At the lovely Katia Hildebrandt’s suggestion, I have started reading Revealing the Invisible: Confronting Passive Racism in Teacher Education by Sherry Marx, a book discusses the “damaging effects of unaddressed racism and white privilege on the capacity of white teachers to effectively teach students of colour.” Chapter 2: “Illuminating the Invisible” explored the ways that Whites make sense of Whiteness and colour as well as the common role model and saviour constructs developed by preservice teachers. This chapter connected to an assignment (curriculum-as-place.docx) I did last year for ECS 210, in which I wrote an autobiography to represent my identity and to identify significant moments in my journey that shaped my life, beliefs, and values as a future teacher. After I handed it in, I was asked to reflect on whether I included the ways in which my gender, race, class, sexuality and other parts of my identity affected my life experiences. I reflected that I was able to leave those parts of my identity out because I occupy positions of privilege in those areas, but I did not reflect on the specific ways my experiences were affected by my privilege. To be honest, the reason it has taken me so long to write this post is because it’s not comfortable to recognize the ways my privilege has affected my life experiences. It means I have to own up to the fact that the experiences I’ve had and the things I have accomplished are not all due to my own hard work. After reading Chapter 2, I knew it was time to go back to this assignment and compare what I wrote to the patterns of dialogue between Marx and the pre-service teachers she engages with. The first thing I noticed when reading over my autobiography was the pattern of writing about myself as a role model/”self-aggrandizing helper” in my volunteer work, just as many of the young women in the book do. When I discussed my first three experiences, I wrote in a very self-centred way, focusing on the ways I was able to help the youth I worked with. For example, I wrote about how I helped a child come out of his shell, how my support was so encouraging to students in the Functionally Integrated Program, and how I could provide new and exciting experiences for my mentee. My language consistently focused on myself and what I was doing to help the underprivileged youth I worked with. Marx explains that “while those acting as benevolent role models and saviours are often lauded as self-sacrificing, well intentioned, and in possession of hearts of gold, this construct of the helper necessitates that the person helped is constructed as needy, dependent, and incapable of achieving on her or his own” (pg. 72). Looking back, I think I had a deficit perception of some of the youth I worked with, which in turn allowed me to construct an idealistic version of myself as a role model. In the next part of my autobiography, I discussed my experience on a humanitarian trip to Pachuca, Mexico, with the U of R Cougar Women’s Soccer Team without acknowledging that it was my privilege as a middle class female and member of a university soccer team that enabled me to go on this trip. Additionally, I did not once refer to how my whiteness affected this experience. This connects with when Becky, one of the preservice teachers, stated regarding children of colour, “They are people. I’m a person. And… I just like kids. So, I just talked to them. You know, I don’t really think about [racial and cultural differences.] (pg. 48). Similarly, when I wrote about my experience in Mexico, I tried to cling to my sense of racial neutrality, using colour-blind language and avoiding discussion of experiences that emphasized my Whiteness. For example, at one of the elementary schools we visited, my teammates and I signed autographs for children at the school for almost an hour straight. They treated us like celebrities because of our Whiteness; however, I preferred to think that they were just excited to have visitors painting murals at their school. Another example of ignoring my Whiteness is from a blog post I wrote on our trip blog. Describing the tour of Technológico de Monterrey, I wrote, “We received many curious stares, for a few possible reasons: because we were all wearing matching grey Cougars t-shirts, because we were all in shorts while most students were wearing jeans and sweaters, or (most likely) because we’re a group of 21 incredibly good-looking girls (plus Bob!).” I am quite sure that the real reason we were stared at was that the majority of my team was White. Marx explains that this desire to shrug off the marker of race is a common feeling among Whites because we are so used to our race being neutral/invisible/normal. She goes on to contrast this with the markedness of colour, explaining that Whites often perceive the White racial group as being extremely complex and ambiguous, while perceiving cultures of colour as homogenous, tight-knit identities. Looking back, I think I also perceived Mexican culture in that way at times. I remember making comments about not wanting to leave because there was such a strong sense of culture and shared history. Through these comments, I was implying that “Whites are so diverse they don’t share any of those markers of culture.” There are definitely the same elements of diversity within Mexican culture as within White culture, however it is harder (for me) to see because of the stereotypes/single stories I have absorbed. My privilege shaped the first three experiences I discussed by making it possible for me to view myself as an idealized role model while holding deficit views of the youth I worked with. My privilege as an able-bodied middle class female made it possible for me to go on the humanitarian trip to Pachuca. While in Pachuca, my White privilege made it possible for me to ignore my Whiteness completely and to think about Mexican culture as homogenous. This reflection forced me to make sense of my experiences in an uncomfortable way, which was necessary because I knew that the ways I had made sense of my experiences in my autobiography were not only inaccurate but complicit with oppression. Now my challenge is to continue reflecting on how my privilege shapes my experiences. Even though it is a really difficult, uncomfortable process, I know it is worth it.
