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I acknowledge my privilege. Why can’t white people?

I recently read an article about a “white privilege” essay contest that caused a bit of controversy in Westport, Connecticut. According to The New York Times, this wealthy coastal town is over 90% white and has an average salary of $150,000. While most of the students did not have a problem with the question, many parents were outraged. The question asked: “In 1,000 words or less, describe how you understand the term ‘white privilege’. To what extent do you think this privilege exists? What impact do you think it has had in your life—whatever your racial or ethnic identity—and in our society more broadly?”

The question sparked outrage by some parents who called it “race baiting,” “offensive,” and “divisive.” As a diversity & leadership educator, as well as an upstander, I encounter comments like this across the country as well as internationally when the topic of white privilege is raised. The idea for some white people that their incredible success could not be derived from anything other than their Protestant Work Ethic mentality that says essentially that “I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps” and nothing else is impossible to conceive. Rather than become offended, I think it is important to acknowledge that most of us have some form of privilege and part of the path to making our privilege irrelevant is to acknowledge it.

I am a black man living in inner city America, I am not wealthy, and I don’t have a “common sounding” name that allows me to easily blend in. I have experienced my fair share of racism, stereotyping, profiling, you name it. Despite this, I have to realize that I also have my own bit of privilege. I am a man living in a male dominated society. My gender provides me with the privilege of not needing to be engaged in certain conversations that disproportionately affect women. For example, I can, if I choose, completely ignore conversations relating to sexual harassment and assault, because this issue generally affects women more than man. If I indeed fall victim to a sexual assault, no one will blame the clothes I was wearing that day or accuse me of seducing my attacker or look at my body development and say “well what did he expect to happen?” That’s privilege.

Being a man also allows me to generally choose any career that I want and not have to worry about passing “my time” to advance my career to the fullest. For example, I have female friends who work for the State Department and the Foreign Service in general. One friend told me that she and her female friends have to decide if they are going to start a family young and risk not receiving certain promotions because of maternity leave for example, or forgo starting a family in order to rise through the ranks faster. I have yet to speak to a single man in the foreign service who has had that problem. It’s still a problem for younger generations too evidenced by a survey I took of my American University students. I asked them how many feel as if they have had to plan out the stages of their lives since the age of 10 with set deadlines based on their age. Only the females raised their hand. One male student was shocked because, as he said, “I never had to think about” an age limitation. That’s privilege.

I also happen to be an American passport holding citizen. In most places around the world, simply showing this passport affords me a certain level of privilege than someone from my parents’ home country of the Congo. This has become even more evident in a Trump administration where even green card holders are no longer guaranteed entry into the United States. As stated previously, I face many forms of stereotyping, racism, and profiling, but generally speaking, my nationality has served as a net plus in the more than 20 countries I have visited to date. That’s privilege.

At the end of the day, if we think hard enough, we can all realize that there are some privileges we do enjoy over others because of our education, race, gender, zip code, nationality, etc. For the people of Westport or other well-to-do white neighborhoods, no one denies that you have worked hard for what you have. But it is also important to know, as professor Tim Wise points out in his film and book “White Like Me” that this government has been set up over a period of centuries for the advancement of white people. We can go back as far back as Slavery to programs of the last century such as the post-World War II GI Bill that provided white military veterans with more opportunities for education and homeownership over black soldiers. Opportunities such as these gave many white families a head start on opportunities to build wealth. There is a racial history of privilege in the very zip codes that most of us reside in and the schools our children attend. To ignore this basic fact is to simply ignore reality.

As Georgetown University professor Dr. Michael Eric Dyson stated, the concept of white privilege is at the heart of many of the challenges we face in America today. White privilege keeps white people who are not part of the upper echelon arguing against their own interests and failing to realize they have more in common with marginalized communities of color. Denial of white privilege allows for those white people who make up the majority of upper class America to deny that they or their forefathers may have had access to opportunities that were often (legally) denied to other communities, thus limiting their pool of competition. I recently came across a picture that shows the difference between equality and equity which is shared below:

The picture says it all. This is a country who, for almost 400 years has never fully approached equality and therefore not even come close to equity. Taking the bold step to acknowledge our privilege will get us closer to equity, if we would only be honest with ourselves, equally.

