On Being White

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I have lived my entire life in a predominately white society. Growing up as a child I lived in a white community, later when going to college, more of the same, with a smattering of people of color entering my life gradually until moving to the Twin Cities in the early twenties. Even then, I still lived in an obviously white community, hung out with white friends, worked in places whereby most of my colleagues except for a few were white as well.

Along the way, I met people of color in various situations, college primarily, a few opportunities in the theatre and the occasional co-worker in hospital work. Actually, it was the workplace I met my first true black friend. He and I tested each other out for several months until we came to the conclusion we liked a lot of the same things, sports, politics and women. At work we became fast friends, and we supported each other through many difficult situations. We worked in a psychiatric hospital, where dealing with mental illness was a requirement of the job, skills learned taught us ideals of acceptance and tolerance in many tenuous situations. I think the importance of that relationship has a lot to do with how I would go on to treat people in all walks of my life, with an ultimate focus on respect and a desire to know about their lives and how they might impact my own.

So why do I choose today to speak of being white? I spent my morning and afternoon at the 2018 Conference on Racial and Social Justice, sponsored by the National Education Association, NEA. I knew well I would probably be a minority at the gathering, given the nature of the focus to be on its namesake, breaking down the barriers of racial injustice at the hands of a predominately white society, with a central focus being how educators handle themselves and treat their students in the classroom.

The irony of today’s session with the current events of the news is daunting in its clear connection to the atrocity of the recent Supreme Court Janus ruling and the immigration chaos happening on our border. In the conference which hosted over 800 attendees there was a general feeling of anger and frustration with the current focus toward public education, especially union driven ideals when it comes to protecting the interest of both the student and the teacher in the classroom. Couple that with the issue of racism as it permeates our society, and the break out sessions held much intrigue. I chose to sit in on a roundtable exploration of being a white teacher in a diverse classroom. This seemed readily appropriate because that is the demographic of my own classroom.

I specifically focused my day on sessions dealing with being that white teacher in a diverse setting. During that session I told a story of my own racial bias that blossomed into a heavy discussion of white privilege and the idea of whites needing to at one point, as called out by a member – figure out their own racism before they can address other issues. I immediately felt discomfort, but I was supposed to, this was all meant to be part of an all day learning session. The adage of how do you learn with disagreement and controversy holds well here. I wasn’t looking for a Kumbaya session, and it didn’t occur.

As the talk came to a close the moderators asked if everyone felt ok, and acknowledged hoping there were good takeaways. There were around eight of us at the table. I immediately said, ‘I’ve never felt more uncomfortable in my life.’ I meant it, but not in a negative way. I meant it as a moment of growth. People naturally asked why, and I told them that my feelings were that I am so wrapped up in my own privilege being a white man I have a long ways ahead toward figuring this out. My next statement then proved to be the pivotal learning moment.

I said to the group that this has been awesome, and I will take the next few days and process this, write about it, think about it and gradually come to terms with what my struggles are. A woman at the table then said to me, ‘I’m glad you’re uncomfortable. You get to go home and process this, and take a week, however long, and maybe write about it and feel better down the road.’ She then said, ‘I’m going to deal with it tonight, and in the morning and all day tomorrow, the next day, and every day as I have been my entire life.’ She was speaking from experience, she was African-American, and she was smiling, and I never felt more welcomed into a learning moment in my life. My whole pitch on what my takeaway should be, or needed to be, or ought to be, immediately shifted. I was grateful, and afterwards she and I had some time to talk and I shared a couple more stories, and so did she, and I walked away a little head blown by the moment.

So why am I suddenly having this revelation even though I’ve walked around thinking about these various aspects of racial discrimination and injustice most of my life and throughout all of my teaching career? My only answer is that I don’t experience it directly, and if I am going to be an ally for racial and social justice in my local and national society, I need to continue to listen in these moments rather than talk through my rationalizations.

This was one experience in a conference that filled me with a new knowledge of what injustice truly means to our society and our constantly changing world we live in today in both America and throughout the globe. There are many experiences ahead, and I do plan to keep listening.

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