teaching

White Privilege Resources

During the Rodney King protests in 1992, I didn’t understand how the protest on my campus related to me. I think of numerous times in my teens and 20s when I did not speak up, made biased-filled assumptions or turned a situation that was not about me into a tear-filled response.

In my junior year in college, I began to read about white privilege. A lightbulb went off inside my head, but it seemed more like a checklist item.

Recognize privilege?

Acknowledge privilege now and then?

For far too long, I didn’t connect my privilege to the larger systems of power. Even when I looked critically at how the legal system, immigration law, and academia have been structured to perpetuate racial disparities, I didn’t delve into how my career roles and my whiteness made me complicit in these systems.

I know better now.

In Fall 2015, I taught a class using an article about racial health disparities that I had used successfully in previous years. A student comment led to some tension in the class. I learned that I needed to provide more of a background on structural racism, bias and privilege before asking students to examine health disparities in particular.  I also invited two experienced speakers from the Black Student Alliance to class the following week. One student opened with, “We are all racists.” The room was silent…uncomfortably silent. But, what followed was one of the best discussions I’ve witnessed and led to several productive conversations outside of class.

I’ve been speaking up about diversity and equity issues over the past several years, and I’m always willing to field a question from friends about whether a resource is problematic. Here’s the thing, though. Everything has some bias…all research…all writing…all people…even this site. I see critical thinking as allowing us to recognize and acknowledge biases so we can better analyze and interpret a source. I’ve also found that it helps me to educate myself more before I talk to Roya. I need time to process my thoughts and feelings before I help her navigate hers, while recognizing that there are many systems that benefit me that will marginalize her.

So where to start to learn about white privilege?

Here are some resources that I’ve found useful:

  • What is white privilege? I appreciate how this Cory Collins piece for Teaching Tolerance references the 1988 Peggy McIntosh essay that coined the “white privilege” phrase. Collins also explains the importance distinction and relationship between white privilege, racism and power.
  • In the US, children learn how Abe Lincoln freed the slaves. How do we as adults look beyond the history books? This piece by Dr. Mackubin T. Owens discusses how Black slaves freed themselves and what the Emancipation Proclamation accomplished. There are strong online lists of movies to learn about Black history, but it’s worth recognizing how these films have adapted true stories for Hollywood audiences. If you’re watching these films to learn about the past, I recommend an online search and reading a few critiques first. What’s factually accurate, and what isn’t? Why were these choices made? For an example of a good critique, check out this article about the controversy surrounding The Green Book.

In several classes, I’ve assigned a set group of resources that laid a good foundation for exploring privilege and biases and enhancing discussion:

  • I Don’t Discuss Racism with White People” — I reference this quote by John Metta frequently: The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings. As a white person, I can feel and acknowledge my feelings. But, if I don’t move past my discomfort, then I’m centering myself – and my whiteness – in the conversation.
    • How can those of us who do not identify as Black look for reliable information on our own? How do we know what we don’t know?
    • If we read, watch and learn, what’s next? What does accountability look like?
    • How is this connected to the systems of power we benefit from? What can we do to help change these systems?
  • What I Said When My White Friend Asked for My Black Opinion on White Privilege” by Lori Lakin Hutcherson — White individuals can ask Black friends for help, but it is not the obligation of any Black loved one to do so. In fact, asking individuals from a marginalized group to educate someone who benefits from racist structures of power can be further traumatizing or isolating, as explored in this journal article from Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.
  • Park Avenue: Money, Power and The American Dream (PBS 2012) – “As of 2010, the 400 richest Americans controlled more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the populace — 150 million people.” I’ve found this documentary useful to show the connection between power, government and economics in the US. Why is the American Dream an elusive myth? How do current institutions protect the wealthiest few at the expense of the majority?
  • 13th Documentary (Netflix 2016) — “In this thought-provoking documentary, scholars, activists and politicians analyze the criminalization of African Americans and the U.S. prison boom.”

If these resources are new to you, then I recommend picking one at a time and not feeling rushed to get through them all at once. In my next post, I’ll focus on talking about white privilege with children.

What resources regarding white privilege have you found to be valuable? Comment below!

Unpacking Race Cars by Jenny Devenny

Over the past few months, friends have reached out to ask about good anti-racist resources for their families. There are some valuable books and movies for adults, but for children, I have yet to find a book or show listed on a school DEI or anti-racist list that I’m a fan of. (Note that I’m sure they exist; I read a lot of children’s books, but I’m not a walking library!)

