Skool Haze: Part 2

Image by twobee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image by twobee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Just how does a white teacher communicate identity and belonging to a black child or teen? Is their legitimate concern enough? Are a set of classroom guidelines and good intent enough to fill in the chasm of “who am I in relation to what you are?” Is the fact that they’re there enough? If a child doesn’t understand the power and pain of their skin color, how will a white teacher assist with this? How can a white teacher provide a young black male with the tools to survive when that teacher has no concept of the child’s reality and/or destiny?

See where I’m going with these questions? White people can’t teach identity to black people regardless of what their intent is. Nope, can’t be done. So it isn’t a question of is harm being done to our kids, it’s more a question of how do we mitigate the damage? What do those white eyes see when they look at our black children? Are they peering across the great divide of privilege and looking at blacks like they think they will never amount to anything?

I can say from the truth of my own life that white teachers give up on black kids, and they do it routinely. Sometimes it’s because they are unable to recognize intellect in any other population other than their own, and sometimes it’s because they can’t comprehend the import of being entrusted with black children. They look at their students and quietly categorize them and then funnel them to whatever they believe their potential to be. Simply because one chooses to teach or feels they have the aptitude doesn’t mean they have the skill to work with populations other than their own.

Mr. Hagen was a good white teacher, for good white kids. But for his black students, he was sorely lacking in empathy and understanding. These traits can only be cultivated in a teacher who is intellectually curious and courageous enough to step outside of their whiteness to see the true challenges of all of their students. It’s clear there will never be enough black teachers, but there is no end to bad white teachers. This is a sad and inexcusable deficit, and the response to this should be in keeping with the need. The fact is white teachers have a hard time understanding their kids of color, and this is a lack of knowledge and experience we can’t afford. These teachers should be exposed to as many aspects of the student’s life as possible.

I’ve met many people who were well-meaning, but who were singularly unqualified to do the jobs that were gifted to them through privilege. Teachers, social workers, doctors, lawyers and politicians – all horrendously bad at their jobs but are well protected by their skin color – ensconced in a strata of unearned benefits. This is the sad mirage of social good: People get so caught up in helping, they forget that working with these populations takes training and the willingness to be introspective. To teach and to help, one must be absolutely ready to learn.

Immersing young black kids in a white cultural experience they will never have full access to is an unavoidable and abusive act. It sets these kids up to think they will never be good enough because they aren’t white. America’s prisons are filled with men who thought that they weren’t good enough either. They were systematically taught to live up to no expectations.

But in the end, you know what scares me more than white teachers? White social workers who work in tandem with them and who collectively think that the key to balancing a social ill is a program or a guilt-laden vocabulary that will have no effect on anyone who doesn’t innately care anyway. The unconscious analyses of whites scare me, because privilege is so easy to forget if it’s the sea you swim in.

There’s nothing more dangerous than people who think they know what they’re doing simply because they care.

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Skool Haze: Part 1

Image courtesy of africa at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of africa at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

White teachers scare the hell out of me – or did anyway. Several made life difficult for me, and some did thinking they were doing genuinely good work. Mr. Hagen was my 6th grade teacher, and he was one of those people. He was a tall man with a booming loud voice and a disarming laugh. When he was in the room you knew it. He was always joking with students and having fun creatively teaching them how to learn lessons. He was all energy. I really liked him. But the day he put his hands on me, all that changed.

I can’t remember what triggered the incident. Was I talking too loud, or was I talking during a movie, or was I just horsing around with a classmate? I don’t know, because all I can remember are two emotions: his rage and my naked terror of it. He was screaming at the top of his lungs about what I was doing wrong like I couldn’t change it. He pulled me into the hall like a bag of trash bound for a dumpster, and I could feel the anger in his hands as he slammed me against the wall. I was pinned, berated and made to feel worthless. These are feelings that linger and take years to figure out.

What does it mean to have an adult that’s “trusted” render life-altering judgments and lay hands on you? But in that moment he didn’t see that he was white and I was a scared black kid; it missed his notice that a terrible event was being burned into a young brain. I was being taught not to trust people that looked like him. And to fear not just whites but institutions as well, even ones like public education, which supposedly work for the greater good of everyone.

I don’t know what was in Mr. Hagen’s heart, but the net effect of terrorizing a child was debilitation. I stopped wanting to learn. The trip to school from that day forward was long, and I didn’t live far from my school. My time in class was uncomfortable and boring as I tuned out my teachers’ voices. I drifted farther from my potential and closer to statistics that lead too many young black men to early graves. I became destructive and was frequently in trouble with the law. Eventually I saw no pathway for me in school – and definitely none to college – so I dropped out and tuned out.

Why would we expect black children to learn under conditions like that? Why would it be acceptable to us to condemn even one to the feeling of not belonging? Is our desire for social justice so all-consuming it fails to see the obvious or create any semblance of the world it imagines? Children are supposed to be protected, and I wasn’t protected. As a society, we should be going to extraordinary lengths to protect our black children if we suspect they are being harmed, even if the harm is inadvertent.

Bearing down with white privilege

Roger Clemens with a fan

As a white person engaged in anti-racism work, one of the things I struggle to get a firm grip on is my white privilege: that internal voice and belief system that tells me everything is going to be ok and I’ll usually come out on top.

It’s an arrogance that comes from looking like the people who have ruled this country for generations, regardless of my own personal or family story.

I’m raising a teenage daughter and working hard not to pass on the blind sense of privilege I inherited. Never mind the fact that I’m not too far removed from immigrant grandparents who had barely a grade-school education. My parents were both professionals with advanced degrees. No matter how much they might have suffered as first generation Americans, they passed on to me the internalized expectation that I was as good as anyone, that I would have adequate, if not surplus, resources and never know want. I am white, a man, and now, unfailingly older – privileged to the power of three.

Through my experience with the anti-racism organizing at Solid Ground, I have learned to identify my privileges. I strive to recognize my privilege programming in my daily interactions with others, and to recognize that my sense of entitlement and privilege is far from the reality of most who come to Solid Ground for work, services or a way to participate in building a better community.

I was reminded of the benefits of white privilege in a round-about way last month. Reading the The Seattle Times Sports section, I learned that famous pitcher Roger Clemens’ trial for perjury ended in mistrial. Clemens was accused  of lying in statements made during previous legal actions concerning his alleged use of performance enhancing drugs.

Judge Reggie Walton ruled that prosecutors had used “extremely prejudicial” evidence in the trial and let him off on what amounts to a technicality. Clemens’ crack legal team and the incompetence of prosecutors assigned to the case got him off the hook.

On the other hand, our judicial system is stuffed full of people, disproportionately people of color, who have been entrapped, held and convicted because of prejudicial evidence, overbearing police tactics and unprepared civil defense teams. The vast majority of people who are incarcerated do not have access to the high-powered defense team Clemens bought.

And they certainly don’t have fans throughout the court system the way Clemens does.

Following the trial’s abrupt end, Clemens “accepted hugs from a couple of court workers, shook hands with the security guards, and autographed baseballs for fans…” before “ducking into a nearby restaurant to escape the media horde following him.”

So, he strode into the courtroom, an award-winning pitcher taking to the mound, knowing his fastball and location would overwhelm his opponent. More disenfranchised people approach court expecting they will lose, regardless of the truth, and that their human dignity might well be assaulted along the way.

I’ve never thrown a Big League pitch nor made millions doing anything. But I share Clemens’ arrogance and assumption that I will win, that the world will take care of me. The real question, I guess, is what I do with that knowledge…

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