The Right Words

In the last two years, I have thought more about race then I have in my entire life. My job for the last two years has been to write math curriculum for 5th grade students all over the country. When I first got the job, I was really worried about the fact that most of my career was spent working with white children in Maine. Does it matter that I have mostly worked with white children? It seems like it would matter. What kind of contexts should I write about? What do kids in the city care about?” I think I actually said that out loud at one point: “kids in the city”. I was afraid to say the word black or brown because I didn’t know how to talk about race.

Recently, I have been asking myself, what does it mean to be white? In my everyday life, as a member of a predominantly white community, I don’t think about being white. Whiteness is what I have in common with most of the people around me. 

I remember the first time I heard the term “white privilege”. I resented it. Then, about a year later, I heard a black woman share a story about a time when her son came home in a cop car. He was walking home from the store when a policeman pulled over and asked him where he lived. The policeman wasn’t convinced her son really lived where he said he did – in a predominantly white, upper-middle class neighborhood. I think about that story a lot. I think about how women of color have to worry about their sons in a way that I will never have to worry about mine because racism is still embedded in our society. 

I try to notice my own thoughts and feelings about race. Often, I have to come to terms with some uncomfortable feelings.  I have biased thoughts and feelings. I am learning to recognize them, sit with them, and own them. As a white person, I don’t have to make an effort to gather with other white people. My world is structured for white people gathering. I don’t worry about being excluded because of the color of my skin. I don’t  worry about being killed because of the color of my skin. 

Paulo Frier says, “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

As a white educator, I realize the most important thing I can do right now is cultivate the practice of freedom. It starts with me recognizing the racism in me and my world and making an effort to change it.

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