Schools need same “Zero Tolerance” for hate acts that they have for students of color

              Across the country, Trump supporters have been targeting people who look foreign, threatening their lives and attempting to bar them from entering schools and their jobs. Trump’s half-hearted request for his supporters to “stop it” while at the same time blaming the press for overblowing these racist and islamophobic incidents does little to help solve the problem. It is also true that there have been incidents of Trump supporters being attacked. Everyone who is found to be guilty of any crimes need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, but what about our nation’s students who are harassing other students? What should happen to them?

              From schools like Westland Middle School in Maryland to the Royal Oaks Middle School in Michigan, racist, islamaphobic graffiti has been painted on walls, students have barred Latino students from getting to their lockers and other students have chanted “Build a wall” in their cafeterias. Statements from school leadership basically state that investigations will occur and are fairly vague beyond that. If schools do not implement the same “zero tolerance” and “tough love” policies that they use to discipline students of color, the hypocrisy will speak volumes.

              It has been well documented that across the country, students of color are suspended, expelled, or disciplined in other ways often at 3-4 times the rate of their white counterparts and are disciplined more harshly for the same offenses, even in preschool. Everything from “talking back” to dress code violations have led students of color missing excessive time from school or being excluded from school altogether. Furthermore, Special Education has been seen in many schools than nothing more than a system that prepares students to do a bid in prison because they spend most of their days isolated from the general school population participating in non-intellectual activities. The Justice Department has indeed investigated several of these schools across the country and brought charges to some districts.

              If our nation’s (pre) K-12 institutions that have such a slanted record on school discipline, they must be even more vigilant in the face of intolerance we are seeing now at schools across the country. How can a student be suspended for a “menacing tone” to a teacher but not be suspended for threatening to deport their classmate? How can a student be given in-school suspension for violating a dress code but not for blocking a path for students to enter their school in hate-filled imitation of a wall? How can students be taken out of school in handcuffs for writing on a desk but not severely disciplined when they are found to be the ones who wrote hate-filled language on school grounds?

              President-elect Donald Trump is still receiving kid-glove treatment from the media. He is still has paid surrogates on our news networks spinning every question posed to them. We cannot treat students in our schools who are committing hate crimes or other violent and threatening acts to also be treated with kid gloves just because of the color of their skin or the socio-economic status of their parents. If this country is serious about healing, it starts at home but must spill over into our schools. Our youth need to know that we will move forward as a country with dignity and respect for our fellow man, woman, and especially the child. Too many black and brown students already feel ostracized from their educational enclaves because of the lack of culturally competent educators. They should not now be made to feel ostracized from their country simply by entering their school door. We can and need to do better.

 

5 Ways To Reach Black & Latino Marginalized Students In Private & Public Schools

I was recently asked by The Atlantic Magazine to share my thoughts on what it means to black at elite public high schools given not only my work as a diversity consultant, but also as a graduate of an elite public high school—Boston Latin School. Contributing to this article allowed me to reflect on how schools  can reach the  most marginalized students in both our public and private schools because in many cases, the only difference in these institutions as it relates students feeling marginalized is the tuition. Therefore I would like to share 5 steps that educators and school leaders can adapt in order to be more inclusive to all students.

1. Create Free Spaces
Principals and teachers need to realize that it’s not about creating “safe spaces” but rather “free spaces” for their students. Too often, black and Latino students feel the burden of representing their entire race and have to deal with the notions that they are either at the school because of financial aid or to play sports. If principals and teachers become culturally competent then they, for example, will not have to point to the Black or Latino student when issues of race come up because the teacher will be able to provide an informed opinion on her own. So rather than saying “Jamal, what do you think about what Johnny said about the #blacklivesmatter movement?” a culturally competent teacher creating a free space would say: “There are many different perspectives on the #blacklivesmatter movement even within the black community and so we should not assume every black person agrees with your statement Johnny.” After the teacher says that, the teacher should NOT turn to Jamal for his response. Let black and Latino students be as free to participate or not participate in topics as every white student. I teach at American University and I have had several gay students who are extremely vocal on many issues but silent when we get to topics affecting the gay community. I never call on them in class because I know they are used to being the “representative” in class and it’s not fair to them. Some do speak and some do not but it is their choice.

