The Importance of Understanding Privilege

Many of the posts in this forum suggest that the most qualified person should attain employment and that certain groups should not gain an advantage based on race. This is a gratuitous oversimplification and an extremely problematic equation between “privilege” and “fostering equitable conditions.” Affirmative Action, as it’s often called, does not “advantage” or “privilege” racial minorities. Rather, it keeps privilege of the dominant group in check, providing opportunities for disadvantaged groups to “catch up,” in resources and opportunities, with the in-power majority. All persons, regardless of race, should attain jobs based on merit, but this simplification fails to take into account that people simply do not have the same opportunities to display their merit; it is important to consider barriers to employment which prevent people from properly displaying their qualifications (even those that we ourselves might not face. As a white male, it’s difficult for me to properly understand and even articulate in the context of this post the struggles that minority persons face in the workplace). As Cazden notes (in the article we read last week for CMYR 2400) “in classrooms, as in American life in general, differences in ethnicity are correlated with differences in social class and with experiences” (18).

Giving everyone an equal chance at a job does not necessarily mean we measure both candidates by the exact same standard, but rather take into account limitations and difficulties that disadvantage the starting points of job candidates. The distinction that I’m drawing here is one between “equality” and “equity” (this handy image synthesizes the concept quite well). 

All teachers (and students) should have equal opportunities to succeed, but there are distinct socio-economic, cultural, and other factors that disadvantage certain groups. Referring to the picture that I’ve linked, the relative advantages or ‘privilege’ of different Teachers (in our scenario) is represented by the height of each person. Thus while each person deserves the same opportunity in a fair and equitable job market/environment (i.e. to see the baseball game beyond the fence), those shorter persons need extra help to see over the fence. Their height, however, does not signify lack of skill, but rather systemic problems that have hindered their growth and development.

In the case of the Huffington Post article, we might consider the importance of role models in the classroom as causally linked to, and also symptomatic of, the problem as a whole. If minority students do not have effective educators to act as positive role models with whom they can identify (which, research shows, have a marked impact on success) then it is feasible to assume that their drive to pursue academic pathways will dwindle. Consider “The Family Business” as an analogical metaphor: young girls or boys that have strong bonds with their mother or father, respectively, are likely to want to pursue similar careers as those parents. In schools, students without role models with whom they identify are unlikely to see academics as a possible future because they cannot empathize with a group of teachers that is almost exclusively white. Likewise, in the linked article, the author talks about research regarding both black students and female students, and the need for corresponding positive role models in their education. Thus not only are minority teachers disadvantaged, but without minority teachers, minority students have no impetus to pursue a way to change the problem (i.e. to become teachers themselves)1.

I think a good way to elucidate the distinction between equality and equity further is to address it in the context of the inclusive learning strategies we talked about last Friday. Amie mentioned that in her English class she offers students creative opportunities to display knowledge, like creating a video or a comic, for those students who cannot communicate knowledge as effectively in writing. This is an example of equity: institutionalizing systems that recognize difference and provide equal opportunity in accordance with difference or difficulties in learning styles and settings. Situational equality would require all students to only write papers for 100% of their grade even though the teacher is aware that some students struggle writing papers. Despite the fact that all students hypothetically have equal knowledge (i.e. they have read the same book and retained the same amount of information) one student faces a barrier (difficulty with written communication) that prevents him/her from displaying his/her skills. In the teaching scenario, our two students would be teachers of different races. Despite similar skills, teachers of different races receive different opportunities to develop and then display those skills (as per Cazden, above).

Likewise, consider the Huffington Post article, where the author mentions that teachers from visible minorities are gaining jobs at a rapid rate, but losing those jobs more quickly than their white peers. One reason there is such a dearth of ethnic teachers is that they are placed in more difficult teaching situations (poorer, more dangerous schools; more in-risk kids &c.), which act as obstacles to the teachers in displaying their teaching ability. While two teachers of different races might have the same skills, they are not given the same opportunity to display them.

Like the child who struggles to communicate in a written format, teachers (especially those from visible minorities) face obstacles to and in their employment that prevent them from opposing the staggering majority (~80%) of white teachers already entrenched in the system. We must be sensitive to the socio-economic, cultural, and other boundaries that prevent minority teachers from achieving success. In other words, in order to (as some have said) “include all races in job opportunities” and give “everyone […] the same chance at a job” we need to create a level playing field, rather than assume it was equal at the start.

To quote the famously quotable Albert Einstein:

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

1 A side note: while my post focuses on addressing the needs of teachers, it is important to remember that instating more minority teachers does benefit minority students. Consider Cazden’s article once more:

At Grandmother’s evoked the most divergent responses. White adults were uniformly negative, with comments such as “terrible story,” “incoherent,” “This kid hops from one thing to the next.” When asked to make a judgment about this child’s probably academic standing, without exception, they rated her below children who told topic-centered accounts. The black adults’ responses were very different. They found this story well-formed, easy to understand, and interesting, “with lots of detail and description.” Three of the five selected it as the best of the five stories they heard. All five commented on the “shifts” and “associations” or the “nonlinear” qualities of the story, but this did not appear to disorient them (Cazden 19).

As you can see, teachers (even the “good” teachers which many of our posts have identified as deserving of teaching jobs) are capable of unconscious bias that can negatively impact the learning of children. It is important for teachers and students to foster empathy with one another in order to create a positive learning environment.

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