When I Learned I Was White

A week ago, I read Jose Vilson’s Educon 2.3 reflection, “#Educon, Edu-Nerds, Chris Lehmann, and A Slice of Race in the 21st Century”. Jose’s post was a powerful reflection on race, told through an anecdote of a conference session he attended. In that session, a participant commented that inquiry-based learning may be great for some kids, but others might need direct instruction.

Chris Lehman, principal of Science Leadership Academy,  responded immediately:

“Well, I’d be careful with that, because when people hear that, then we start getting into whose kids should get inquiry-based school, and it means that we inevitably run into issues of race, class, and gender.”

Jose said he wandered the halls, the library, doing a small tally of the demographics of the conference attendees. I hope you’ll go and read the exchange that Jose and Chris have in the comments section of the blog.

I, too, had done a color assessment of the conference, at the Franklin Institute auditorium, where we had gathered for the opening panel. I mentioned the mostly monochromatic nature of the audience to a friend that night, and to other friends the following night. It’s not something I’m comfortable doing, which is why I push myself to speak up when I can. This is why I appreciated reading about Chris’ direct and open response.

The first time I spoke up about race was right after the 2007 Teachers College community meeting, a week after an African American professor had found a noose hung on her office door.  I was teaching a seminar on the teaching of writing, and a couple of students came late to class from the meeting. They were mad, , about the incident itself, but even more so, about the farcical nature of meeting. One of the women, Black, brilliant, and comfortable saying exactly what she thinks, commented that the institution had sure sent a message when they sat a bunch of White men on that stage. What a conversation opened from there!

I found myself talking about the peculiar kind of blindness that White privilege is, and how I’d been stunned to discover my own– blindness and privilege. And how, once I’d seen it, I could never again not see. We talked about what that meant for me in my own teaching, and what I hoped they’d explore in theirs.

Since then, I’ve learned that it’s much harder to speak up when I’m not in a position of power, i.e., Teacher, when I’m just one among a group of peers. I think I will always need to push myself.

A couple of years after the noose, I had to make a social issues video for a media class I was taking.  Mine is called When I Learned I Was White.

I’m sharing it now, for practice.

2 responses to “When I Learned I Was White”

  1. Jose Vilson says:

    Thanks for your comment to my post. One thought: until we see each other as part of the same genetic pool and appreciate the differences simultaneously, we’ll never get it right. Color consciousness trumps color blindness. Always.

    • Karen says:

      I agree, Jose. Thanks for your response. I wish this weren’t such a difficult issue. Life work, as a friend of mine says. Your students are lucky to have you, as is the teaching community.

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