2. Diversify Your Curriculum
It is important to diversify staff (see point 4) but it is equally important to diversify curriculum. Take Black History Month for example. It is so sad that many schools have not learned to go beyond basic black history: Slavery, fast forward (maybe) to Harriet Tubman, then on to Dr. King and now President Obama (for those schools whose leadership is not biased against him*). Some schools of course may put up posters during their particular heritage month. This again makes students of color feel like they are being tolerated with boxes to check off regarding the curriculum rather than celebrated. The history of black and Latino culture has to be woven into the curriculum. It is indeed OK to talk about Fredrick Douglass in March, Dr. King in November, and Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor in April. Beyond the curriculum, school staff need to look at their library books and the pictures they have on the walls. I went and spoke at a very elite, majority white private school in Connecticut called Pomfret and was pleasantly surprised to see posters of leaders like JFK next to posters of Malcolm X and Che Guevara in a classroom. The discussions that must go on in those classes are likely to be more holistic. At Sidwell Friends in Washington DC where I have also done work, there are elective classes such as Black Liberation and issues facing the African continent. The Black Liberation class is taught by 2 women, one black and one white and there are several non-black students in the class. Even if black and Latino students decide not to get heavily engaged in classes like this, it can be comforting for them to see that these options do exist and having a white teacher shows that it’s not just a “Black thing.”

3. Invest in authentic professional development.
School leaders have to actively offer professional development opportunities and at the very least, diversify the literature their teachers read. If authors like Gloria Ladson Billings, Linda Darling Hammond, Alfred Tatum, Geneva Gay, Glenn Singleton, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and others are not on their bookshelves (and assigned), then schools are only offering lip service on diversity & inclusion.

4. Staff has to represent the student body.
I do not care what the politics are of teachers of color. What matters is that students of all races see teachers and leaders of color in their schools. A black or Latino student needs to be able to see that science teacher who looks like them and say “If she can do it, I can do it.” The white student also needs to see that so he can see it as normal for blacks and Latinos to have higher education. Part of the reason why many schools I go to have no diversity in staff or leadership is because the leaders never saw that diversity when they were students so they resort to only have Black and Latino staff who are building services or athletic coaches because that is all they knew.

5. Have a solid and publicized diversity mission statement
When I walk into some schools, I am often impressed by those school that have their statement on diversity front and center for all to see. Doing this shows that the school is committed to being held accountable for its actions on diversity. This instantly makes the school more welcoming to the black and Latino student as well as the parents. I have spoken to so many parents of color who feel completely disengaged from their school and do not feel empowered to voice their thoughts on issues so they resolve to stay silent as long as their children get that coveted diploma. Schools thus lose out by not having these parents engaged. Some (I repeat some) black and Latino students may have parents or guardians working multiple jobs who are not able to be as engaged as the parents with nannies or a stay at home parent so the schools need to do more outreach to keep those parents engaged.

Adopting these five steps may not be easy but taking these steps are indeed worth it if school leaders and teachers want to truly create a climate where everyone believes that they belong. A parent once told me that her school could always get another black “kid from the ‘hood” to fill its quota so she never felt her school really cared about them. Is this what we want? I do not think so. If schools really believe that they are creating students with a global perspective, it is necessary that the student body and staff represent the globe not just in body, but in curriculum and commitment to ensuring that every student has the ability to reach the highest potential possible. That can only happen not from tolerating diversity, but leveraging it.

How student leaders can respond to controversial topics in the news

It is beyond an understatement to say that we are living in very dangerous times. It seems as though every time we turn on the television, there is another story on some hot button issue from mass shootings to police/civilian interactions. From racism, anti-Semitism, and islamophobia, to immigration, education, and terrorism, it is very easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenges we face today. In my work as a youth speaker and an UPstander, I encounter leaders like you every single day who may not be sure on how to respond to these challenges from a leadership perspective.

