Superintendent’s Corner: Creating a more equitable education system starts by reflecting on our own privilege
The Roaring Fork Schools are going to take a hard look at equity this year. This follows an extensive visioning and planning process last year, during which we heard from our community a desire for all students to have the opportunities they need to be successful.
Conversations about equity are best undertaken by first looking inwardly at ourselves. That means that, if we want our schools to be equitable, or if we want our students to have equitable opportunities, we’re going to have to reflect on how we, ourselves, participate in, or even benefit from, an inequitable distribution of opportunities as things are now.
One aspect of this is considering the privileges we enjoy inadvertently, but which others can’t take for granted.
The term “white privilege” has become highly inflammable and combative, but when I first encountered it, it offered an opportunity for reflection.
As far as I know, the term was coined by Peggy McIntosh, a Wellesley College professor who wrote an article in 1988 about the invisible knapsack of advantages she carried as a white person. She described privilege as an “invisible package of unearned assets” that she carries around like a “weighted knapsack of special provisions.”
In her seminal article, McIntosh lists 50 simple advantages she enjoys as a white person that people of color cannot take for granted. For example, she can go shopping without being unduly scrutinized, or she can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to her race.
When I first read her article about 25 years ago, I was teaching in a teacher education program at Harvard University. Most of my students were white and, as is typical when first encountering the term, there was initial resistance. As also seems typical, most of my students of color went right to, “of course white privilege is a thing.” After gingerly debating each other’s lived experience for a while, we decided to pursue an informal experiment.
There was a Navajo student in my course named Joe who was physically similar to me in age, size and other ways, except that his skin and hair were much darker. For two weeks on alternating days, we each would attempt to enter the Harvard Business School cafeteria, which was supposed to require students to show their ID to enter. We would wear khaki pants, blue oxford shirts and leather loafers, and walk by the reception desk as if we belonged.
Of my seven tries, I got in every time without showing an ID. Of his attempts, he got stopped and asked for his ID every time. That settled it for the students in my class: White privilege is definitely a thing.
I felt about the business school the way that Groucho Marx felt about elite institutions: I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member. But when I think about how many times every day I inadvertently skate through obstacles that get in Joe’s way, it’s inconceivable to assert that we have a world of equal opportunity.
As an Anglo, I have been pulled over for a traffic violation and realized I forgot my wallet. I got off with a verbal reminder to carry my license when I drive. What if I had looked or spoken like an immigrant? As a man, I have walked a few blocks from a restaurant to my hotel through a sketchy neighborhood. Could I have done that as a woman?
As an educator, I often reflect on the subtle dominance of privileges that infest our school system. Even though we try to weight resources toward our neediest students, the newer materials, more expensive programs, and higher-paid teachers tend to gravitate toward more affluent students.
Think, for example, of the typical AP physics course, where the class size is likely smaller, the teacher has a master’s degree and years of experience putting her higher on the pay scale, and lab equipment might be more expensive. There are more dollars per student going into that classroom than into the classroom next door. And the students in that classroom are more likely to be white, more likely to live in middle- and upper-income homes, and perhaps more likely to be male.
I am not advocating that we suddenly or radically equalize resources or take away privileges. I am only making the case that privilege is a thing of which we should be aware. It seems hard to make the case that obliviousness about privilege, or about anything, is the desired state, especially in our schools.
But with that awareness will probably come some obligation to share some of our advantages, and to pursue changes that make our schools more equitable. The fact that some of us benefit from an inequitable system of privilege — the field is already tilted to our advantage — is why we can’t just treat everybody the same. We must understand our own privilege and our role in an inequitable system, as a first step.
Rob Stein is superintendent of Roaring Fork Schools.
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