As a White person, I am part of a powerful monolith that is rightly being called out and called in after yet another unjust and brutal killing of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, by a White police officer.
As a White woman, I carry an invisible backpack of privilege everywhere I go. Sometimes it is so light on my shoulders that I forget it’s there. Sometimes it feels as if it is full of bricks.
As a White educator, I have power and responsibility – to educate myself, to speak out, to show up, to lead, to listen.
Although my backpack is invisible, the books I carry in it are not. I have a practice of loading them in, reading them, sharing them, and then taking them out to make space for new ones.
Below are some previously published reviews of the books that I have been carrying with me for a little while now. White readers, load them into your backpack and take them with you, too. They won’t tell you which direction to go in, but they’ll give you some ideas.
Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think and Do by Jennifer Eberhardt
A black boy entering eighth grade is told by a school administrator to cut the blond tips from his hair, or serve detention. The school handbook clearly states that students may not wear their hair dyed or colored, and he has clearly broken that rule. However, so have many of his white classmates. The difference is that his hair was noticed by the dean, and theirs was not. In Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think and Do, implicit bias expert and Stanford University professor Dr. Jennifer L. Eberhardt correctly identifies this as an episode of unconscious racial bias at work. She then describes the personal challenge she undertook in addressing the issue, as the boy facing discipline was her own son. Although primarily concerned with the devastating role that implicit bias plays in American law enforcement and criminal justice, Dr. Eberhardt’s book has wide-ranging relevance to educators as well. “Black students are nearly four times as likely to be suspended from school as their white peers,” she reveals, citing a study conducted by the U.S. Office for Civil Rights involving more than 96,000 K-12 public schools. “That’s a gap that can’t be explained by racial differences in student behavior or socioeconomic status. The disparities, in part, are driven by choices made by teachers or administrators in subjective cases.” Dr. Eberhardt’s use of data sheds incontrovertible light on the impact of implicit bias on even the youngest children, putting pressure on teachers and administrators to do much more than acknowledge their own unexamined habits and biased enforcement of school policies, although acknowledgment is the first step.
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin Diangelo
“Interrupting racism takes courage and intentionality,” says Dr. Robin Diangelo in White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. As Diangelo argues, however, for white people, such courage and intentionality is often overwhelmed by their own defensiveness and fragility when they are implicated in white supremacy. White fragility, which Diangelo defines as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves,” is inextricably tied to a particular aspect of white privilege – namely, that white people believe they are unique individuals who transcend generalization, resulting in their inability to see themselves in racial terms. “When pressed to do so,” says Diangelo, “[white people] refuse to engage further.” Diangelo, who has a Ph.D in Multicultural Education and has spent over two decades leading diversity and cultural competency trainings for companies and other institutions, steadies much of her focus on white liberals (like herself): “To the degree that white progressives think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived.” The consequences of this behavior, Diangelo asserts, are deeply damaging. To be sure, how white privilege is explored and engaged is acutely relevant and important within independent schools, and this book – particularly its final chapter, “Where Do We Go From Here?” – should be required reading.
Real American by Julie Lythcott-Haims
Julie Lythcott-Haims’ new memoir, Real American, lays bare the unique experience of being both Black and White in America. Real American offers a riveting, loosely constructed narrative of growing up in the United States, a country that is so highly attuned to appearances in general and race in particular. In the American mid-west where she was raised, people simply could not fathom that her mother was White, or that her father, riding his own lawn mower at his own home, was not the hired gardener. Messages about who she was and wasn’t were reinforced constantly by those she barely knew and those she knew well, including her parents who “raised her Black” in predominantly White communities. “White boys will be your friend,” her father told her, “but they’ll never date you.” What Lythcott-Haims internalized was that in the eyes of the world, she could not possibly belong to her own mother and that both parts of her, her Whiteness and her Blackness, were at different times and in different contexts an affront to others. When she was accepted to Stanford in 1985, she was asked by the father of a boy in her class, “Do you think it’s fair that you got into Stanford over Harris when his scores were higher than yours?” What he meant to say, she intuited, was that with her Blackness, she had stolen the place of a White boy in the Ivy Leagues. If only this story from the 1980s were a skeleton in America’s collective closet, a true relic of the past. For readers who enjoyed Debby Irving’s powerful Waking up White, this is a brave memoir of the unique experience of waking up both Black and White.
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
Talking about race is not easy. But talking about race is the first step in dismantling systemic racism, argues Ijeoma Oluo in her impactful new book, So You Want to Talk About Race. In 17 chapters with questions as their titles, Oluo directly answers the questions she is most often asked. For example, “Is it really about race?” (if it disproportionally affects people of color, yes), and “What if I talk about race wrong?” (it’s ok, talking about race is uncomfortable and necessary). Oluo’s explanation of privilege is particularly nuanced, covering any and all advantages that one has and others do not. Another way of thinking about privilege, she says, is to ask yourself, “who doesn’t have this same freedom or opportunity that I’m enjoying now?” In chapter 13, “Why are our students so angry?”, Oluo says that students are angry because they see inequality in the systems in which they and their families live. Further, she states, “Our kids have seen that, no matter what individual progress we make, the system remains.” In Oluo’s view, the call to actively engage students in race talk at school is clarion.
Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces by John Palfrey
Caroline Blackwell, vice president of equity and justice initiatives at NAIS, writes in the 2017-18 Trendbook that in the month following the 2016 election, there were 1094 bias-related incidents, 226 of which took place in K-12 schools. Just as there can be no doubt that what happens in society at large impacts what happens in schools, there can also be no doubt that what happens in schools today will impact society at-large in the future. Such is the central premise of former Phillips Academy Head of School John Palfrey’s new book, Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces, in which he makes an informed argument in favor of balancing first amendment ideals with unfaltering support for inclusion. To aid in such important work, schools should distinguish between safe spaces, defined as places where students can speak freely within affinity groups or other support networks, and brave spaces, defined as “learning environments in which the primary purpose of the interaction is the search for truth, rather than support for a particular group of students, even insofar as some of the discussions will be uncomfortable for certain students.” In seven brief, compelling chapters, Palfrey makes quick work of the major tensions and trends affecting schools and society at large. He addresses flashpoints including trigger warnings, microaggressions, and guest speakers on campus while making a case for the coexistence, indeed the necessity, of both diversity and free expression in schools.