In 1997, I passed the Philadelphia School District’s test for English teachers, and picked my first school from among the openings. The choices seemed bleak: each position was at one of the persistently dangerous schools- that’s to say, schools that were predominately African American. I chose William Penn because it had an underground parking lot, and it was the closest to my South Philly home.
Though I’d always thought of myself as open-minded in matters of race– I hated racism in all of it’s forms— I was afraid of the students. I was a forty-five year old woman, and my students were between the ages of thirteen and eighteen— just children. Why was I afraid?
It’s hard to pinpoint the reasons, but I supposed it had to do with fear of the unknown. It’s part of the human condition to fear what we don’t know, right? Maybe, but I didn’t fear the students I taught in Japan.
I must have learned to fear African Americans at home. Though my parents neither uttered the N-word nor any racist rhetoric, I see in retrospect that they were as prejudiced as the rest of the White community, which lamented each bit of progress made by Blacks in accessing what the rest of us not only had, but took for granted.
My folks didn’t sell our house and flee to the suburbs to avoid living near African Americans, but they were as guilty of white-flight as those who did. Colored people at the amusement park? Find a new place. In the neighborhood pool? Can’t swim there. On that bus route to center city? Don’t take that bus. It was as though they had a disease we could catch by mere proximity.
I hadn’t realized how obvious my feelings were until a student complained in a journal about being feared by white teachers. And my fear, I realized, was completely unfounded. That made me deeply ashamed of myself.
Yet I resisted the idea that my fears were racist in nature until my first professional development at the Philadelphia Writing Project (PhilWP). There, I read a piece by Peggy McIntosh, called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.
Ms McIntosh mused that Whites are carefully taught not to recognize the ways in which we are privileged. She formulated a list of fifty advantages she enjoyed, through no effort on her part– as a result of race— she calls them “unearned assets.” Among my favorites were these:
*Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
*I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
*I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
White Privilege is not merely a concept. We don’t need to hear about Trayvon Martin to know it exists. People of color are penalized every day in myriad ways because some of us cling to the unearned advantages bestowed on us with our skin color. It’s time to call ourselves and each other on any assumption, implicit or explicit, of racial superiority. It’s past time.