Sunday, June 29, 2014

Being White Guys

I'm going to write this companion piece to last night's post about race and gender and then I'm going to set this topic aside (until I don't).

Preamble and Disclaimer

Let me make two points before I start this exercise in gross generalization. These apply to the previous post as well.

1) I cannot possibly speak for everybody in any category and to every person's experience. If you want to point out to me that you know of experiences or persons who don't fit what I'm saying, all I have to say is, "Of course."

2) I am trying to describe how people see, hear or experience certain stuff. I am not trying to evaluate the correctness of those beliefs. In my experience, when you want to talk with someone, it's useful to understand how they see things, period.

Why Are White Guys So Bad At This Conversation

The "privilege" conversation degenerates rapidly every time it comes up in this culture. Why don't we white guys just admit we live in privilege and move the conversation forward?

Because most of us don't feel privileged.

Tell a working class guy who is pulling fifty-sixty hours a week because he wants to grapple with the frustration of not being able to give his children nice things, and who spends those fifty-sixty hours having is every move dictated by the many people who have power over him at work-- tell that guy about his white guy privilege, and he will think you're making a bad joke.

In a school setting, we may feel that we've got the same size classroom, work for the same people, teach the same material.

For some of us, it's not that we want to defend "privilege," or justify it, but that we literally cannot see what the heck you are talking about. And when someone starts talking about "privilege," we hear an accusation, a charge that we somehow cheated by being born white and male, which we feel is unfair because we worked hard to get where we are.

Suck It Up

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Walk it off. Grab life by the balls. Make it happen. No excuses. The buck stops here.

If life is a mountain to climb, then women and minorities are told that there are certain paths for them to take, areas they are barred from, obstacles they cannot surmount. White guys are shown the mountain and told, "There is no excuse for you not to get to the top. If you don't climb the mountain, it's because you aren't strong enough, focused enough, good enough." For some men, that is exhilarating, and for some it is terrifying.

The flip side of the assumption that women are helpless is the assumption that men, real men, never are. I know more than a couple of strong, capable women who still believe that the procedure for solving problems is
        1) Tell a man about it
        2) Wait

In schools, this is the staff meeting where the women turn to the man for answers. It's the female teachers who want to get that guy from the union to come fix this problem.

To someone else, it may look as if a white guy lives without an extra set of invisible obstacles, but he may experience that as huge pressure, as a situation where his success or failure all rests on him, and meeting the challenge is a straight-up measure of his worth as a person. And we've raised to think that's how the world works (not how the world works just for white guys). So when other groups start explaining the kinds of cultural obstacles and differences they face, what white guys hear is a list of excuses.

Yes, the no excuses schools, along with much of the reformster movement, are straight out of the white guy world view.

Our Big Blind Spot 

White guys overcome obstacles all the time. All the time. Things do not come easily for us, and the success that we experience comes, as near as we can tell, from the exertion of our strength and smarts and willpower and hard work and grit.

And we literally cannot imagine how it would not be possible for any human being to exert their own strength and smarts and willpower and hard work and grit. We do not see that any sort of privilege is involved in being able to use all those tools to create our success. We are kind of like the person who can't understand why clinically depressed people don't just cheer themselves up. Or the teacher who stands in front of a class saying, "Well, just understand it. You're not trying."

Not a Contest

My intent is not to say "Waa! White guys have it tough, too." It's never useful when these conversations devolve into Who Gets Pissed On More contests. But if we're going to have these conversations, we're going to have to stop talking past each other, and that gets easier if we understand where the other person is coming from.

That's particularly true as teachers. As both the teaching pool and the student population diversify, and as American culture itself spreads out into a gazillion subcultures, our ability to reach across those lines becomes critical to our success and the success of our students.

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