One Hundred Percent: Slice of Life #sol19 15/31

Sherri at Sherri’s Slice of Life Project challenged Slicers to share a story about race this month. Here is a story about race that sticks with me.

I taught one or two college classes each semester through grad school, but my first full-time teaching job, the one where I really learned how to teach, was at a high school on a reservation.

I had been interested in having conversations about race in my college classes, but my students were polite and cautious, usually preferring silence to possibly saying the wrong thing.

In my high school classroom, observations about race were woven through the fabric of every conversation. You couldn’t get away from it if you tried. There were constant jokes about race, often very, very funny ones, constant teasing of each other and me. There were sophisticated and insightful analyses of systemic racism. There were personal stories, sometimes funny, often painful. And there were plenty of questions that had no easy answers. Sometimes I was asked to translate: here’s a situation, here’s what the white person did, you’re a white person, explain.

I had no curriculum to follow and no materials, unless you counted the ancient World Literature textbooks, and I didn’t. It was my first year so I was often just making it up as I went along, creating curriculum out of something I was reading myself. I was reading a lot of books about race and teaching at the time, completing activities on bias, privilege, and identity, and I decided to pull some exercises from one of the books to try with my students.

I thought the opening activity would be a bit of a throwaway. It was a question and a writing prompt: To what extent does race have an impact on your life? Students were asked to come up with a percentage and then do a quickwrite about why they had chosen that number. I figured we’d all write 100%, and then we’d move on to the next activity.

But it turns out that I was the only person in the room to write 100%. Some students got close—95%, 98%. But many had written low numbers—25%, 30%.

There was silence as we tried to make sense of each other’s numbers, and then an explosion of talk. They didn’t want to talk about their numbers: they wanted to talk about mine.

“But you’re white!”

“White’s not even a race!”

I threw out a term that was new to them—White privilege. They didn’t need Peggy McIntosh’s list to help them understand. They immediately grasped how those unearned privileges—both large and small—benefited me. They had a new name for what they had long known about how racism works. My 100% suddenly made sense to them.

I’ve thought a lot about that conversation since then, how quickly my high school students grasped the concept of White privilege and integrated it into their working knowledge of the world. I’ve talked a lot about White privilege in the years since then, with students and colleagues, but it’s never been that quick or easy.

10 thoughts on “One Hundred Percent: Slice of Life #sol19 15/31

  1. Oh, such a powerful conversation, Elisabeth. Thank you for sharing this one. I am still so uncomfortable to talk about race, and I know that I need to learn more about white privilege and how it impacts everyone.

  2. Wow, Elisabeth, what an interesting exploration of race in this unique context. I love where you describe being asked to explain the behavior of other whites. Interesting to think about what an impact this early trustful forum for race talk has had on your overall career since then. Often it is our students who turn out to be our most patient teachers. Obviously the relationships you were able to build in that community created the conditions for the sharing of experience that you mention. Thank you for sharing your slice and offering us a fresh perspective to consider in our race related interactions. -Sherri

  3. Such a great story to share. Those denied privilege “get it”, those with it struggle to see it. Except you- in that environment, with your efforts… I think I will be sharing you % story in other discussions. Thanks for responding to Sherri’s request.

  4. I’m especially fascinated that your high school students were more open to this discussion than your college students. I wonder when we start to close ourselves off for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. I wonder, too, if my own students know what white privilege is? Surely the answer is yes… right? Maybe something I need to ask. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I’m still thinking about how to write about race in the context of SOL – interesting because I think about race A LOT in my teaching. Hmm… Thanks again. Still thinking…

  5. I think the percentage numbers to some extent can depend on where students live and what they are exposed to. I know the community where I grew up was totally white. The schools I went to were totally white. The only diversity we had was based on ethnicity and not race.I don’t know we would have responded to this question back then.

  6. Wow! Thoughtful and honest. I’ve participated in my share of cultural competence trainings and have run some affinity groups where middle schoolers talk about race/ethnicity and identity. I find an accessible entry point (after norms are established) to be a guiding question about a short video clip or article that sparks conversation. I am intrigued by your percentage task and wonder myself how I would respond. So much food for thought…

  7. What an experience to stay with.. I can really appreciate it.

    Reminds me of my Title 1 days in the Rio Grande Valley where we’re 98% Hispanic.

    .. I love this post and I’m going to think about it more. Thank you for posting this.

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