I have vacillated between “there is enough blathering about race from people who haven’t really given it any thought, so there’s no need for me to add to the cacophony,” to “there is enough thoughtful commentary about race from thoughtful people, so there’s no need for me to add to the discussion,” to “maybe I have a different perspective than anything I’ve seen so far, so maybe I have something of value to add.”
Guess which won?
This is long, because the issue is complicated, but here’s the key idea: I teach at-risk students in a predominately white school, and this gives me a different perspective on things like privilege and “compliance” and things of that nature. I hope you’ll stick with me.
The alternative class I teach has support groups, and in those groups, kids talk about the issues they face in and out of school. Marijuana possession, alcohol possession, minor skirmishes with the law are not uncommon. Most of my students, regardless of race, are respectful to cops, but more of them are disrespectful than you might imagine. These students are, without exception, white. They frame their disrespect with “that cop had no right to…” Heck, it’s not even just the kids in the alternative class. I had a high-achieving white debater pull a pocket Constitution out of his pocket (I love debaters!) and lecture a cop about what he did and did not have the right to do.
My students of color think these white kids are crazy. When you’ve watched your father gunned down in front of you by cops (as two of my Latino students did) or your friends or siblings cuffed and thrown on the ground by police, you comply. Like one black student said to his white peers in one of these conversations, “It doesn’t matter what a cop has the right to do. If he shoots you, you’re dead.” I should also mention, this conversation was years before Ferguson.
I know someone’s going to ask, were the cops justified in shooting the Latino kids’ father? I have no idea. They were very young at the time, so they don’t remember the particulars. They remember the trauma. He was a drug dealer, so it’s possible. I had a white kid who lived the first years of his life on the run from the cops with his parents who were criminals. His parents were apprehended in front of him in such a way that they both lived, and it didn’t seem to stop him from being disrespectful of authority figures. These are anecdotes, not statistics, but I’m just sayin’.
It never occurs to my white students that a cop will shoot them. Never. Occurs. To. Them. Even the white kids who are respectful are just scared of getting in trouble. They’re not scared of getting beaten up or killed. My black and Latino kids are afraid for their physical safety. I can’t seem to get a grip on trends for Asians. I’ve heard both points of view, and if the trend is identifiable at all, it comes from where they live—predominately white suburbs, no fear of cops; predominately mixed urban areas, fear. As far as I can tell, for blacks and Latinos, it doesn’t matter where they live. Cops can beat you or kill you, so do what they say.
And that’s just a reflection of race in police interaction.
In my senior class, we read a graphic novel called American Born Chinese. It’s about how race and racism affect Asian students in predominately white America. Before we start, I have the kids talk about racial stereotypes. It’s Columbine, so my classes are mostly white, but they are more mixed than many other classes at the school. (The proportion of students of color being identified as “at-risk” in schools is its own piece of institutional racism.)
We list different races on the board and brainstorm. White jobs: doctor, lawyer, businessman, teacher etc. (This list is always, by far, the longest list. These are just a few of many similar jobs.) Black jobs: Cop, drug dealer, hair stylist, maybe a couple of other low-paying or criminal jobs. Latino jobs: Housekeeper, lawn maintenance, Mexican restaurant owner/worker. Asian jobs: Scientist, computer jobs, nail salon worker, Chinese restaurant owner. (The Mexican and Chinese assumption is part of the stereotype, despite the many Latino and Asian ethnicities that exist.) One year I had a Native American student point out that I hadn’t listed Native American. I put it on the board and kids had one answer: Casino owner/worker.
Keep in mind, kids of all races create these lists. The kids do tend to contribute mostly to stereotypes for their own groups, not others, for fear of “looking racist,” but in the end they all agree these are the stereotypes.
There is a lot of talking and joking during this activity. We list other kinds of stereotypes, not just jobs, but the next piece focuses there. I follow up by asking, “What if every black child grew up in a world where it was assumed that he or she would be a doctor or a lawyer? What if every Latina or Latino was expected to be a scientist or corporate CEO? What if white kids grew up in a world where people assumed they would clean houses or mow lawns? No one would explicitly tell them they couldn’t do any of these other things. It would just be a world where that’s what you saw around you on TV and in movies, that kind of thing.”
And the room gets really quiet for a while. There’s just a long moment of cognitive dissonance while they wrap their heads around it. The discussion picks up again, but that moment is profound, I think. This is institutional racism. This is white privilege, so ingrained that even children of color often buy into it.
From my perspective, it is counter-productive to talk about white privilege and institutional racism only from the perspective of two or three or four high-profile cases of police shootings. These things are so much more complicated, so deeply embedded in our culture that they cannot be reduced to sound bites from a few news stories. I mean, even I have had to reduce 30 years of teaching into a handful of examples (though they are examples of many similar experiences throughout those years) from one school. And I am only one teacher.
So yeah, I’m okay with all the perspectives getting posted on Facebook, and I hope this was worth contributing. I hope all these contributions add up to no longer denying the existence and significance of white privilege and institutional racism so that we can solve the problems they cause.