Last week, for my Health Education class, we broke into two groups and toured Carmichael Outreach, a community based organization in Regina that “serves the marginalized of Regina by advocating on their behalf and by providing a range of programming that includes preventative measures and harm reduction.” They emphasize a non-judgmental environment and a person to person approach, rather than a medical approach.
Carmichael Outreach offers a huge variety of programs, including a coffee room, community garden, food security and nutrition, a housing coordinator, an immunization program, a needle exchange program, used clothing and small household item depot, and more. I had no idea that all of these programs were available in Regina, let alone all these programs being offered from one organization.
As I walked into the doors of Carmichael, soup cans in hand, I immediately felt very out of place. First impression: we are all white and they are all brown. Clear divisions. Us and them. I tried to listen to the woman guiding the tour, telling us about the amazing, necessary work they do at Carmichael, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how privileged I am.
Usually privilege is obscure and very easy to ignore. I can get through most days believing I have earned the things I have and that my life is the way it is because of my own hard work and the hard work of my parents. That day at Carmichael, several of my positions of privilege (being white, middle class, able-bodied, not having a mental illness), were blatantly apparent. It was obvious that my life is the way it is because of this privilege, and that made me feel uncomfortable and awkward and guilty.
I know that I don’t have to feel guilty about my privilege because I can’t help it, but I couldn’t stop feeling guilty throughout the tour. I kept thinking about the combined value of just the clothing that my classmates and I were wearing and how much money that could bring to an organization like this.
Back to the tour. I was really surprised at the number of containers of food they give out every day at Carmichael – up to 250 of the tall yogurt containers (which they are always in need of)! The need for this food security program has gone up in the last five years, she told us. I was also impressed with the used clothing and small household item depot, where anyone in need can come take them, free of charge. This is something I could easily help out with by donating old clothes and winter attire that I don’t use anymore. That’s one small way I could help make a difference, but I still feel guilty.
I am aware of a few other supports in Regina to assist families, including the Food Bank and Regina Women’s Transition House. Other than those, I’m pretty ignorant about the supports available and I definitely need to do some research to change that.
This experience made me think about how I will support students who live in poverty situations in my future classroom. First of all, I need to become more educated on the supports available for families in Regina so that I am able to refer families to these supports or make suggestions that might help them. In my classroom, I want to have breakfast and snacks available for all my students, so as not to single anyone out but to make sure they have all eaten. I also want to try to do classroom fundraisers for field trips or other experiences so that students aren’t left out if they cannot afford the trip. I want to teach for equity – not equality – which means doing my best to level the playing field so everyone can learn to their full potential.
Also, I will need to examine the stereotypes I bring and be careful not to deficit theorize about students’ families. For example, if parents don’t come to a parent-teacher interview, I hope to be invested in the relationship enough to know that it’s not that they don’t care about their child’s schooling, but that they might have other priorities that are taking over. I want to be open, caring, and easy to talk to, not judgmental. I also want to have high expectations for all my students and make sure I label them as at-promise rather than at-risk, because I know the expectations (high or low) I place on students are likely to be fulfilled.
Finally, I think it’s really important to talk about poverty in the classroom. If I make it a taboo topic, I am placing shame on my students who live out that reality. Without singling anyone out, we can talk and learn about it together. I want to help my students break down stereotypes they might have about people who live in poverty and find ways our class can make a difference. One resource I have been exposed to for doing this is the Ladybug Foundation.
So I have some ideas for what I need to do in my future classroom to support students who live in poverty. But after my experience at Carmichael Outreach, I’m wondering: What do I do with my feelings of guilt and awkwardness? How do I close the gap between self and other that I felt? How can I use my privilege to make a difference?
Any suggestions would be much appreciated!