As we’ve discussed the concept of White privilege online this past week the question has come up more than once among my fellow teacher candidates: how can we practically address racism within the classroom, especially those of us who are White?
As aspiring educators, we can look to the advice Howard offers in his essay Whites in Multicultural Education: Rethinking Our Role (pp. 323-333), particularly when he suggests that Whites in general need to participate from within. “The appropriate role for aware White Americans is to participate in this evolution, rather than to attack it from the outside, as many critics of multicultural education have chosen to do,” (Howard, p. 329).
Several paragraphs earlier he explains denial and hostility is grounded in a deep fear of diversity, which is expressed in gross violence as well as more sophisticated methods to maintain White dominance, (Howard, p. 328). What we have to do as aspiring educators, many of us White Americans, is combat the efforts to maintain the old ways of doing things, to fight against the effort to maintain the status quo of institutionalized racism. We have to participate in the evolution from within to ensure that students see all races and cultures represented in what we teach them because, as Howard points out, this country has never been a White Christian nation with exclusively European roots and is moving further from this myth daily. “Most public school educators know the curriculum has to change to reflect this reality, but many guardians of the traditional canon still find it frightening to leave the Old World,” (Howard, p. 328).
When I’m in my first year of teaching, I know I can’t toss out the entire ninth grade English core curriculum the district will expect me to teach, but I am prepared to supplement it in ways that will help the kids connect with the other voices in our country. I plan to offer the opportunity for students to read books and short stories by Sherman Alexie, a Native American author who is from Washington state. If the kids are reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower on their own, they should read Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian would be a natural fit for ninth graders to see the common experience of teens regardless of skin color but an opportunity to see the differences between the two cultures. It would be a great way to begin to explore with kids the concept of White privilege. Perhaps it’s a bit subversive, but, eventually I plan to go completely rogue and help kids find books they want to read, not the stuff in the traditional canon such as The Great Gatsby, Grapes of Wrath, Heart of Darkness, or other tales which not only are largely inaccessible for 14- and 15-year-olds, but, also because they perpetuate the emphasis on stories driven by White male characters. It is a reality which exists nowhere and only from the perspective of the status quo of White privilege does that kind of curriculum make sense.
Something Howard mentions in his book We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know, something I encourage everyone in this course to read because it gives even more practical advice as well as Howard’s experiences struggling with how to combat racism, is how to manage what you do as you start to recognize the effects of racism all around you. He talks about early on he would preach, he was angry, almost shoving his new-found awareness of White privilege down people’s throats, which typically was not well-received. I have to think often about the way in which I engage people in conversation about this topic. There are some people who do not recognize White privilege still or understand that racism is alive and well in this country. Those folks need gentle nudging toward Howard’s writing as well as the work of other authors. I would also encourage these people to have a look at White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh (1988), because the list she provides is eye-opening for those who need that. These conversations do need to happen in schools and as an educator, I will not be afraid to have them with students, other teachers, administrators, parents, and anyone else with whom it seems necessary. And I will understand how to have those conversations. When I do find someone in any of the categories I mentioned who does understand and acknowledges the status quo, then we will talk about how to make changes within the system we’re working, because I plan to participate in the evolution. In fact, I’ve already had these kinds of conversations in recent months, so I feel like I’ve gotten off to a good start.
It’s important, though, as we begin to recognize the reality of our multicultural nation and our multicultural classrooms, to understand that this is an evolution. Understanding how to effect change is important; knowing when to have those conversations, how to have them, where to mix up curriculum is important, and that it will take time. Once we do, then we have to commit, we have to find ways to participate in the evolution of education so that it reflects accurately the experiences of the students in our classrooms.
Resources: Banks, J.A., (Ed.). (1996). Multicultural Education: Transformative Knowledge & Action, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
McIntosh, P. White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. (1988).