I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the notion of privilege, thanks in no small part to a confronting cultural competence session conducted by my organisation.
The session, run by both an Aboriginal and a Caucasian woman, focused on many provocative moments, but one of the most valuable messages I took away was the Peggy McIntosh notion of “the invisible knapsack of white privilege”
I’ve been unpacking this idea (no pun intended – seriously. Yes, I know I wrote it, but it’s there now, and it seems an awful lot of work to go back and change it) and thinking about how pervasive it is in other areas too.
One of the exercises we took part in during the training was to think about what was in our knapsack of white privilege, and to make statements which began with “Because I am white…” (mine was “because I am white I can be good at more than just sports or dancing” If I had more time to think about it, I would have said “Because I am white, I get to be good at more than just sports and performing arts”, because I feel that’s more encompassing, but that’s by the by)
Mentally, and now in print, I’ve been thinking about how often the insidious notions of “pretty” “privilege” “power” creep into the domain of childhood and education, and how these notions impact on the children in our care.
I’d love to sit here and pretend that every teacher everywhere comes into the classroom with an open mind, free of bias, and ready to do the best they can with what they have where they are, but to do so would be at best naive and at worst downright stupid.
The fact is teachers, like the rest of the world, are human. They have their own agendas, their own unique perspectives and beliefs, and sadly, their own pre conceived notions of how things are going to run in their classroom.
Sadly, some of these preconceived biases mean that teachers are unaware of the doors which have been opened to them by being pretty, or middle class, or white, or any of the other numerous winnings in the lottery of life. Continuing on from these biases then, which have never been raised, never been brought to their attention, just becomes life. They then, fail to see, how they, without checking for the “fringe dwellers” on the other side of their privileges, are being impacted, and the cycle continues.
What I’ve been wondering is how best I can fill the knapsack of the children who aren’t pretty, aren’t privileged and aren’t in the position of having someone coming in from a position of power to bat for them, to even the playing field.
In my classrooms in the past, I’ve gone out of my way to make each child feel as though they have something to offer our room as a collective. Far from embracing the idea that “everyone is the best! Happy stampy yay for everyone!” I’ve asked the children in my room “Who is the best at maths/art/sport/dancing/hugs/braiding/cartooning/singing/walking in a straight line?” Even in Year One, they know. They know they aren’t all the best. They know which group of readers is on the lower books. To pretend they don’t is foolishness, and insulting to their intelligence. When given the freedom to identify “the best”, I’ve found that children relish the chance to not only self identify, but to nominate the greatness they see in others. As a collective, we end up with the notion that everyone in the room has something to offer, that we are unique and individual, but also that our talents combine to make us a special and powerful group of learners. We all have a little piece of ego to carry around with us.
In these “who is the best at…” discussions, I noticed something. Not once ever did “who is the prettiest?” come up. It was a much more insidious thing. Children would identify Khalil as the best runner, but wouldn’t want to sit with him. They would tell me Grace was amazing at making up stories, but they wouldn’t share treats with her at lunch. What was wrong with Khalil and Grace?
Khalil was a foster kid, who was bounced around a lot, who was often out of uniform, and who brought his lunch to school in a plastic bag instead of a lunch box. Grace was “rounder” than the others, and, in a class of “pretty” girls, stood out like a sore thumb.
All the “who is the best at…” discussions in the world weren’t going to change the circumstances of those 2 children, and 100’s like them. I often wondered then, albeit with less clarity then I do now, how do I give them the tools which help them open the doors that are subtlety (and not so subtlety) closed in front of them?
How do we counterbalance for those children who are not “pretty” “privileged” or “powerful?”