Race Cars: A Children’s Book about White Privilege by Jenny Devenny is one book that is included on a lot of local lists. I appreciate the goal of this book for preschool-younger elementary school children, but it unfortunately missed the mark for me.

Unfamiliar with the story? Read the summary or watch the video below.

Familiar with the story? Scroll down to the Unpacking the Book section.

Mrs. Broomer Race Cars Read Aloud

There’s a white car and a black car who are best friends and love to race. Chase, the black car, is a better car racer than his best friend, white car Ace. So, the race organizing committee comprised of all white cars rigs the course and rules. It gets progressively tougher for Chase to win, and the last rule change ensures that Chase can’t race at all.

At the end of the book, Chase goes to support Ace in the race. Ace decides to try the route that Chase was forced to take after the race rules changed and realizes how much tougher this made the race. Then, Ace gets lost, and the race organizers are worried about him. They ask the fastest driver in town, Chase, to go find Ace. Chase agrees and ends up saving Ace! As a thank you, the race committee awards Chase first place.

Unpacking the Book

When reading a book, I look for the positives and then move to the critique. In Race Cars, I found the use of cars to frame Ms. Devenny’s point to be a poor choice. The paperback came out in 2016 – after Philando Castile was killed after a routine traffic stop with his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter in the backseat. This book had likely gone to press before this tragedy. But, studies related to the racial profiling of Black drivers existed long before 2016. Did the author, editor or publisher question whether this example would be off-putting or offensive to some readers?

I also felt uncomfortable with Chase as the name for the black car, though I appreciate that rhyming words keep a younger audience engaged. Again, I would have chosen a different name, given the biased and false presumptions that Black drivers are more reckless or Black children aren’t as well behaved as white children. If I apply the critical thinking skills from my earlier post, I would guess the book’s target purchaser is a non-Black parent or educator. But, that doesn’t mean that the car example and name were the best choices.

The ending of the book also is problematic. The white race committee only reaches out to Chase to come back to the race because Ace, the white car, is in danger. The committee lets Chase win the race since Chase saves Ace – not because Chase is the fastest race car and not because all cars deserve the same access to entering and winning the race.

When Ace realizes how the race was tougher for Chase, Ace apologizes after Chase rescues him and then a hug solves everything. Even just adding a line in which Ace admits that he should have been a better friend to Chase and not entered the race by himself would have been something. I wish the book hadn’t been wrapped up with ease on a feel-good note.

Neha Aunty’s Reading Room Episode 3: Race Cars

The book was updated to include a brief Discussion Guide (shared at 15:46 in the above video from Neha Aunty’s Reading Room), and the last few questions ask kids to think of privileges that white people get and list them. Then, the guide asks whether the reader can find band-aids and dolls in their skin color.

Picture if this book is being read to a predominantly-white group of children. BIPOC children may feel further othered or marginalized if they raise their hands. Alternatively, this may force BIPOC children to feel as though they have to educate the white children in the room. This book might cause some children to think that there is a monolithic white or Black experience. It also could send the message to White children that recognizing privilege is a checklist item without having to do or think more about the topic.

Is this a worthwhile book to teach parents and educators about white privilege? I don’t envision most young white children will make connections on their own with this book without a lot of adult guidance from adults who have already unpacked their own identities and privileges. If children are able to connect that the race course represents our lives and access to opportunities, it can’t be assumed that parents and educators will find ways to help them relate the story to their own actions and larger structures of power.

Once privilege is recognized, what happens next? That’s what’s needed for action and change. I wish the book had offered solutions or resources beyond encouraging some brief acknowledgment that racial privilege exists.

As I’m reading and watching resources included on children’s anti-racist lists, I question whether the majority of predominantly white readers/viewers will know where to find reliable resources, how these resources should be critiqued and connected to their lives and larger power structures, and whether to share them with their children. My hope is that anti-racist resources are viewed as more than a checklist item or buzzphrase.

In my next post, I’ll write more about what adult resources I recommend regarding white privilege.

What anti-racist children’s books or shows do you like? Have any thoughts about this book or other resources regarding white privilege? Comment below or on my feeds!

Unpacking The Bad Seed by Jory John

How have I approached unpacking some popular children’s books with my daughter? Check this post out for why this is important and some general critical thinking strategies.

Now, let’s get started with The Bad Seed by Jory John.

In this book, a darker-colored, more masculine presenting seed is criticized for being bad. Most of the good seeds in the book are lighter seeds. In the end, the bad seed starts trying to be good, but sometimes it’s still bad.

When Roya came home with this book, I explained to her why that book bothered me.

