When discussions about the importance of race, culture, and gender come around, I am told that I am supposed to feel a sense of privilege because I am a white, middle-class, Protestant in a society that is predominantly of the same type. In fact, Merriam, Cafferella, and Baumgartner (2007) describe Helms’ White Identity model, which says I should go through stages of pretending racism does not exist and then feeling guilt about being privileged by being white. The model continues on through other stages until I am supposed to become highly developed by working to do away with racism. Really, though, I am not blind to the effects of race, and oh yes, racism most definitely exists, but I do not feel particularly privileged, either.
In a diversity class for my Master’s, some students said whites are privileged because they feel the effects of racism when security follows them through the store (Laureate Education, Inc., 2011). I have had the same thing happen to me, and with Scandinavian, Germanic, and French ancestry, there is no mistaking me for anything but a white girl. That is not to say that racism does not exist, but in these discussions I do tend to take the unpopular position that racism is worse than it might be because people of all sorts improperly declare things as racist.
Perhaps an example to illustrate…
After teaching in schools where I was most certainly in the minority race, I have seen parents scream racism over the littlest things like accusing me because I gave an African-American kid a black sparkly pencil. The truth was that I gave him a black sparkly pencil because that was all I had and he had earned a prize for something no one else had accomplished. Had he been Latino, white, or Indian, he would have gotten a sparkly black pencil. His race was not a factor, but people jump to playing the racism card too quickly. This perpetuates racism by detracting from real, serious problems. People begin to assume that all declarations of racism are part of a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” phenomenon. Then big issues like violence, segregation, education access, and the like never get the serious treatment they deserve.
A likely reason that I do not have much patience for people who cry racism over minor issues is because I, who belong to the “privileged dominant culture,” have dealt with discrimination just like the people who start hollering about the little things.
I have multiple handicapping conditions. That makes my life interesting enough, but one of them carries a major stigma, even in today’s educated and enlightened society. Complicating things, most days, I look like a normal person. There are just certain days and situations in which the conditions flare up. Some people who find out I have a disability after assuming I am normal act like I betrayed them by daring to pretend to be a normal person.
I have lost jobs because of my disabilities, even though I was perfectly capable of performing the functions. I was declared ineligible for services I could have received in school because I was “Double Special,” an education term for people who are both gifted and disabled. I had to fight a major university for the right to finish one of my undergraduate degrees. I could not qualify for most of the scholarships in my first run through college because I was white and not an athlete. Had I been a Latina non-athlete, there would have been something for me to try for. There are public places I cannot go because the conditions are dangerous for someone with my disability. When I have made a simple request for a mild accommodation, people get up in arms and start declaring their rights to do one thing or another in spite of the fact that their “right” puts me in a hazardous situation.
There was a time when I was very bitter about this, but my attitude changed over time. These days, I firmly believe that we are each given challenges to deal with. My challenges are different from other people’s, and they come from different sources, but everyone has some. The difference is how we choose to deal with the challenges we have. I do the best I can with whatever resources God has provided for me. If I run into a block in one direction, I change gears and try another direction. I think if people focused more on solutions to problems than on complaining about problems, they would get much further in life.
As educators, perhaps the best thing we can do is teach our students to look for solutions instead of brooding about the complications of life.
Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2011). Adult development. [Video webcast]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_3466431_1&content_id=_12897466_1#_12897474_1&courseTocLabel=Access%20Resources
Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.