On Race

“I’m not sure about the relevance of Affirmative Action.”

Sometimes I can’t believe I said this. I was a freshman in college and not particularly well versed on the topic but upon further reflection, now I know I shouldn’t be too surprised. The biggest problem is not even the sentence itself but the way I said it.

Sitting in a Sociology class, two seats from the back of the room, slightly slouched, I decided to boldly voice my myopic opinion. What ensued was a fifteen-minute lesson that served as the catalyst for a whole new way of looking at the world.

This is one of the major tipping points of my life.

I will never forget the combination of restraint and passion the professor displayed in her response. From then on I figured it was better to focus more on learning and listening before speaking on things I did not understand and that is what I have been doing ever since.

My parents raised me to observe the golden rule, they modeled love, care, and respect for all people.

I cannot point to them as the cause for my confusion about race relations.

My high school teachers and coaches taught me to do the right thing at the right time even when no one is looking.

I cannot point to them as the cause for my lack of understanding of such a major part of life.

My friends of color were amazing people that did nothing to fulfill negative stereotypes.

I cannot point to them as the cause of my ignorance nor can I blame them for not providing me with opportunities to get to know them.

Nope. I was 18 years old with a sharp mind and no excuses.

That’s my first point when it comes to race, let’s hold ourselves accountable for our words and actions. Yes, racism is a learned behavior, we learn it from our families, friends, schools, and society. However, when assigning blame there comes a certain point where the finger needs to be pointed at the person in the mirror. Many times when we hear about racist incidents we are quick to look to the person’s past, which we should, but for me, the excuses just aren’t there. Because of this, I do not have the option to claim ignorance. I do have the opportunity to use my experience to help inform others.

We need educational structures in place to help us learn about the effects of systematic racism and discrimination.

We need people like my professor who push back and challenge perspectives. We also need to own our part and take steps to lift ourselves out of ignorance.

For me, as a white male and an educator who has benefitted tremendously from white privilege, it is critical I do what I can to contribute to the enlightenment of the youth while constantly checking in with the man in the mirror to make sure I too am taking notes.

Figure out the right role and play it. That’s my second point. After graduating Loyola Maryland, I started teaching in Baltimore City as an AmeriCorps volunteer at a tuition-free private Jesuit school for middle school boys from underserved neighborhoods in Baltimore. My first years of teaching did not go very well. Yes I was passionate, yes I cared deeply, yes I worked hard but no, I did not feel comfortable in my own skin. As a white man teaching mostly African American students, I struggled.

There are fine lines between educator and enabler. Server and savior.

Unfortunately in my passion I often unknowingly found myself on the wrong side of these.

Educator vs. enabler: In my early years of teaching I mistakenly thought that providing extra credit, making accommodations and being understanding was being an effective educator. All of these things are great and when used properly can be positives, however, what I learned over time was that they are empty actions without high standards. After my first couple years of teaching, I took over the American History class which was taught with a focus on the African American experience. I knew, as a white man, I needed to get this right. I needed to read more, know more and be able to offer information and experiences that satisfied the students’ hunger for knowledge. Unfortunately, there are not many comprehensive textbooks for teaching African American History at a middle school level so we used a high school textbook. Now, with students who are high performing, using a more difficult text is not an issue, but for students with a reading level a grade level or two behind, this can be devastating.
Throughout the year I had to ask for help, struggle to comprehend new topics and challenge some of my preconceived notions. I also had to synthesize this difficult information and communicate with the students. Their response to this high-level task is what changed my whole way of thinking when it comes to the difference between educating and enabling.

This class forced me to treat the students as fellow journeymen. We were figuring things out, going on field trips, reading difficult primary sources and having uncomfortable conversations. We challenged how history books portrayed events and looked for alternate viewpoints.

Did I offer extra credit? Yes, a lot of it.

Did I make accommodations? Many.

Was I understanding? More than ever.

The difference was that I was treating the students as scholars.

Sometimes students did not have their homework because of a situation that occurred at home. Sometimes students were restless because of emotional stress. The standards remained the same. These high standards demanded high levels of support, so in the process, I became a better person. I learned that as a white man, as a human being, I need to hold myself to that same high standard. Empathize, empower, and educate, not enable.

