I’ve been noticing a trend in our school for students to play the “racism card”. We have a very diverse, multicultural, multi-faith population. The majority of my students are first or second generation immigrants, and the generations-deep Canadians are the minority. It’s really neat. The teachers, however, are predominantly white, been-here-a-while Canadians. And all female except for one, but that’s how it seems to go in elementary. We have one teacher from Lebanon, and she’s a Muslim, but as she specifies, “the drinking kind”. (Hilarious.) Because we are mostly a bunch of white, deep-rooted Canadians, accusations of racism are inevitably slung our way.
Before I go any further, I should clarify my stance on a few things. I absolutely believe that white privilege is ingrained in our social structures, whether intentionally or consequentially. I understand that my hair products will be found in the general and not “ethnic” section of Shoppers Drug Mart, and that band-aids are made to match my skin colour, and the shade “nude” looks kind of like naked me. But I also believe that Arab privilege exists in Middle Eastern countries (I don’t think my white skin would get me any favorable treatment in most places there), and I’m going to guess that in most (but not all) countries, privilege exists for anyone who embodies the physical or social characteristics of the dominant founding or colonizing people. Please correct me if I’m wrong. I haven’t read enough about the topic, and I’ll explain why in a moment.
The thing with this concept of “white privilege” is that it is now being used as a criticism and judgement against white people in a way that is entirely counterproductive, kind of like when “feminists” start vilifying men. I wholeheartedly believe that white privilege needs to be acknowledged and considered when decisions are being made about the well-being of all people living in Canada. But I don’t believe that it should be used a as method of devaluing the ability of white people to work with people of other ethnicities and cultures, and this is what I’m noticing in teaching as of late.
Last summer an article went around the Ontario teachers’ group on Facebook about how white teachers are inherently racist, even if they think they aren’t. We’re racist by virtue of ingrained, subconscious beliefs we can do essentially nothing to correct. I voiced my concern that this argument is really just another form of racism, because telling me I am “inherently” and inescapably anything because of who am I culturally seems, well, kind of racist to me. And if not racist, at least unfair. If you’re saying I can’t do anything about it, then why criticize me for it?
One especially patronizing commentator suggested a few books I should read to enlighten myself, like Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. What this fellow educator doesn’t know about me, among many things, is that I have a mother with a Ph.D. in education who has taught me about such philosophies and has raised me to think about them constantly. I grew up questioning all of my beliefs. She took me to church but let me make of it what I wanted. What this fellow educator also didn’t know about me is that for the last twelve years, I have read extensively about Buddhism, Taoism, and New Age thinking. What you learn when you read about these philosophies for twelve years is that all these concepts like “white privilege” and “cultural appropriation” are what Hamlet would call words, words, words. They are different labels for the same thing. Ultimately, what we’re getting at, what we’re always getting at, is the need to return to a love for all beings. Unconditional, unfiltered, unrestrained love. This is what the Buddha teaches; this is the ultimate lesson of the Tao. Just take a moment and think of any conflict between people. It can be boiled down to a lack of love, and a prevalence of fear, in their hearts.
The last wisdom that my dying grandfather imparted on me was that for any idea to work, it has got to be simple (his emphasis – I can still hear his slow and wise voice saying it). He was a man who had thought about the world, philosophy, religion and life at great length. His words stay with me because I know he was right. Everyone yearns for simplicity. The best products are simple or create simplicity. The Tao preaches living a life of simplicity, of removing complexities from your life. What I’m getting at is that I don’t think I need to read Freire’s book or other complicated philosophies (which are available only to the fairly educated, I might add, and could also be viewed as privileged concepts) to understand that what has caused white privilege is quite simply a lack of love in the hearts of the humans of the world. If you want to delve into it, I think you could find a correlation between the rise of Christianity and the existence of white privilege. I don’t want to get into it, though – it’s too complicated.
The article I mentioned before cautioned white teachers against saying things like, “I’m not racist, I look at all my students the same – I’m colourblind,” because it implies that you don’t acknowledge the uniqueness or diversity of your students. You should see their many colours and their cultural particularities and their idiosyncrasies. I agree with that, just as you should acknowledge the many differences you can find within two white or two Asian students. In my class, I sometimes notice more commonalities between an Arab and a white student than I do between two white students who come from extremely different home lives.
Quite simply, I love children. My whole life, beginning with babysitting, I have been good at working with them because they sense my love for them. You can’t fake it. So I find it frustrating when I’m trying to help children grow as people and I am accused of being racist. I have one grade six student in particular who claims that any attempts to discipline him are “biased” or “racist” (ideas we later learned were being ingrained at home when we had to suspend him for essentially strangling another child). The thing is, I love this kid. Even though he drives me bananas, I feel it well up inside of me when he grins at me or does something cheeky.
This child has a lot of social difficulties and has an incredibly hard time seeing things from someone else’s point of view, almost the way a child with autism does. You cannot reason with him or help him see how he contributed to a conflict. This makes it very difficult to work through his issues, and he ultimately falls back on the accusation of us being racist, and so does his mother. The other day he left scratches and broken blood vessels on another student’s neck after dragging him by the hood across the basketball court. He was definitely and unquestionably provoked by that student through taunting and, allegedly, spitting (although we have yet to get a straight story about that). What he and his mother couldn’t understand was that the retaliation didn’t fit the crime. According to Canadian law, self-defense must be “reasonable in the circumstances”. If someone calls you a mean name, you don’t get to strangle him or her. The mother accused us of being racist because we only suspended her child for the strangling and we didn’t suspend the white student for provoking the strangling. But I know for certain that had the roles been reversed, we would have suspended the white kid. It’s about the strangling, not the colour of the skin on which the blood vessels were broken.
We also have a group of Muslim males in grade eight who tend to throw out accusations of racism when they don’t agree with a disciplinary measure. It’s exhausting because we’re just desperately trying to prepare them for high school and keep the school safe and functioning. Thankfully, our drinking Muslim teacher will step in and try to help them see it from a teacher’s point of view, sometimes with success and sometime without.
Throughout my teaching career I have caught myself on a few occasions wishing I were one of two things: male, or not white. I try not to speak in absolutes, and remember that this blog is just my perception, but I have noticed that parents and students tend to question male teachers’ decisions less, and I have especially noticed that from the Muslim males I have taught (but of course, not all). I have also wished I weren’t white so that I didn’t have to feel like I’m always walking on eggshells, paranoid of inadvertently offending someone with my whiteness. I just want to teach. Ironically, I just want to teach my students to be open-minded and to question everything the way my mom taught me. When I catch myself wishing I were male or black in order to have more cred, I realize that I’m not practising what I preach.
When students and parents play the racism card unfairly, it makes it very difficult for us to do our jobs of raising responsible youth. In fact, I think that unfairly playing the racism card is ironically in itself an act of racism against white teachers who are simply upholding the standards of practice of the Ontario College of Teachers. (Freire would probably argue that those standards of practice are ingrained with white privilege, too. But I can’t be expected to single-handedly fix that. I can’t even fix the photocopy machine.) I don’t think I’m wrong to assume that an Arab or African teacher taking the same disciplinary measures would not be accused of injustice. That does make this a matter of race. I know that history is cyclical, and perhaps with our changing Canadian population we are seeing the rise of Arab or other privilege, and maybe it’s simply our turn to experience prejudice. But if I’m teaching my students anything at all, I hope it’s that history doesn’t have to repeat itself. That we can learn to view each other from a perspective of love rather than race. Anyway, I won’t stop trying.