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Thursday, January 29, 2015

White privilege starts with the kids

I'm currently writing a piece on a course being taught at a local university, and off the record, one of the professors relayed to me this story, which I will now relay to you, here. (It's okay, no names).

This week, a woman professor had her 300-student lecture hall stand up. She read statements from cards, and the students were instructed to take a step forward or back as the statements applied to them.

Examples would be:
"If you've ever had to explain your hair, take a step back."
"If you've never been afraid of a police officer, take a step forward."
"If you've ever had someone ask you where you're really from, take a step back."
"If you've ever had someone react positively to you because they knew your parents or a family member, step forward."

At the end of the exercise, the white men were at the front, the white women behind them, next the black men, and in the back, the black women. The professor did not relay to me where other minorities ended up in the line.

To me, this is the obvious conclusion, but to most of these 18 year olds, it was a surprise, regardless of their race. Many of the less advantage felt validated, one saying, "You know, you never think of these little things, they're just your life, but they add up over time until they become back-breaking."

At the end of the class, a young white man made his way to the front, to speak with the professor after class.

He had suggestions for the professor as to what was wrong with the exercise and how she could achieve better results.

I'll just let the meta of the situation sink in for a moment.

...

Ready to unpack?

Okay, so here is a young white man, who after this whole exercise on privilege, didn't like being told he was lucky. Out of everyone in there, he decides without a second's hesitation, to question the woman professor, assuming he knew better, because his whole life, he's assumed he's known better.

The professor calmly recounted her history teaching the course, and her credentials to do so (which is what women have to do all the time to be taken seriously), in order for her exercise to maybe kind of hold muster against the ingrained beliefs of this young man. It probably didn't matter a bit. He probably has no idea that he just questioned a woman in a position of power. He probably thinks (and maybe actually would have) he'd have questioned a white man professor. He's entitled to, after all. He has ideas and merit. He knows this. And people listen to him. He's used to that.

That is the privilege.

Anyway, his suggestion? He wanted the professor to have the students close their eyes as they went through the cards. It was his belief that the people of color in the room were taking cues from each other to move backward as a group to make the difference seem more extreme.

I'm serious. That is what he thought.

And that is the same exact thought we come up against on the internet and in real life each and every day as we deal with trying to educate people about their privilege. Only they're not 18 anymore, and they're not nearly as easy to teach or as willing to learn.

This is the problem. And it starts with the kids.



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