Server vs. savior: Jesus saves, I don’t. For a long time, my altruism looked like attempts to “save” students who were struggling. This behavior is not only damaging to race relations but to the overall teacher/student relationship. Thankfully, JV, my coworker, and friend often spoke on the reality our students faced, being that he had a similar experience growing up in Baltimore being an African American who did not come from a wealthy family. We had plenty of dialogue about the psychology of the “white savior” complex that can be present in situations and experiences like mine.

My role was not to save, it was to serve.

What’s the difference between serving and saving? I found the answer in the way I viewed my role as an educator. A savior looks at a group of people as captives in need of liberation. A savior thinks, “Where would they be without me?” A server looks at a group of people as an opportunity to be a part of shared success. A server thinks, “Where can we go, together?” These contradictory ways of proceeding can also be seen in so many organizations including governments, teams, and families. Many times we turn on the television and there is someone who claims to have all the answers and speaks on behalf of whole groups with an air of certainty that comes off as holier than thou. They might have great ideas but they speak from an elevated platform, not standing face to face. When this is on display in the classroom it is ugly and ineffective.

No one wants to listen to someone who makes you feel small or helpless.

When I started seeing myself as part of the class, doing my role to serve, it changed the classroom dynamic completely. Students began to see themselves as powerful, capable and responsible. They started to look at me as someone who was there to push and guide them when needed. Serve, not save.

Don’t try to be something you’re not. Lesson number three. Growing up as an Irish Catholic I heard a lot about the obstacles my ancestors faced. I heard about the Protestant and Catholic conflict and then the difficulty, disrespect, and discrimination experienced after arriving in the States. When I was young and learned about what African Americans experienced often times there would be something thrown in the conversation to the tune of, “Irish people had it really bad too.” For a long time, I thought nothing of that, because to me there was some sort of equivalency. It wasn’t until I learned the intricacies of the African American experience that I realized the problem with that way of thinking. This is not to diminish the struggle of the Irish, I would never do that. After visiting where my ancestors lived and seeing the monuments and museums that described the conflicts I know that they were real and that they were devastating. However, it is wrong to equate the struggle of African Americans, or any person of color to that of the Irish. Our pains do not need to be the same in order to qualify as pains.

The horror of slavery and the ensuing legislation, policies, and procedures that have continued to oppress people of color have created a country where people are treated differently based on the color of their skin.

I am white, regardless of how difficult my ancestors might have had it, I will never know what it’s like to be discriminated against.

There is no word someone can call me that will hurt me to the core and attack my dignity.

I will never have to worry about someone telling me “Go back to where you came from!” or that Irish people are, “stealing our jobs.”

I see plenty of positive portrayals of people who look like me when I turn on my television.

Why does all of this matter? Because it’s important that when we try to relate to one another, we be ourselves.

I do not need to pretend to understand what it is like to be a victim of racism and discrimination.

I do not need to justify my ancestors and equate struggles.

There is great danger in doing these things because it becomes about me and my feelings, my experience. It starts to sound like, “Yeah but, how about this!” We have too much of that in this world. All you need to do is watch the news and all day you’ll see stories where someone will argue in defense of someone by calling out someone else, “But what about that person!” That is not an effective way to argue and it’s certainly not an effective way to relate to one another.

I am who I am. I can be proud of my history and I can acknowledge pain and hardship without diminishing what other people are going through. If anything, the fact that I have heard these passionate accounts of struggle should motivate me to look outside of myself and help others who might be struggling. In doing that there is no weakness in acknowledging that some people have it tougher than I do.

The realization that my life is easier, simply because of the color of my skin, does not fill me with shame, it motivates me to make sure that I work towards making the world a place where all people are treated equally and where the structures in place promote equality.

There has never been a superior race and there isn’t one now.

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However, I benefit because some people decided there was and continue to believe there is.

This is a horrific reality.

I now know what I need to do about this. I need to listen, empathize and support.

In order to be relevant in this struggle, all people who have privilege and power, myself included, need to spend more time listening, more time learning, and less time comparing and equating struggles.

The fight to eradicate racism and build an equal and just world in the future depends on action, now.

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