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.


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