  1. First, the seed can be interpreted as a character like a person. If seeds are described as good or bad, that could send a message that a person is either categorically good or bad. (Children shouldn’t be described as bad or good, although their actions or behavior can.)
  2. Next, we talked about how what one person sees as “good,” another person might see as “bad.” I went really simplistic and used TV for my example. Roya would think watching TV all day is good, but I would think having a child watch TV all day is bad. Then we discussed why we would see the same situation differently. Ideally, analyzing good and bad relies on a willingness to learn about other individuals’ experiences, values, and lenses, and an openness to changing your mind. As Roya has started getting older, I’ve begun to connect all of this to historical and contemporary concepts of power and oppression in age-appropriate, brief ways. (This book made me immediately think of the school-to-prison pipeline and #BLM.)
  3. I expanded on my points to share that all seeds make bad decisions at times, not just some seeds. I came up with a few stories about things that the lighter seeds in the book could have done that also were bad choices. Most people make some choices that are bad, and some that are good, right?
  4. Then I talked about how some people can be scared by other individuals’ differences and view those individuals and their choices as bad.

While I was writing this post, Roya asked what I was doing.

Me: Writing about why I’m not a fan of The Bad Seed.

R: But, I love that book!

Me: I know. A lot of kids do. So, think about what the Bad Seed looks like.

R: It’s a dark seed. You’d rather the seed be a peanut or something.

Me: Yes! Now, why would I think having the seed be dark would be a problem?

R: Hmm…It’s like Carmela’s Full of Wishes. They’re books about Black kids that might make people not like Black kids.

Me: Yes, exactly! The Bad Seed might make people think that Black and brown kids are bad, when everyone makes bad decisions sometimes. And Carmela’s Full of Wishes might make people think that all Spanish-speaking families have the same life and jobs as Carmela’s family. If we read things, we might think they are true or true for everyone who looks like the characters in the books. And that could cause people to be treated differently or unfairly, which isn’t good.

I then talked about how this can lead to people making assumptions about BIPOC families and how sometimes BIPOC children, especially boys, are treated differently at schools. Want to read more about why this is important? Google the crib-to-prison or school-to-prison pipeline. Or, explore disciplinary rates by race, gender and ethnicity in your school district. (See number 11 in my post on Doing Diversity Well at Predominantly-White Schools for how to do this.)

I end this conversation with acknowledging that there are always books and shows we enjoy more than others, and that’s okay. But, it’s worth discussing what’s problematic about them, regardless of whether we like them.

What are your family’s thoughts on this book? How have you approached it? Have suggestions for future books for me to blog about? Comment below.

Unpacking Children’s Books

Last month, my feeds were filled with mentions of antiracist books, social justice movies, statements in solidarity, and diverse book and toy purchases for younger loved ones. Are any of these things inherently bad? Of course not! But, it gave me cause to pause. Tre Johnson’s Washington Post article, “When Black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs,” is a thought-provoking read. I find myself asking, “What’s next?” How do those of us who identify and pass as white listen, learn and contribute in a way that doesn’t center whiteness or frame diversity as “diversity for white people”?

In thinking about children’s books in particular, there are significant concerns about how Black writers are treated and paid by the publishing industry and the lack of diverse representation in the field as a whole. 86% of children’s books have white main characters. This is the case despite the fact that children’s books with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) main characters sell, as reported by Dashka Slater for Mother Jones.

I hope that children’s books are unpacked with children. How do parents learn what and how to unpack concepts of race, gender identity, ableism, and class? We need to do our own work first. Read anti-racist resources. Complete an implicit bias test. Research to learn more. I’m thankful for those friends and students who were willing to teach me, but I had to do my own work, too. As a cisgender-heterosexual-white female, I’ve needed to unlearn biases and messages that I’ve received throughout my life.

A book or movie is more than just that. When we read or watch things, they become part of our moral imagination. We began to envision a world like we read or see. What we read or watch can reinforce or challenge our thoughts about ourselves and the world. (For example, there was a student who wrote their capstone on how the casting of a black male as US president in the television show, 24, helped prepare viewers for a black male president before the 2008 election.)

There’s also a downside to our moral imagination at times. How do we read stories by a variety of voices about a myriad of experiences and not assume that one person’s experience is representative of all experiences? How many stories that don’t play into problematic tropes and stereotypes get published? Again, I see this as unlearning biases and discussing what and why tropes are problematic. There’s also a need to recognize that one voice or character is just that — the voice for that one real or fictional individual — and not representative of all experiences of individuals who look or identify similarly.

