Teach for America talks about privilege at every event and in every meeting. It is an unavoidable reality that as a college-educated teacher working in a low-income community it would come up. I was excited for these conversations. What I did not expect was how much it would come to take over my way of thinking outside my job.
I must explain, like many of you I teach at a school that is almost entirely African American and (according to the principal) would be title 1 if my students got it together to turn in the forms. One of my students has to miss an awesome summer program to watch her baby sister. Several of my students are homeless. They come to school without pencils or paper. They wear the same jacket they love every single day. But there are other struggles that are not expressed, like that they do not see a lot of multi-dimensional characters on TV that express their race, or that there are not a lot of radio stations playing the music they like. It is also the terrible education they have experienced and the lack of academic opportunities available to them. I feel this viscerally when they tell me they have to hit someone back when they are hit because they grew up that way and have to defend themselves. They say I grew up differently learning not to hit back when people hit me. They are often upset with me, and it seems clear it is because of my race. They treat me with less respect than a black woman of my same age and demeanor saying the same thing. All of this, while it hurts, has been for good reason — they have been screwed over by white culture and my skin color represents that and has benefited me. They see me and think “she doesn’t get it”, and in many ways I know I don’t. This experience for me has been different than seeing or reading about privilege. I feel the anger toward people with privilege. I feel the injustice toward those without it. I feel the hate all around.
Because of that, I see privilege everywhere. I go to concerts full of white people, and I see privilege in the nice concert hall and the fancy concessions menu. I go out to bars full of white people and see privilege in the bars I go to. I see privilege in the TV shows that I watch and that my race is shown in varied and multi-dimensional ways and is very well represented.
I want to be happy about not returning to my school next year. I know it is the right decision for me because I was very unhappy, but there are so many unhappy teachers and staff at my school who cannot leave because of loans, mortgages, kids, etc. They do not have the certification necessary, the principal approval to change schools or the financial flexibility to take a risk.
I am having a genuinely hard time enjoying anything in my life because of the stifling nature of this perspective. I see it in everything in my life and I feel guilty when I benefit from the system and I feel sad at the state of our world and country.
I want more than to “use my privilege for good”. I mean, that just feels like an excuse to dismiss privilege to me. In fact, I crave to give it all up so I can’t further the problem by benefiting any longer. But that is so stupid because my parents would always support me if I needed. I would always be white. Privilege is something you can never escape.
I would love your advice and perspective on this journey.