Reality Check: Students on Privilege from Two Perspectives

Last night, I spent time in yet another conversation on privilege and race. This time, it was with math teachers in a session of the Global Math Dept. At some point in time during this conversation, I saw that teachers were inquiring more about reaching their students of color which we didn’t really get to discuss. I make no assumption that being a teacher of color makes me some automatic expert on the topic, but coming from an environment where “being the only one like me” in the room is the norm, I felt compelled to share from the experiences of a few of my students. It was interesting how much their views of race and privilege differed yet were aligned in so many ways.

Some Background

Where we live, our town is predominantly white yet the school is predominantly hispanic. (I don’t think that most teachers realize this yet even though it is blatantly apparent in classroom student ratios.) Black students make up a very small percentage and that is also consistent in town. Every year, thousands from every race come together to celebrate (white) “Czech” heritage for our National Polka festival yet less than a hundred show up for any other cultural celebrations. At the high school level, I was the only teacher of color in a core class. The others taught spanish or coached. Unless these students were athletes or took spanish, they would not see another teacher like them.

The Black Student Athlete Perspective

“Teachers only talked to me about football & the fame. They didn’t seem to care about the school work. I felt passed.”

Black male students who are athletic had an advantage over those that were not. To this student, he added value to the school by being a “star athlete” and he got away with a great deal more. He learned the formula quick in that giving minimal effort was all that he needed to stay on the field. (no pass no play) Where white athletes were somewhat expected to excel in the classroom, teachers were surprised when black athletes did the same. There were zero expectations when it came to academic growth. His “privilege” in earning a free pass from athletics was also his disadvantage in terms of learning. He expressed that he did not believe that academic success was within his reach. He felt that his worth was wrapped in football as that was all that he really knew how to do. Football was all that he was expected to do. From his perspective, that was not the case for white athletes as they were expected to excel in class and were treated as such. He went on to add that teachers talked to other students about who they were off the field but conversations with him always centered around football and the fame. I found that interesting.

The Headstrong Latina and White Cheerleader Privilege

“My teachers were amazing but principals seemed to target me for dress code as if I was the only one out. I wasn’t.”

I will admit to struggling with this subtopic because saying it sounds divisive but the reality is that in our school and even now…white cheerleaders had privilege. My student immediately thought of standardized dress. While she did own up to wearing her pants slightly tighter, it bothered her that she could walk into school alongside a heavily out of dress code white cheerleader and she would be the one pulled aside to change. It never failed. Her being “out of dress code” caused problems in that she became known for it and teachers watched for it. Yet, the white cheerleaders walked around in yoga pants and t-shirts and were ignored. The more that we talked, the more that we pin pointed moments of this same behavior with white students in general and hispanic students. There were moments when students walked the halls, white students out of dress code were bypassed while it seemed that hispanic students were targeted. For her, she distinctly remembered “the white cheerleader” as it became her frame of reference throughout school.

Responding to Privilege & Perspective

Neither of these students ever had a platform to talk about these issues nor did they feel that they could outside of their own circles. They were uncomfortable, even as adults now…uncomfortable. I connected with that as prior to my weekend at Educon, I felt the same. Students carry unique perspectives about their experiences and until these issues, along with the countless others unaddressed in this posting, are met head on through discussion and action, these tensions and perspectives will never change.

It’s amazing how much students pick up on and carry with them through life because of the adults that got it wrong along the way.

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