It is easy for any of your peers who are not leaders to say whatever is on their mind with no concern for the ramifications but as a leader, you took an oath to work towards bringing people together, be it in your school community or beyond, depending on the issue. But how can you honestly speak about an issue like #blacklivesmatter or a tragic mass shooting if it is far removed from your daily experience? Here are 3 steps you can take to become a more effective leader on hot button issues.

  1. Educate yourself on the issue

We live in the information age. There is simply no excuse to not be able to educate yourself on an issue. The challenge, however is whether you will diversify your sources of information. For example, if you are reading about the tragic shootings in San Bernardino or the killing of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, you should not only consult one media source, as most people do. Remember, you are a leader! Don’t only watch CNN, MSNBC, or FOX for example. Watch all three plus additional sources like NPR and other reputable websites and journals that can educate you. Require that your team do the same thing and then make an informed decision on how to move forward.

  1. Survey your community

It is very easy to not address an issue because you do not believe it affects you directly but chances are that there is someone in your community that is affected. Is the Muslim student in your school being looked at differently after the San Bernardino killings? Is the police officer in your school or neighborhood being looked at more suspiciously after videos that surface showing police officers on the other side of the country shooting unarmed individuals? Is the Spanish speaking student more on edge over the immigration debate? You have to survey your community to find out who is feeling isolated and engage them. One of the mistakes I made as a high school student council leader was not listening as often as I should have to the people who did not speak up. Remember, silence can speak just as loudly as the loudest megaphone.

  1. Actively reach out to the affected community

The word “active” is extremely important here. Your entire school community needs to see that you are making efforts to be an inclusive community. Yes it’s cliché but you have to lead by example. Be the person to sit at a different table in the cafeteria, which is still one of the most segregated area in many schools today. Create speakout events where opinions can be expressed or have a unity rally. There is no shortage of things you can do once you are committed to be an UPstander and not a bystander. Once people know that they are still accepted in the community they share with you, they may be more likely to open up to you and also less likely to resort to some form of negative behavior due to the isolation or mistrust they may be experiencing.

Leadership is an easy job if you only preach to your choir but here is the problem, preaching to the choir is not leadership. It’s preaching. You ran for office and though you were not elected by everyone, you noe represent everyone. Take that responsibility seriously. Get educated on the issues of the day and use your knowledge to build your community, not keep it divided. That is the sign of a true leader!

What 100 Texas teachers taught me about diversity & inclusion

Recently I had the honor of conducting an all-day professional development training on diversity and cultural competency for about 100 educators in the Houston Independent Schools District (HISD), the largest school district in Texas and the 7th largest school district in the nation. There were teachers from Thomas Middle School, led by the dynamic and powerful Khalilah Campbell and teachers from Sugar Grove Academy where “Failure is not an option, option, OPTION” for any child. Sugar Grove is lead by the fiery Lynett Hookfin. I say “fiery” because one of the stories that Ms. Campbell shared that demonstrated Ms. Hookfin’s love and fearlessness in working with students would put “Crazy Joe” from “Lean On Me” to shame! The entire day was just a reminder of why I love doing work in Texas, but there were two things that stood out throughout the day.

The first thing that really impressed me was the way in which these teachers enthusiastically engaged in conversations and exercises on the issue of creating culturally competent schools, particularly for struggling black and Hispanic males. While it is obvious that everyone may not have agreed with every single word I said (which leads to great conversation), they were willing to engage in deep reflection on the challenges their students face in schools, as well as the challenges they face as teachers too. Some staff even became emotional as they were asked to recount issues of discrimination or racism that they may have experienced in order to better understand the challenges their students may face in feeling marginalized. This portion of the day helped me realize that these educators are truly passionate about taking all of their students to the next level. As much as I hate to say it, I have been in sessions where the commitment to every child was not evident so this was truly a refresher!

