Have you ever wondered why so many white people are so often afraid of discussing race with People of Color, more particularly people of African descent? I wonder about it all the kind because it seems to be a never-ending problem. In his recent book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Christopher Emdin gave me some insights in a way that hadn’t occurred to me before. Since the kind of learning that concerns me the most is learning to be prejudiced- and then unlearning it, Emdin’s book really grabbed my attention. The thesis is that suburban people (mostly white) who decide to teach in urban schools have to learn a lot about their students before they can be effective teachers. This approach contrasts with what pre-service teachers often think they need to learn i.e. subject matter and teaching techniques. Learning about your students is not a high priority in most teacher prep programs. Emdin makes it very clear that learning about the students and their cultures is essential for good teaching.
While reading, I had an insight that is so simple I was ashamed of not seeing it sooner. People with more privilege often do not experience people with less privilege as members of the same human species. To simplify let’s call these two groups white people and people of color (POC’s). If privileged people need to learn to talk and listen to less privileged people rather than simply relying on what they already know about how to talk to people, something is off. We all know how to talk and listen to other people, and we do it all the time. We don’t always understand each other but we do manage well enough most of the time. We talk to people who are different from us constantly. But somehow when we try talking to (or teaching) people with significantly different backgrounds and often less privilege, we think we’re learning a new language or speaking to another species. This is most profoundly true in the US in conversations between privileged white people and less privileged people of color. That problem is a product of our national history and culture. This history leads us to assume that people of European heritage are normal Americans and hyphenated Americans are different in some immutable way. That is one reason why we experience the problem of thinking we need to learn to talk to people who are not of European ancestry in some way that differs from talking to people who are.
In my recent book, Of Education, Fishbowls and Rabbit Holes, I described the culture that has produced standard Eurocentric pedagogies, and the ways in which this individualized, objectivist, content focused approach is often ineffective with students from many of the cultures represented in today’s schools and colleges. Put simply, most faculty do not teach the way most of their students learn. The outcome of this dilemma includes long conversations of lack of student preparedness, blaming the students rather than deconstructing typical teaching processes.
If we could consider all people as members of one species, the problem of speaking to people who are different from us in some significant way would diminish. This concept can be represented by a Venn diagram, two intersecting circles with the differences in the outer shell and the similarities in the area of overlap. All cultures vary by language, faith, family arrangement, visible characteristics and behavioral norms. All cultures are organized to meet the needs of their members for food, shelter, love, acceptance and purpose.
If we focus on the overlapping area at the center, we suddenly will know how to talk to each other because we begin by discussing what we have or need in common. All human groups have very similar needs, but we also have different ways of meeting those needs, and we are often ignorant of the methods that different groups use to meet common human needs. Any new or unfamiliar situation can be frightening, but it can also be considered an opportunity to learn. This puts the responsibility for learning to teach others, talk to others and generally get along with others on the person who is unfamiliar with the others. If one person is afraid, it is that person’s responsibility to manage the fear and see the reality that ordinary conversation is just that- conversations about the price of groceries, the quality of schooling, the ranking of your favorite sports team – human conversations. The realistic fact in the US is that most people of color know perfectly well how to talk to white people and people with privilege because they have to deal with those people every day as bosses, as state officials, as police and as social workers, to name just a few roles. In some places, white people can go for a long time before they have to talk to a person of color and that person is not likely to be in charge of something they need. When people think they need to learn “tricks” to talk to other people, that approach is demeaning to both.
A final book I would like to mention is How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America by Karen Brodkin. As a Jew, I often wander among white folks. I look like one of them, but I do not exactly belong. My intersectional identity is one of the reasons that I was finally able to notice that many white privileged folks don’t talk to other people as if they were members of the same human community. Sometimes people talk to me as if I were one of them (particularly when they wish me a merry Christmas or are totally ignorant of my culture and customs) and it never occurs to them that I don’t share their culture completely. I am always faced with the question of whether or not to correct them, to inform them that I don’t celebrate Christmas or Easter for example. I have given up correcting for the most part. It’s just too much trouble and leads to awkward silences. I am not suggesting that being a Jewish person in the US is as burdensome as being a person of color with few privileges, but you get the point. Any difference is a problem under some circumstances, when the person of the dominant culture doesn’t stop and acknowledge a potential difference. When a person with more privilege feels awkward about acknowledging or trying to understand the life of a person with less privilege, it is that person’s responsibility to do some reflection. As Aristotle told us in his work on ethics, the person with the greater power always has the greater responsibility. I would like to write a conclusion to this piece right here, but I can’t. You have to. Thoughts??????