. Just not her whiteness. In addition to talking about literary strategies and about grammar, we read books that delved into what it meant to be an individual in society. I had my students write daily journals, and mini-memoirs, and different types of poetry. We talked from day one about our multiple identities and the different languages we used in different situations. Things were never black or white, good or bad. It was all about exploring complexity.
Before I started teaching high school, I had taught undergraduate students, a year of English Composition followed by a year of Intro to Women's Studies. The whole point there was to help kids see themselves out of boxes and to think about the world in nuanced ways. Sometimes -- okay, often -- this meant shedding light on ugly truths of history and contemporary culture.
So when I moved to the diverse suburbs of Washington, D.C., I brought that approach with me, along with the teacher evaluation tradition that wasn't required for high school teachers, but that I felt was important to help me know what got through.
What got through to this girl? She was one of only a few white pupils in a class that had American-born black students and students who had been born or whose parents had been born in Africa or Central America. She was used to living in this demographic but, apparently, not used to thinking about her privilege.
And that's what I wanted her to feel "bad" about. Not about who she was, but how her whiteness got her by in the world. How it granted access to things she might not even want. How it conferred meaning she didn't consent to. I wanted her to know that even if she were the most open-hearted person alive, that our society still looks at the color of her skin and makes one set of assumptions and that it looks at her classmates and makes other sets of assumptions.
Now that I am no longer teaching 15-year-olds and am instead raising a 10-year-old and a 5-year-old, I've thought a lot about whether this approach to discussing race still adds up for me. How will I feel in five years if my son comes home from World Literature feeling punched in the gut about his "race"? Kids are sensitive, or at least mine is. I want him to feel productive, not ashamed.
But the point is that those are not mutually exclusive. He can have pride in who he is, what his family stands for, what he does well, and how he shows up in the world. And none of those things equates to being proud of being white.
I chose to live in the D.C. suburbs because here, it is nearly impossible to be a white person and feel like the world revolves around you. Certainly some still try, but you never return from a trip to the grocery store or the library or the post office having heard only one language. This is a global community. Understanding the reality of different backgrounds is kind of built-in. It certainly helps to go to cultural events and exhibits, but my hope is that by living with people who bring so many different things to the table, my kids won't think of any one way to do things as "normal."
My son is one of only a few white kids in his fourth-grade class. "A lot of kids wrote about El Salvador," he said about their recent country report assignment. His DNA shows him to be more German than anything and also Irish, English and Lebanese. His uncle is French, and his mom studied in France, so he picked that country for his report.
When multicultural night rolled around, he was asked to read his report I think in part because he's a good speaker, but also because otherwise Europe would have had no representation!
Doing a multicultural night in a school with only a few kids of color can be kind of cringe-inducing. It's a whole different ballgame when the school, like ours, is always multicultural, where the kids have used home languages and countries of origin as points of inquiry and graphing data since they were in kindergarten.
There are things I don't love about public school. The testing. The size of classes. The confinement of the classrooms. Maybe when my short little redhead gets to middle school, maybe I'll feel pushed to make a different choice. But for now, when my kids are loved and cared for in their small, Title I public elementary school, I think that this daily exposure to difference is the most important piece of their education. You can't learn about getting along with different types of folks except by doing it. Which they do, dozens of times each and every day.
Three years ago, I took my children, then 3 and 7, down to the National Mall for the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. We didn't make it all the way to the Lincoln Memorial but listened and observed from the base of the Washington Monument. A group of black students marched by, holding signs and shouting. "Why are they so angry?" My son asked. A good question, but a tough one to answer to a young kid who has been learning that all people can work together in harmony.
As he's grown older, I've tried to integrate more answers to that question. It's easier now that he's read books on civil rights, learned about change-makers in Peace Camp and heard our minister speak about cultivating love to conquer bigotry and working actively for social justice.
In the past two years, there has also been ample proof on the news to show that we are not a color-blind society. At young ages, children describe skin tone like they do the color of your shirt. For white parents of white children, it's up to us to explain in age-appropriate ways that it's not always so simple without also teaching children prejudice and fear at the same time. I'm not going to lie; that's tricky. But it's important if we want to see a change.
My husband and I didn't grow up with meaningful connections to our families' countries of origin. If asked what makes his family special, my son might be more likely to say we're gluten-free than anything else. I hope he will come to develop pride in our values and our actions in the world. What I don't hope is that he comes to develop pride in being white.
To be proud of yourself -- your gifts, your heritage, your language, your values, your family -- that is not the same as being proud of your privilege.
I want my children to grow up knowing that privilege is conferred upon them whether they realize it and whether they like it or not. It's a challenging thing for a child, to understand this both/and, this complexity. At some stages of development, it's almost impossible. But our brains are pliable, and they will learn in the directions that we shape them.
Parents of kids of color have no choice but to talk to their kids about biases, stereotypes and racism. If we truly want a society where everyone is safe and free to celebrate who they are, teachers and parents of white children have to step up. They need to ensure that kids are challenged by history and literature that may not be pretty and that they are invited to engage in conversations that may be hard. As Frederick Douglass said, without struggle, there is no progress.
So to my former student, who is now nearly twice the age she was when I taught her: I hope you gained more from my class about the multiple shapes of identity than you took from it the bad feeling about being white. I hope you know that whether you feel good or bad about your white skin, it is working for you in ways you can't imagine. And you have the power to notice and acknowledge that and to do what you can to use it for good.
This post, written in May 2016, was one of four winners in the Term Paper of the Year competition at the 2016 BlogU Conference.