Monday, November 30, 2015

Common Ground

White privilege has gotten a lot of press lately and in the Midwest, it is an idea that often is quickly dismissed.  I can think of a variety of reasons why this happens from it coming across as an anti-white idea, to people not personally feeling privileged, to the highly esteemed Midwestern value of hard work as the antidote to most anything.   It also seems like the idea of white privilege gets lost in translation because of its fluidity and subjectiveness.  What one person sees as privilege, another sees a perfectly logical explanation for.

But what if there was some common ground, some areas where it wasn't quite so slippery and twisty?  What if we as white Midwesterners, were able to view some bits of life through the lens of someone else, to consider how those events look through the eyes of someone who has a different story than ours?  What if once we looked at those things, what if we were brave enough to admit that sometimes life isn't fair or equal and that we can see how this applies to others, not just those who look or act or talk like us?

Take for example,the classroom project of tracing one's genealogy.  It's not uncommon for children to be asked to bring examples of their family trees to school or to research what countries their ancestors came from.  That sounds simple enough, but sometimes it's not. (See )  Most white Americans would never have considered this assignment to be about slavery because for them, the topic of slavery has no real role in this assignment.  But consider the majority of black Americans; for them, this assignment will most definitely require a student to reflect upon slavery.  Is being able to trace our lineage white privilege?  Is it a thing of privilege to know that such an assignment will not bring up issues connected to a painful issue like slavery?

Consider Columbus Day as another example.  While many in white America are well aware of  the injustices brought upon the native tribes of the New World via European explorers, most white Americans still approach the day from the traditional viewpoint of "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue."  That's also the basic premise taught to our kids, especially at the elementary level.  (I do realize that many curricular issues connected to history are meant to be taught in a spiral fashion with simplistic views of the topics presented initially, with more complex views and broader perspectives taught as children get older.)  However, being the parent of two kids who are from Hispanola, whose own personal histories are tightly tied to the history of that island, has caused me to be a bit more reflective.  So many of the subtleties of Columbus Day, from where he actually landed (did you know they are currently trying to raise a wreck off the coast of Haiti that they believe might be Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria) to the effects his initial voyages had upon the history of the island are things that change how my kids will view the holiday.  Is our traditional understanding of history rooted in white privilege?

Looking for a bit more insight into this idea of , one that is not perhaps as politically charged as our country's most recent conversations on race?  Life is So Good is a quick and easy read that does just that.  Written by George Dawson and Richard Glaubman, it is the story of George's 103 years as a black man in America.  The subtitle says it all:  one man's extraordinary journey through the twentieth century and how he learned to read at 98.    The book was written fifteen or so years ago, with the sole purpose of telling George's story.  Glaubman is a white man, who used stories, newspaper articles, magazines, and news footage to help capture George's narrative.  Glaubman literally overlays the facts, as reported by the media, against George's own experiences.  What he found was that George's recollections of these events did not always line up perfectly with the news reports of the same events.  While I'm not sure that the intention of the book was broach the idea that history is colored by white privilege , the book does provide an interesting context in terms of thinking about how certain people groups view certain events and tasks.  George is one unique person with one unique viewpoint of history, nuanced by being black, living in the Jim Crow South, and being poor.  His life story is compelling; it's worth the read simply for that as well as for the commentary it offers on race.

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