“Does Alabama still have race riots?”
“How are things down there…hopefully better?!”
“I know you’re conditioned for this hot weather, so you should be used to this [103 degrees of smoldering heat]!” (“As though 103 degrees isn’t hot to me…hot isn’t hot…In fact, let me go get a jacket…this is actually a bit chilly?!”)
My personal favorite: “I know you are so happy to be out of that state!” (As if the 13th Amendment was ratified this year (1865), or better yet, as though I actually came straight to off the Amistad to the North)
These are few of the several innocent, fun-poking, yet very real sentiments that found ways to express themselves towards me because of the history and/or climate of my state/region. Before I begin, I’d like to state that I have thoroughly enjoyed TFA and getting to know many of the people in the organization, but there have been particular eyebrow-raising moments…
Frustrating is the most satisfactory term that I can come up with to describe how certain moments of this experience have been.
Most vividly, above all aforementioned comments, ignorance nastily exposed itself in the form of the “White Savior Mentality” or WSM, white people who deem themselves as saviors hoping to “save their [black/low-income] children”; that hope to set them up for “success”; that they may lead them to “salvation” through their very white lens of “success”.
DISCLAIMER: I’m reluctant to post this publicly in fear of offending some people, including my friends. My intent is not to demean or pinpoint any one particular person or even offend groups of people. The intent of my post is to simply draw from my recent experiences and interactions to frame a concept.
Throughout the course of our training at TFA (teaching experiences with one of the roughest high schools in Philadelphia), I heard that “these kids have little to no values”. I heard WSM expressed as “bleeding hearts that feel so sorry for the children that they feel it is their right to save them because their parents must not care very much for them.”
Growing up in or around a pre-dominantly homogenous religion, race, political and cultural community can make foreign ideas seem wrong or poorly calibrated. But, until you know the life of “these or those children”, then you can’t attempt to save them. In fact, what you think is “little to no values”, may be rich values. You can only become aware of different ways of thinking, living, and acting when you’ve been exposed to them. You can’t “fix” someone’s way of life. You can’t fit a people into a different “way of life”. Focusing on the strengths of a community rather than the negatives, developing trust, and opening yourself to a community is how you have the greatest impact on forging ideal relationships and fostering true change. In turn, from my own firsthand account, what colleges you’ve attended, if you have more degrees than a thermostat, what positions you’ve held, what third world countries you’ve saved, what wars you’ve arbitrated, and who your father may not be as important as you think to children…unless your dad is really cool or you have good stories that relate to teaching, which is possible and very awesome.
Nothing has seemed more vexing than the “I’m-going-to-save-the-poor-black-children attitude and set them on the gateway of success”, clenching something indescribable on my insides that can only be expressed as a mere shake of the head in utter disbelief.
WSM has framed at least one theory for me:
The good health of racial injustice in America is not [entirely] the fault of historically repressed parts of our country; it’s no longer just slavery, black codes/Jim Crow laws, or the KKK: There are still racist ideas and people today. But, the problem now, what continues to act as a pacemaker for racial inequity, is an ignorance born of privilege and complete unawareness. This idea of not knowing because of insulation.
As popular as WSM seemed to be, I was surprised to find that hardly any of these folks wanted to have serious conversations about what racial inequality is or means, the impact of growing up black as opposed to white, what it means to teach in an urban setting, such the conditions and backgrounds many of the students come from, or what perceptions students may develop of teachers. Make no mistake: teaching is definitely about touching lives; but, what will community members think of the privately educated graduate who has never experienced anything unlike their insulated settings/ideas/communities who thunders into a school with the “savior” or “Superman” mentality?
Let me not forget the comment, “I want to live where my kids live so I can go through what they go through, feel the same pains, and live the same lives so I can relate to them.”
These and other seemingly benign mentalities are dangerous constructions that are as destructive and harmful to equality as malignant constructions meant to preserve white dominance. These mentalities aren’t meant to be malicious — most white people don’t believe racism is a true problem while many people of color do (hence our inability to wrap our arms around racial inequity as a nation — “What is racism or discrimination?”) While these present-day mentalities aren’t typically products of ill will, they are no less detrimental, audacious, and underhanded as D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.
These ideas are as dangerous as believing that because our nation elected its first black president then we’ve “reached a culture of total unquestionable equality”. Even at TFA, I recall overhearing that Obama’s election signaled the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. no longer a dream, but reality, that race is no longer a barrier to achievement.
Let us not forget that it was just hundreds of years ago that black hands aided in the labor force that built the now “not so White” House.
And so, I draw these analogies and lines because I believe deeply that these unowned, mindless notions will be the drivers of the future of race relations in our nation. Just as words scribed as the Declaration of Independence answered the fiery debate of slavery at its core, “…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”, we will not be able to solve problems of race until we work and understand each other as a United States, not a poor, black, democratic country or a privileged, educated, white country.
We must deconstruct white privilege, the root of WSM, as well as other mentalities.
- What does it mean to be black? What does it mean to obtain a public education as a black student?
- What are the implications of attending a racially and culturally homogenous school?
- How will people who are insulated in and by their own race and culture be able to interact and accurately perceive situations in which they have never had to do?
- Do educators of different color generate assumptions, generalizations about students of color versus their white peers?
- How are those assumptions translated into the treatment or expectations of students?
- Following the election of our nation’s first black president, should affirmative action be abolished? Does his election mean that we’ve crossed the finish line of racial inequity?
- Is racism, benign or malignant, a permanent stain on the American establishment, that the superficial construction of racial superiority created by whites is an indestructible part of American society?
- Will we ever achieve a full equalized society where every individual feels that he or she is not discriminated against on the basis of what defines them, like race?
- Or, are we, the American people, a people capable of forging a nation that lives up to what our founding fathers embedded 223 years ago?
Of course, we’d like to think that we are a people capable of forging a nation that embodies unconditional equality.
In the same way that it’s impossible for limbs of a human body to function with a disconnected brain, if we’re not working in coordination with every part of our country, then we won’t move forward as one…or at all. Racial injustice is not a white problem or a black problem: it’s an American problem with many roots, not just privilege.
I’m optimistic about our ability to make strides and more progress as a nation, but I simply question the power and timeliness of our democracy to live up to its potential. And this idea doesn’t just apply to race, it applies to age, cognitive style, culture, disability (mental, learning, physical), economic background, education, ethnicity, gender identity, geographic background, language(s) spoken, marital/partnered status, physical appearance, political affiliation, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation!