Is Privilege Offensive?

privilegeI experience privilege. I am college educated. I have a steady, salaried job. I am heterosexual. I have a house and a mortgage. Two cars. Two kids. One dog. I am able bodied. My husband and I are married. Both of my parents are still alive and well. I have health insurance. I have privilege.
And, as a young woman of color, I also experience oppression.

While at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity, I engaged in wonderfully challenging and critically affirming discussions over the course of 5 full days (I’m talking 8:00am-10:00pm!) about race, ethnicity, power, privilege, oppression, advocacy, and activism. I love browsing the exhibitor area of conferences because it helps me to build my toolbox for Teaching Diversity in a Diversity Free Zone. One of the exhibitors was for the White Privilege Conference (which I fully intended on going to next year). They were selling “Got Privilege?” shirts and sweatshirts, of which I happily purchased two – one for my friend and one for me.

“Got privilege?”

My friend wore his shirt to work, a rather liberal elementary school in a wealthy suburb of Boston. A few of his co-workers had seen the shirt slogan before or had attended the White Privilege Conference themselves and knew what it was all about. Some of his co-workers even owned the shirt, too. While waiting in the lunch line, my friend was confronted by a co-worker of European heritage who read his shirt and loudly said, “Got privilege? Of course you can wear that! What a double standard! If I wore that, I wouldn’t hear the end of it!”

“Huh?,” asked my Puerto Rican friend. “What do you mean?” just hoping to get his helping of school-lunch chicken nuggets and potato puffs.

The next few minutes were quite ugly. The co-worker proceeded to tell him how offensive his shirt was, how she didn’t think that his offensive shirt had any place in an educational setting.

I believe my friend replied with “Are you kidding me?”

The rest of the story finds the white person going to different groups of people, pointing at my friend, and angrily shaking her head with her eyebrows saying, “Can you believe he would wear a shirt like that?” from across the room.

Thankfully, there are aware people in those groups who told responded with, “There isn’t anything wrong with his shirt.”

Privilege. Is it really an ugly word? Why is it so difficult for people to realize and accept that they have privilege? Does having privilege mean people are bad? Selfish? Close-minded?

In my experience, it is just the opposite. Recognizing privilege, owning up to your privilege and then actively identifying ways in which we institutionally disempower those without privilege gives us tools in our toolbox. It helps us to call attention to ways in which we play into systems of oppression. It awakens our sense of responsibility and turns on the voice in our hearts to call for change.

The quote on the back of one of the “Got Privilege?” shirts reads: “If you are neutral in a situation of injustice, you have chosen to side with the oppressor.” This is important to understanding how we can build an Anti-Racist family, community, school, etc. By understanding the benefits we experience as a result of our privilege, we can begin to understand those who are oppressed by our privilege. Throughout the posts and comments on Anti-Racist Parent, there are many of us who find ourselves at a loss for words when we see someone oppressing another. And, many of us have been on the receiving end of those hurtful remarks, insensitive comments, or complete lack of acknowledgment. But, have we actively thought of our own ways in which we oppress others?

As parents and educators, I believe there is a fine line between understanding systems of privilege/oppression and guilt. I do not feel guilty for having two living parents. I do not feel guilty for working towards home ownership. I do not feel guilty for being in a heterosexual marriage. I do not feel guilty for having two children and one dog. I do not feel guilty for having 5 more years to pay off my graduate student loans. Having privilege does not equal feeling guilty. However, owning the fact that I experience privilege forces me to open my eyes to the ways in which systems of oppression and institutionalized -isms keep others from achieving. “Knowledge is power” and knowing my privilege calls me to find ways to support humanity that is valued. Peggy McIntosh, who wrote the influential piece “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, discussed the importance of recognizing and analyzing the types of advantages Whites have simply for having white skin (or, ‘peach’, as my daughter calls it). In my life, I believe the same goes for the other ways (class, sexual identity, marriage status, education, ownership, health, etc) in which I experience privilege as a woman of color. We all carry around these unspoken Member ID Cards that allow us into these exclusive systemized clubs. But, do we belong to these clubs at the expense of others? At the expense of another’s humanity?

As parents and as anti-racists, we must actively participate in a process where every human has a right to not only yearn for life, liberty, and happiness but to actually achieve it. For those looking for practical ways to educate ourselves, our children, and our students, I came across a great website, Understanding Prejudice, that has activities and resources for many age levels. Many of their tools can be put into your “diversity toolbox!”

So, is privilege offensive? How do you teach your child about privilege in your life?

Lots of posts today

Been gone at a conference and gearing up to present at another. So, what am I doing…? I’m procrastinating and reading fantastic blogs written by smart, aware, and good people. Just came across this one through a person who posts at Anti-Racist Parent (where I frequently write). Check out “Know Good White People“. It’s great!

What Am I First?

What am I first?
by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Liza Talusan (originally posted on Anti-Racist Parent)

My children seem to have a knack for asking me really deep, thought-provoking questions at the most inconvenient times. Usually this is when we are racing out the door, late for school/work/day care. This time, it happened on the way to driving my sister, a kulingtan musician, to teach at a cultural school in Boston.

“Mommy, what am I?” says my 4 1/2 year old daughter, Joli, from the backseat of the car.

“What do you mean, ‘what are you?’” I ask, as I glance into my rear view mirror for a hint of meaning on her face.

“Like, what kind of kid am I? Okay, Filipino. But, then… then.. what’s the other kind of kid I am?”

“Puerto Rican? Do you mean Puerto Rican and Filipino? Daddy is Puerto Rican. Mommy is Filipino. So, that makes you Puerto Rican AND Filipino.”
“But, Mommy, what am I FIRST? Am I Puerto Rican FIRST or am I Filipino FIRST?”

“You’re BOTH first,” I reply, with echos of my mentors on biracial identity models and child development theorists prominently ringing in my ears.

“Will Daddy get mad if I want to be Filipino FIRST?” says Joli in a voice barely loud enough for me to hear her.

“Honey, you are not something FIRST, you are both ALL THE TIME.”
“Well, don’t tell Daddy, okay, Mommy? But, I’m going to be Filipino first.”

(cue my breaking anti-racist heart!)

With nearly all of my friends and extended family members identifying as biracial or multiracial — but being neither of those myself — I am very sensitive to situations that individuals find themselves in when it comes to the “choosing” question. I knew that external influences would eventually lead my children to ask the questions. I just didn’t think one of them would ask me questions at age 4 1/2!

Joli seemed fairly happy with my assertion that she is both all the time. I engaged my husband that night in conversations about where she might be getting these messages. I’m quite confident that my family — made up of all interracial couples and children — isn’t giving her the message that she must choose or prioritize. In her diverse pre-school, I have to imagine that they are not giving her those message either. Dora? Sesame Street (given Deesha’s recent post)? Or is it some of those awful Disney shows that we allow her to watch, but only with a parent watching with her?

As a newly affirmed Anti-Racist Parent, I still can’t help but wonder how much influence or environmental control we really have in our children’s lives. I truly admire Joli’s inquisitiveness and maturity about her complex identity, yet it was hard to hear it from a child of an “anti-racist parent.” Since that day, I’ve grown more aware of Joli’s comments about differences she sees in her world. Just the other night as I was brushing Joli’s and Jada’s hair, Joli made the comment that Jada had “prettier hair” (4-year old interpretation: Joli has thick curly hair like my husband; Jada has wavy, loose hair like me). While much of this can be the typical sibling rivalry, I do read into it as a reflection of her growing awareness of her multiracial identity.

I’ve been more aware of Joli sticking up for other people and other lifestyles. The other day, when reading a bedtime story of a family with a mother, father and child, Joli said to me, “You know, Mom. Not everyone’s family is like that family. Some kids have two moms, some kids have no moms, some kids have two dads, some have different types of skin…. that’s important to know.”

(cue my cheering anti-racist heart!)

I have to remind myself that raising my own awareness, that of my family, and that of others is why I do the work I do — why I live the way I live. There are moments of great heartache, moments of great joy; but there are always opportunities for learning and understanding.

And, that is why anti-racist parenting — whether as parents of children, of a community, or of our world — is not a means to an end but a process full of life and meaning. It’s a process that is fluid and malleable. It’s a commitment, a lifestyle, a mantra, a prayer. It is both an outlook and an outreach. Times when I am uncomfortable confronting a racist joke, disabling a racist conversation, or challenging a racist decision, I am awakened to the fact that I am my children’s best teacher. They will make decisions based on what they have seen me do, ways that they have seen me act, and words they have heard me say. If I am to be their best teacher, I need to also be their best student.

Tools for Teaching Diversity in a Diversity Free Zone

(Originally posted on Anti-Racist Parent)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue of how to teach, expose, and experience diversity in a “diversity-free” zone (thanks for the segue Tami!). I directly experience this issue personally and professionally every single day of my life as the Director of Intercultural Affairs at a small, private college in the Boston suburbs, where there are very few students of color. Not only are there very few students of color, there are very few people who have ever met or talked to a person from a historically underrepresented group prior to coming to college. So, each and every single day, I actually get paid to teach diversity in a diversity free zone.

I could certainly go on and on about the challenges of my job serving as a person who is often tokenized in meetings, being the go-to person on issues of diversity, or being the “brown friend” to well meaning people. But I’m assuming here at Anti-Racist Parent I’d be preaching to the choir. So, rather than give my vocal chords a workout, I thought it might be helpful to share the toolbox I heavily rely on each day to teach diversity in a diversity free zone. Reading the comment threads, I also realize that there are people who read ARP who aren’t necessarily parents (broadly defined) but who are teachers looking for ways to add diversity to their classrooms or to their curriculum. So, I hope this at least starts some helpful ideas for people looking for some ways to grow as Anti-Racist Parents:

Turn to your local college. Many colleges have offices like mine – they are called a variety of names: Multicultural Office, Student Activities, Affirmative Action office, Diversity Office, etc. These offices/organizations typically have the responsibility of hosting diversity related events, especially during heritage months like Latino Heritage Month, Black History Month, Asian Heritage Month, etc. Check their websites and see if they have a list of programs (or ask if you can get an email copy of their programs). Call ahead and ask if the program is “family friendly” first, though, if you intend to bring small children. In my case, of the 30 or so programs a year that are diversity related, almost 1/2 of them are family friendly! And, I always love when I get calls from the community asking if they can bring students, children, etc. The other great bonus about tapping into your local college is that the programs are often FREE. At some colleges, specific groups are required to perform community outreach – you may find a number of sororities and fraternities or service organizations sponsoring these events. Again, please call to make sure they are family friendly!

Diversify your library at home. Intentionally buy or borrow books that have diversity represented in them. In our house, we have a great mix of children’s books that have stories around cultural diversity. If your local library does not have them, a number of online sellers will have them. If I’m looking for a particular book, I tend not to go to a mainstream online seller; rather, I find a cultural organization online to see if they have any links to recommended books. By going with cultural organizations rather than mainstream, I get a more accurate description of the book and the position of that cultural group. For example, when I was looking to purchase some children’s stories that were centralized around the Native American experience, I went online to a mainstream retailer, and a number of recommended titles came up. But, when I went to the cultural organization’s website, I found these exact recommendations under a heading “Books That Promote Stereotypes of Native Americans.”! Woah! So, I was really glad I had taken the few extra seconds to see if the books were supported by that group. I think this is incredibly important!
Continue to read educational and well written blogs .. like Anti-Racist Parent of course! While you may not be surrounded by diversity, we are often surrounded by ignorant comments. So, reading blogs like ARP give you the tools and understanding to be an “Agent of Interruption.” And, if you are educated, you will pass that education on to your children (or students). I work in a predominantly white institution and am often, by default, the diversity educator. But, since finding Anti-Racist Parent, Racialicious and some of the blogs of people who write here, I have assigned reading these blogs as HOMEWORK assignments to my students! It’s helpful for them to see that there are others out there who share the same language and passion for interrupting racism.

When you can, choose to do business in diverse neighborhoods. I currently live on the town line between a upper middle class, predominantly white town and a middle/working class, predominantly people of color city. I choose to do my personal and professional business in the predominantly POC city.Even with the rising price of gas, I choose to drive a little further to the grocery store and wait a little longer for street parking because it is important for me to do business where there are people of color. I certainly can buy the same gallon of milk, the same bread, and the same box of cereal at the grocery store in the predominantly white (and closer to my house) town, but I choose to make the drive. Again, with the price of gas and proximity, can you do this all the time? Maybe not. But, is it worth doing it enough where your child(ren) see that people of color do the same thing that white people do in their same daily way? Yes.
Find shows that include diversity in both positive and negative ways. I am not a fan of pre-teen television (especially now that my almost-5-year-old says she is w-a-y too old for Sesame Street!), but we do watch it. I am specifically not a fan of a certain channel that I feel stereotypes pre-teens of color. But, alas, my daughter seems to have won for now. She is only allowed to watch that channel if Jorge or I watch it with her. We try to steer her more towards the shows that have families of color, and we’ve found some success there. But, she also likes to watch a show that both Jorge and I find disturbingly racist. We do let her watch it, but we constantly ask her questions about what she just saw or heard when an issue comes up. Yes, she’s 4 years old, but I believe the lessons she’s learning about ways that people aren’t treated fairly are equally as important as shows that reflect her ethnicity. It’s never too early to start, right?

But, find MORE shows that are culturally diverse. My absolute favorite show right now is Ni Hao, Kai Lan. I’m sure I’ll find something wrong with it eventually, but for now, I love it. It’s the only Asian show that balances the Asian part with the “I’m a little girl” part. The other day, I asked my daughters if they wanted to have Chinese food for dinner. My 23-month old then said, “Oh, Mama. Chinese. Like Kai Lan!” I nearly cried. Growing up, there were no characters that reflected my ethnicity. I know Dora paved the way, and we certainly embraced her representing our Latino side. But, now, my kids have Kai Lan… representing the Asian side! Hurray! I haven’t quite done my homework on this one, but with the accessibility of YouTube and such, I hope to find more diverse cartoons from other countries out there!

Diversify your music. One of the best ways to learn about other cultures is through music. I have a very low tolerance for children’s songs. I have a responsibility to teach my kids the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “A-B-C”, but there is truly only so much I can take. And, thankfully, their taste in music has evolved, too. My kids listen to anything from classical to Chubb Rock. They can sing “Bebot” (edited version) by the Black Eyed Peas and “I am Not My Hair” by India.Arie.

Be sure to have an inclusive curriculum. If you are a teacher, take a close look at what you are teaching and what you are not teaching. Does your lesson plan only include a white perspective? Are you including the very rich and diverse history of our country or just one perspective? Are you talking about contributions and inventions from people of color or just from white people? As a former teacher, I can attest that more often than not, textbooks tell a very one-sided story. As a parent, is your child coming home from school with only one-sided history? While you may not be able to change the textbooks at school (though, it’s worth the fight!), are you supplementing the school lessons with a diverse inclusion lesson at home.

No diversity organizations? Start your own! There are very few professionals of color where I work, and yet I felt the need to start a support group for us. Unfortunately, a professionals of color group would have been too small, so I opened up the invitation to anyone who wanted to join a Diversity Discussion Group. After my first announcement, about 50 people expressed interest. That dwindled down to 30, then 20, and now we have about 15 who regularly attend the discussion group. There are a few people of color, but the rest of the group is white. When asked “Why did you join this group?”, the answer from both parties was “to meet people who wanted to talk about diversity.” So, from there, we talked about books, issues, media, language, foods, our own heritage, etc. I don’t think we are a diverse group, but we are a group who wants to grow as individuals. Maybe start up a group with parents from your child’s school or play group. Get together and hire someone to watch the kids 1x a month. No time for a book club? Focus on movies from other countries and have a movie discussion group, rotating locations each time.

None of the above will end racism. I know that. But, I do think it’s a helpful start for those who are living, learning and working in diversity-free zones. I know there are others out there with tools in your tool box. Comment? Share? What has worked for others out there?

NOTE: You’ll notice that I don’t recommend simply going to places like soup kitchens or homeless shelters or community outreach organizations to expose oneself to diversity. Believe me, they are important. When it’s linked to diversity, though, I believe this can go horribly wrong as a diversity lesson. Too often (depending on the demographics of your town/city and shelters) people of color are seen as “needing help” or “down and out”. And, this “savior experience” when white people go and save people of color by serving them some food is incredibly problematic. Again, I’m not at all saying that community service is bad. What I am saying is that performing community service as an easy way to expose people to diversity MAY NOT be positive. Largely because community service (at least as defined in the college setting) does not always equal quality contact, discussion and learning. If you are going to link community service with diversity, I ask (beg?) that you also approach it by addressing power and privilege in our society.

Our first Kente Ceremony



Okay, it wasn’t quite a “ceremony” this year. But, next year, we will certainly make it bigger and better! I was just testing out the waters to see who would be into it (and how well it would be received).

In my past few years at the college, I haven’t seen any students of color wearing traditional Kente stoles over their graduation robes. I have seen it at the other 5 colleges/universities where I have worked, but never at Stonehill. So, I figured I would test the waters and see how it would go.

I initially put out the invitation to over 40 students of color – only 6 got back to me and said, “yes”. So, I ordered 12 thinking MAYBE we would hand out a few more.

As it goes, I handed the 6 out at graduation, and then students of color started to come over and ask if they could wear one. I know next year’s class is more “identity active” and will certainly do a more formal ceremony for them.

Why a Kente ceremony? There are a number of reasons for doing a Kente ceremony at a college. Most notable is that students of color, for whatever reasons, have a lower graduation rate than white students – especially at a predominantly white college. The kente ceremony honors their achievement, endurance, and commitment to their futures above the obstacles they have faced in obtaining their degree. Traditionally, the kente is worn a ceremonies and is reserved for such occasions.

Brief history
The Kente cloth originates from Ghana, West Africa. It is a visual representation of history, values, beliefs and social code of conduct. Each Kente pattern is significant and unique. The stoles that our graduates wore today had red, gold, green and black colors along with a “key” and an “asante stool.” Here is the description of their meaning:
Red: signifies the blood shed by our ancestors in their struggles and sacrifices
Gold: symbolizes wealth; originally representing the gold of Africa
Green: symbolizes growth and life
Black: symbolizes maturity, intensity, and spiritual maturity
Key: represents education as being the key to success
Stool: Leadership

The stoles were offered to all students of color (ALANA) as well as allies. As all civilization began in Africa, and the struggles our students of color face are common between all ALANA populations, it was great to see this symbol of unity in this group.

I am so proud of all the graduates, specifically the students of color!

 

WHO GETS TO DECIDE?

For a while now, I’ve been struggling with people thinking that they decide what to call other people. For example,

1. Who gets to decide who is an “ally?”
2. Who gets to decide what people should be called when referring to ethnicity?
3. Who gets to decide when one has moved from a stage of identity to another?

ALLY
I find that people like to refer to themselves as “allies.” In my circle of work, I’ve heard people call themselves “allies to the gay community” or “allies to people of color” or “allies to women”, etc. Yet, when called to task, do these “allies” engage in the political dialogue and empowerment of the community, or do they just like posting the rainbow sticker?

In the ally development circle, one must actually be deemed an ally by the target group. I’m not talking about some formal ceremony nor a sword on the shoulder nor a crowning opportunity. Rather, I’m talking about the members of that target group actually identifying the person as someone who is “down for the cause!” Someone who not only speaks the same political language but who also walks the political journey.

SO, WHAT SHOULD I CALL YOU?
“Oriental.” “Black.” “African American.” “Hispanic.” “Latino.” “I don’t know what to call them!!” I hear this all the time. Frustrated individuals who want to be politically correct but who are annoyed by the effort they need to make to realize that not everyone wants to be referred in the same way. When I encounter people who are so frustrated by this, I always bring up the ‘common name’ example. I say, take the name “Elizabeth.” I have friends who want to be called “Elizabeth.” I have friends who want to be called “Beth. Eliza. Liz. Betsy. and, gasp, Elizabeth.” Then, there is me. Liza. I am not an Elizabeth, yet everyone tries to sound formal with me and will say, “Elizabeth Talusan!” I never answer. “Elizabeth” isn’t my name. I’ve never answered to it. Yet, when we meet an “Elizabeth,” we are quick to make the adjustment to what she wants to be called. And, we would never think to say, “This is too difficult. I’m just going to call everyone ‘Elizabeth.'”

That’s the same issue for me with the identity piece. There are some Caribbean Americans who do not want to be called African Americans. There are some African Americans would be offended if you called them Black. Similarly with Hispanic and Latino. While there are political reasons (and geographic ones) for calling one Hispanic vs Latino, the point is that it’s NOT UP TO ME. It’s up to the person to deem what he/she would like to be called.

Tied to this complexity is the the piece of race vs ethnicity. I have a student who has dark, dark brown skin (and hence, often identified by others as an African American woman) but who is Latina. And, while most will likely refer to her as Black – she corrects them with, “I’m Latina.” You go, girl!

WHO GETS TO DECIDE WHEN ONE MOVES FROM ONE IDENTITY TO ANOTHER?
Back in 2005, my daughter was diagnosed with cancer. She went through her fair share of cancer treatment and an enucleation of her right eye. Depending on the situation and conversation, I sometimes refer to my daughter as a “cancer survivor” and sometimes I refer to her as “having cancer.” Here’s what gets me…. when I choose to use the words “having cancer”, people are extremely quick to correct me and say, “No, she HAD cancer.” The conversation ends there. I glare and change the subject – too furious to continue.

If I’m her mom, and I’m chosing to use the words, “she has cancer”, then no one should correct me — especially when people haven’t had to go through what our family went through. And, especially because we are still completely bogged down with doctors appointments 2 years post treatment. With the loss of her eye, we are reminded, physically, every day, of her battle that still has not ended, in many ways.

I’ve found that these conversations have happened frequently in the past few weeks. I go back to teachings of power and privilege and ways in which we often do not recognize ways in which we impose our power and privilege (and, I’m likely using it now as I have the “power and privilege of blogging”).

Food for thought…..