Saturday, April 23, 2011

White Guilt?

No doubt about it, school districts are suffering.  The downturn in the economy has resulted in budget cuts across the board, even for the more affluent suburban districts who are not used to such belt-tightening.  In a recent opinion piece for the StarTribune*, Katherine Kersten complains that although there's no money for anything else, there's always money available to assuage white guilt.  She seems a bit put out that money in her district is being spent to send teachers to a conference on the topic of white privilege.  Her not-so-subtly sarcastic piece (I don't think I like her tone!) makes fun of conference topics and speakers, suggesting that the district is wasting precious financial resources on a "rich smorgasbord of white guilt," when the money could be spent on better things.

Underlying Kersten's diatribe are the beliefs that racism is over, America is a meritocracy, conferences like this are a waste of time and money, and people who speak and attend these conferences are laughable, over-sensitive wimps. Is she right?  I'm here to tell you that she isn't.  Racism is not over, and here's proof.  Last week after a high school lacrosse game, my son told me that during the course of the game a player on the opposing team called my son's friend, who is African American, a "nigger."  Of course, I was horrified, and asked if my son's friend had told the coach or the referee.  He hadn't and didn't plan on it. I wondered why not.  Could it be possible that this kid had learned that he wouldn't be heard?  Now, for sure gender plays a role here -- as my son explained, "real men take care of these things themselves" -- still, I can't help but think that this African American kid, attending a mostly white suburban school, has been socialized to know that it's not okay to talk about race, and that complaining about being the target of a clearly racist act (even Kersten couldn't deny that it was) would be a pointless, unmanly exercise.  

Maybe if teachers and coaches in our district had attended a white privilege conference like the one Kersten found laughable, the scenario would have played out differently.  Maybe those teachers would have talked about racism in school, instead of adopting the "colorblind" ideology that is so prevalent in education today. Maybe this kid would have learned that it's important to tell.  Maybe the offending white kid would have learned about his position of power and privilege and wouldn't have been so quick to use the racial slur.  Maybe.


Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Things White People Say

Yesterday I got my nails done.  (No, this post is not about how my white privilege allows me to earn the money to waste on this frivolity.) As I was sitting at the drying station, I found myself in a conversation with the young white woman sitting next to me.  Being a New Yorker, I don't usually talk to strangers, but she initiated the conversation so I went with it.  One thing led to another, and she asked me where I live.  When I told her, she complimented my town, saying what a nice place it is, and that her sister lives there, too.  

So far so good.  But then she added, "You have to drive through that one part of town to get to my sister's that's really scary, though."  She was referring to the older part of town that has a higher population of people of color than the rest of the town.  If there were a lot of criminal behaviors going on there it would reflect on the town averages, but crime stats are low for the town in general, much lower than the county and state averages. 

I didn't answer, so she kept going.  "Yeah," she said, "where my sister lives is really nice, but you should see the riffraff that she gets trick or treating on Halloween."  (I swear I'm not making this up.)  She never mentioned race, of course.  She didn't have to. She was using the code, and she assumed that, because I'm white, I understood what she meant. And of course, I did. If I had suggested to this person that her ideas are racist, I'm betting she would have been mortified.  

Of course, I'm complicit.  I could have questioned this young woman further.  I could have asked, "What do you mean by 'scary'?  Have you ever witnessed a crime, or felt personally threatened while in this part of town?"  I could have asked, "Why do you think the trick or treaters are 'riffraff'?  Have they banged on your sister's door, demanded more candy than she was giving, broken a window, thrown trash on her lawn, or behaved rudely in any way?" But I didn't ask any of these things.  I sat passively, albeit uncomfortably, and although I didn't agree with her, my silence gave tacit approval.  Because I’m white, and sadly, that’s often what white people do.