Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Comfort of Privilege in Classrooms

A few months ago I got into a debate about race, privilege, and education.

The debate was sparked by an article from the Portland Tribune about how public schools in Portland deal with issues of race and culture. The people I was debating with, as well as members of the conservative blogosphere, latched onto a comment made by principle Verenice Gutierrez. From the article:
Take the peanut butter sandwich, a seemingly innocent example a teacher used in a lesson last school year.
“What about Somali or Hispanic students, who might not eat sandwiches?” says Gutierrez, principal at Harvey Scott K-8 School, a diverse school of 500 students in Northeast Portland’s Cully neighborhood. 
People thought it was absurd to present a PB&J sandwich as something with racial connotations.

I found myself in the rhetorically difficult position of defending what someone else found to be absurd.

The PB&J sandwich was presented as "a seemingly innocent example." It was presented as something that most will consider an innocuous everyday object, and therein lies the racial connotation. PB&J is not an everyday object for most people around the world.

Try finding peanut butter in another country outside of the US (see what I did there). Good luck with that.

The debate got me to reflect on my classroom. I have made a career of working with students from many other cultures. As a result, I've learned that my status as an American is valued, but that doesn't mean my students want me to make them more American-like.

It has made me sensitive to the how cultural differences are useful-yet-tricky in the classroom.

This weekend, many of the students I am working with this term will enthusiastically celebrate a major holiday. And no, it is not Groundhog's Day. I have a lot of students from China in my class, and it's Chinese New Year on Friday.

It's a pretty big deal. I extended a deadline because that holiday is a major part of my students' everyday experience. That felt nice.

But there's something else going on when cultures mingle. My students travel away from home, outside of their own culture, to get an education from me in a place I am familiar with, a place where I am comfortable.

That's what privilege feels like, living and working in a place where you are familiar, where you are comfortable. Working in a place where institutions are familiar to you - and with you.

That is not something you notice when it's happening - unless someone points it out.

And it is often uncomfortable to have that pointed out.

NPR Music has a great post on how this recently (and not-so-recently) played out in the music world. This year Macklemore won the Best Rap Album Grammy. In 1954 Dave Brubeck was on the cover of Time for a story on jazz that also featured Duke Ellington.
...Both Macklemore and Brubeck, conscientious of their whiteness, were troubled that institutions had elevated them above black innovators in an African-American music.
Both men were happy to be honored, but both were aware of how the honor reflected ways in which the music institution was more comfortable - more familiar - with white artists.

People love the music Macklemore and Brubeck made. Their music isn't racist or a sign of privilege, but the fact that institutions find it easier to acknowledge that music is problematic - a sign of race impacting institutions in ways we do not want.

PB&J is not racist or a sign of privilege, but our assumption that it is an everyday object for everyone is problematic.
***Added 1/31/2014***
A friend sent me this video after reading this post.  Seems appropriate.