cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Dismantling Privilege Up Close is Personal, Part 1

How do my teaching and learning practices as a white, middle-aged, math teacher with a great deal of privilege either support or disrupt the unconscious processes of systemic racism that underlie every aspect of my classroom?

At my very large, very diverse, high-achieving, high-poverty urban magnet school, this has been a question each of us 180+ teachers has been investigating daily, both individually and together, over the past three years.

We just finished Year 3 of our five-year program of anti-racist transformation and I tell you, it has been (and still is) grueling. It is exhausting to inquire into the tiniest corners and crevices of your teaching practice to root out systemic oppression. Looking into the mirror of your practice like this every day is just draining. But the only way out of this systemic mess is through, and so I slog on.

Year 3 of our guided process has focused on pedagogy and personal practice and transformation. Every teacher is part of a 10-15 person interdisciplinary inquiry group. The group I am in includes teachers from math, English Social Studies, world languages (Chinese, Japanese, Romance Languages), Special Ed, orchestra, English, and PE. This has been a deep year as we have begun to really get at the in-class and in-person ways in which white supremacy, privilege, and the systemic parts of systemic racism manifest in our classrooms, in our school/community, and in our personal teaching practices.

Being able to talk in a trusted and trustworthy way about our distinct experiences with the same kids across different parts of their academic and social experience has opened a lot of minds. It's like really seeing the differing facets of the same crystal in the light. It has also honed our individual and collective abilities to see the systemic parts of our racist culture playing out in our personal lives and practices. Nobody just yells out, "See? White privilege!" any more. We notice it more quietly, more deeply. The learning grinds away at us.

One of the most recent news stories around all this that is still playing out on the national stage has been the college admissions cheating/bribery scandal. This is only the latest and most publicized instance of how privilege and white supremacy in our culture of systemic racism are operating, but it has affected me and others in my group profoundly. It has focused our attention on the issue of opportunity hoarding -- the many ways in which privilege reproduces itself by taking advantage of leaks in the educational system which can be turned to the advantage of the privileged classes.

I need to add in a clarifying note here. The dominant culture at my school has its own unique flavor and manifests in ways that are uniquely Californian and uniquely San Franciscan. At 41% Asian and 23% white, our dominant culture is a strange fusion of Asian and white cultures. We already are a "majority minority" institution. But we also reflect the unholy history of racism in California and San Francisco -- a dominant culture that codified its anti-Black and anti-Asian racisms in law during the years leading up to the Civil War and statehood. The anti-Black, anti-Asian, anti-Native American, and anti-Latinx racisms we have inherited were institutionalized in a racialized way in the California Constitution. And they were crafted with intention to pit racialized minority groups against one another in an ongoing battle for "second place" after whiteness. My school was founded in 1856, in the middle of all of this, and our culture today retains many of the structural and institutional traces of the pre-Civil War and Reconstruction-era racisms that continue to impact our school, city, and state to this day. In a nutshell, Reconstruction-era California was really weird -- and completely distinct in its inheritance of Jim Crow-style anti-Black racisms from the Southern states and of aversive-style anti-Black racisms from the Northern and Midwestern states. California's forms and history of systemic racism are truly weird and unique. If you are interested in learning more about this, I recommend the late D. Michael Bottoms' history, An Aristocracy of Color: Race and Reconstruction in California and the West, 1850-1890.

I say this because when I talk about the dominant culture at my school, I am not just talking about the kind of white supremacy I grew up with in New Jersey. What we experience here daily at my school is a direct legacy from the free-soil movement before the Civil War, as well as the segregation of Chinese and Chinese schools into the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, plus Reconstruction, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and every other toxic legacy that white migrants brought with them from other parts of the country. Black students and families were integrated into our school long before Asian students were. In fact, Black students were first integrated into our school in 1875, then re-segregated and re-de-segregated multiple times before the Civil Rights era. When I look at our ancient yearbooks, I see Black faces, Asian faces, and Native American faces sprinkled in for years at a time, and then suddenly disappeared. I can see the pitting of racialized minority groups playing out across the pages of our historical yearbooks, working backwards into the late 19th century and probably into Reconstruction and the Civil War era.

What I'm trying to say is that my school's dominant culture of Asian and white cultures pitted against Black, Native, and Latinx cultures to compete for status and resources has a long and well-documented legacy. At least our unique dominant culture comes by its deep and toxic weirdness honestly.

So when I talk about my school's dominant culture, I am speaking of a terrible alliance of legalized striving in California that was put into place to put racialized minorities at odds with each other as they fought to win second-place in an unholy alliance with the white power structure.

My school's legacy of this strife in is that our dominant culture reproduces this alliance between Asian and white cultural groups. Our district takes off both Christian holidays and Lunar New Year, although lip service is paid to Native cultures through the renaming of Columbus Day as Indigenous People's Day. But the power structure strongly reflects this alliance of white and Asian cultural groups. Majority rules with a velvet gloved fist.

Asian cultures in our school retain a lot of their unique distinctions. There is a status hierarchy of cultures that I have learned about. But the power structure is definitely a streaming arrangement, with the majority Asian community flowing in unquestioning currents with the white community through an unspoken power-sharing dynamic.

All of this plays out every day in my classroom, in our hallways, in our PTSA, in our alumni association, and in our school district.

I could not have explained any of this four years ago because I had only the shallowest understanding of it. But now I see it operating everywhere I look.

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