The second thing that I really loved was that the teachers at these two great schools were willing to share their own success stories. Sometimes during my travels, I find that some schools (or even some teachers within the same school) want to guard their secrets to success in order to keep them looking better than other schools or other teachers in their districts. Ms. Campbell and Ms. Hookfin made it very clear to their staff that every child everywhere matters and that we are all in this together. Because of that, I often felt like I was only working with one school and there were no competing interests that were sabotaging the process. This mindset is key for school districts working to improve success for all students and not a select few but this has to start from the leadership of the school.

Being willing to explore your own history of challenges you faced growing up with discrimination (or witnessing it) and being able to share success strategies with your colleagues are among the many steps needed towards building a culturally competent school. If your school or district does not engage in critical self-reflection, delving into issues of cultural competency will just be treated like any other subject that a teacher is not passionate about teaching but does anyway because she is told to. We need to go deeper as educators committed to a solid future for all students and not the chosen few. Sharing successful strategies with your colleagues helps kill the notion of us fighting for pieces of a small pie because by default, we’ll be making a bigger pie for all to comfortably eat off of.

This was my fourth year doing work with HISD. I am very confident that with great leaders like Ms. Campbell and Ms. Hookfin, Thomas Middle School and Sugar Grove Academy will be able to meet their bold goals. Their efforts and, more importantly, their passion are contagious and make the job of their staff who are committed to this work very easy. All our students ask for are caring teachers and a caring community where they believe their culture and history matter. I commend all schools and school leaders who are on a mission to create that community because failure really isn’t an option, option, OPTION!

How student leaders can respond to Ferguson or other tense issues

For the past few weeks, many people across the nation as well as across the globe have been caught in discussion, debate, or even serious violent protests over the death of Ferguson teenager Michael Brown, who was shot by police officer Darren Wilson. If you took a step back to analyze this tragedy like I have, you probably saw how many media outlets and activists were using their camera or blogging opportunities to shout at one another without much listening. I found myself wondering how you as student leaders could take the lead on generating discussions on this issue when you have received such poor examples from adults. Below are some steps that you should take as a student leader to address issues such as Mike Brown’s killing, or any other incident in your school that may bring about tension.

  1. Check the pulse of your community. Whenever an issue that has great potential for controversy occurs in your school, you should conduct surveys of your student colleagues to see how they feel about the situation. Just because you were voted into your leadership role, it does not mean that you should expect everyone to agree with your stance on the issue. Once you know where your community lies on the issue pro, con, or somewhere in between, you can move on to step #2.
  2. Engage those who think differently from you. There are two types of people who may take opposing views to your own: those who will be very vocal in their opposition and those who will not say a word. It is important to engage both because you will be more likely to find common ground on the issue, which is important for maintaining a positive community environment.
  3. Talk to your teachers and advisors about the issue. It is sad that many student leaders do not look to their teachers for counsel. Too often, I come across issues in schools of racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. where the students think these issues are happening for the first time because it is the first time they are experiencing it. It is very likely that teachers in your school have had similar experiences, maybe even more severe given the tumultuous times different groups have had to endure on the path towards equality. Find teachers of varying opinions on the issue to help foster a conversation. If no one can be found at the school, find someone outside of your school.
  4. Organize a speakout session. Students want an opportunity to be heard so provide the space for them. Sometimes leadership is all about listening. If it is a school-based problem, students may have valid suggestions about how to move forward. If it’s an external issue like the Mike Brown killing or something internal such as bullying, let students vent about their concerns and serve as a facilitator as opposed to a decider. Let them help in the formation of next steps, if next steps are indeed necessary, so that your school can move on together.

At the end of the day, a leader needs to provide an opportunity for all voices to be heard. It is easy for the loudest voice to be heard but not necessary listened to. As a leader, you should be a conduit for others to channel their energy. If you do this, you will be able to maintain an active constituency that will support you because you support and respect them, which was the reason you ran for your leadership position in the first place. Don’t shy away from controversy, no matter how small or large. Embrace the challenge and your colleagues will embrace you!