How can we apply critical thinking skills to how we consume information? I approach children’s texts similarly to how I approach texts that I read or teach. Both what is and what is not included in a writing are important. And, parents and caregivers can also unpack the text as it does or does not apply and relate to their own lenses, values and experiences. If you notice in the questions below, it’s imperative to ask not just who and what, but the why.

Next, I think about how I can unpack all of this in an age-appropriate way with my seven-year-old daughter. I typically let her read books on her own, do a fast skim of what she’s reading at some point, and then discuss the text with her at a separate time.

I’ll find a time when we have five-ten minutes to talk that’s not too late and ask her to share her thoughts about the book. I’ll ask a few follow-up questions to discuss the why behind the characters’ decisions or feelings. Then I’ll share my thoughts about the book. If the text warrants multiple conversations or is a longer chapter book, we’ll talk more about it at later points.

Obviously, you know your child best. But, what books and entertainment you expose your child to and how you frame them are worth considering. If you’re reading a fairy tale, can you take a few minutes after to talk about how cisgender women don’t need saving or provide a few examples of people who found their happily ever after without being in a relationship? If you’re a white family and you’re reading a book with a main character of color, how can you discuss the book without centering whiteness or viewing the character as representative of all BIPOC individuals?

How have I approached unpacking popular children’s books? Click here for my thoughts on The Bad Seed by Jory John.

How have you approached these conversations? What resources have you found to be helpful? Any questions? Please comment below xoxo

My 2015 Recap

A year ago, I focused on how my glass was half full. I was – and am – thankful to be a mom and an educator. Nonetheless, as 2014 drew to a close, there were still a lot of loose ends in my life:

  • Was my breast cyst benign or malignant?
  • Could I physically handle my job? (I only had six days between my lumpectomy and the start of the semester. I had three new classes to teach and 30 more students than the previous semester. And, I still had my usual two migraines a week.) Assuming that I could handle the added responsibilities and that the cyst was benign, would my full-time contract be renewed?
  • Was I really at peace with no longer being in a relationship with The Man? Or, would I return to my old pattern of going back to an ex-boyfriend?
  • How would I fare at being a single mom?
  • Where would Roya get into preschool? (The DC preschool hustle is an interesting process with applications, recommendations and interviews.)

Today, I can reflect on all of those questions and stressors with a huge sigh of relief.

Most importantly, surgery in January revealed that the cyst was benign. My November MRI showed no evidence of cancer. According to my oncologist, I now have the same risk of anyone else my age of getting breast cancer. Breast cancer thus becomes a disease I had, not a disease from which I’m in remission. That matters clinically and psychologically.

On the work front, I’ve been able to handle all of my responsibilities effectively. My contract has been renewed through May 2017, and I get excited every time I head to campus. I recently was asked what I liked best about my students. I paused as I tried not to shed any tears and replied, “How much time do you have?” I know how lucky I am to truly love what I do.

I also appreciate where I am professionally. If an opportunity as a panelist or expert doesn’t benefit my continued role as an instructor, I have the ability to respectfully decline. Choosing what’s been the right fit has led to some amazing opportunities, though. A few highlights:

  • Speaking about The Hunger Games to a sold-out audience at The Smithsonian;
  • Being interviewed by Associated Press about drone technology;
  • Filming a short video for WebMD about what to expect when you’re diagnosed with breast cancer; and
  • Talking about selfies for American Magazine.

With respect to The Man, I do not doubt that we were meant to meet and fall in love. I also do not question that we are no longer meant to be a couple. He was put in my life so that Roya would be born. He was a love in my life, and there will be another in the future. She is the love of my life.

As far as being a single mom, I don’t view that term — or my reality — as a negative. Roya is a great kid, and I’m thankful to be in control of every day and every decision in her life. And, I can exhale, knowing that she ended up in the right preschool for her.

Is our life utopic? Of course not.

Parenting is joyously exhausting (or exhaustingly joyful?). Between Roya’s sleep patterns, grading and curriculum development, a five-hour stretch of sleep is a good night for me. And, it would be nice to have time to see my friends, work out and write. But, I know how privileged I am to say that the toughest parts of my year were lack of sleep, missed brunches, and wanting to fit into my skinny jeans.

stef woods, city girl blogs

As we change the calendar to 2016, I pray that the new year brings Roya and me more of the same. I am truly content with my relationships, my family and my job. I go into 2016 without any loose ends. Roya and I are blessed to be happy and (knock on wood) healthy. I hope the same for you and your loved ones, too. xoxo