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.