I’m Not Black. I’m O.J.: How Understanding Privilege Can Help To Disrupt Inequity

If you have ever done a privilege walk, you know it can be a very moving, and sometimes emotional, visual of how some of us have been given opportunities and head starts and others of us have not.

In the video above, the narrator tells participants to take two steps forward if 1) both of your parents are still married, 2) you grew up with a father figure in the home, 3) you had access to a private education, 4) you had access to a free tutor growing up, 5) you never had to worry about your cell phone being cut off, 6) you never had to help mom or dad with the bills, 7) it wasn’t for your athletic ability that you don’t have to pay for college, 8) you never wondered where your next meal was going to come from.

A number of Black and Brown children from lower income families in urban environments would likely not take two steps forward if they were participating in this activity.  Imagine children in your classroom, school, and district participating in this privilege walk.  What steps might they take forward?  How might other people’s privilege (including yours) transform itself into inequitable beliefs and practices that adversely impacts students’ lives?

Each time I’ve participated in a privilege walk, I remember feeling embarrassed. And angry.  Yet I didn’t feel comfortable expressing these sentiments.  There were so many White people steps and steps ahead of me.  It was as if my vulnerability had become magnified.  Yet when we returned to work, it did not seem as if the differences in our privilege were considered at all.   Even now I continue to wonder the degree to which education organizations spend more time, if at all, examining privilege rather than using this information to lead and manage staff differently.

I’m not Black.  I’m O.J.

The other day someone asked me in what ways I am disrupting equity. I had to really think about that question. I could have touted the achievement increases as a teacher, principal, coach, consultant. But did I really disrupt equity? To answer that, I have to consider the 5 outcomes that are the real end game for students and staff.

Looking back, I certainly intended to disrupt inequity. Of the 5 outcomes, I’d say my lens lived predominately in the realm of Academic Achievement and cultural competence with some efforts connected to Critical Consciousness and Healing Practices. Community Activism? Not so much. So in all, what’s that? Maybe a C-?

That’s not good enough for children and families. Not.  At. All.

After reviewing the 5 outcomes, a mother of 2 Black girls commented,

That’s a lot of work…. I’ve not seen that perspective translated into the classroom.. it requires a lot from the parent, student and teacher…. all focusing on the 5 outcomes.

She is absolutely correct.

As I continue to think about the phrase disrupting equity, I ask myself what that really means. The image above helps me to grasp the concept, but not totally.

  • Picture #1 Equality– Give everyone the same and expect different results. But we know this doesn’t work. Look at the child in the purple shirt—he is not even cheering.
  • Picture #2 Equity– We ensure that based on a person’s starting point and goals, he or she has appropriate resources.
  • Picture #3 Reality– Sobering to say the least. This image helps us to see what liberation will require. Again, the child in the purple shirt…not even in the game.
  • Picture #4 Liberation—Does this image really capture what liberation means?

How does this play out in the real world? Imagine how the crates got there in the first place.

  • Crate #1: High income
  • Crate #2: Christian
  • Crate #3: Male
  • Crate #4: White
  • Crate #5: Heterosexual
  • Crate # 6: English speaker
  • Crate # 7: Second generation college student

Seven levels of privilege.

One might say that none of these crates were earned. The person who has them simply was born into them.  As the narrator in the video noted, some of us have been given opportunities and head starts and others of us have not. But what about the child in the purple shirt?  The one who is standing in a ditch yet still yearns to see over the fence?

One mother, whose daughter is African American and has a learning disability, wrote the following,

I know what we’ve done to give her crates, and it’s not been easy. Especially when people keep trying to take them away suggesting that she can “see” just as well as the others.  I don’t want her to be satisfied with just hearing the game…. going through the motions.. but never really experiencing it…like many others do.

That is what it means to disrupt equity.  It means redefining what it means to level the playing field.  In practical terms, that is a step toward liberation.

I’m not Black.  I’m O.J.

Do you ever feel like it’s still the 60s in some ways?  Like Jim Crow is still lurking in the shadows on some streets and openly glaring on others?  Three weeks ago, I went into an appliance store in Chester, PA.  As I pulled into the lot, I remember feeling like the scenery was reminiscent of the south.  The old school lettering on the store front. The picket fences dotting the background.  For a moment, I was nervous.  Should I go in?  Or should  get back in my car?  I’m fine, I thought. I’m in the north.

Mustering up courage and optimism, I went in.  A bell dinged as I opened the door.  The White man behind the counter looked at me, momentarily, and then resumed his conversation with the White woman standing in front of him.    I walked to the counter and waited, hands folded in front of me.  After 3 minutes of not being acknowledged, I asked him if they carried a certain brand of dryer, a Speed Queen.  With his finger pointed, he said “They’re over there.” Then, I asked, “Do you have a public restroom?”

His response? “No.  We don’t.”

I thought that was odd.  No public restroom in an appliance store?  I left feeling frustrated and seething with disbelief.  I also took a picture of the front of the store.  Two weeks later, I was scrolling through the photos in my iPhone and had a flashback.  Should I call the store?  Curiosity got the best of me, and I dialed the number.  Using my most professional voice, the conversation went like this:

Me: Do you carry the Speed Queen dryer?

Him: Yes, we do.

Me: Great.  Do you have public restroom? (I held my breath).

Him: (pregnant pause)  Why yes, we have a public bathroom.

Me: Thank you so much.

Was I surprised that they had a bathroom?  Not at all.  Had I experienced something like this before?  Absolutely.

I’m not Black. I’m O.J.

In Jay Z‘s song The Story of O.J., he refers to this notion that no matter what your status, as a Black man, you are still Black.  Three weeks ago, I was reminded again that no matter my education, income, vocabulary, religion, I am still a Black woman and that some people may view my Black womanness as inferior.  I have a 17-year-old niece. Is her school aware of their responsibility to prepare her to navigate a situation like the one I faced?

Imagine this example. Terrence is a Black boy in the 8th grade. He goes to school with mostly Black and Latino children. He is one of the highest performers at his school. When he starts high school, he is in honors classes and is with very few Black children. The visible racial difference suggest that Blackness is a deficit since there are so few Black children in the class with students who are viewed as the most intelligent in the grade.  Terrance’s parents have taught him to be twice as good.  As a result, he turns his papers in early, he is never late to class, and he very conscious about coming across as overly assertive.

Over lunch one day, he confides in his teacher and shares what his parents have told him. His teacher tells him, “No! You’re such a good student. You don’t have to be twice as good. Just be yourself. You’re young. You don’t have to be so serious. You’ll be fine.”

In other words, she is saying,

You’re not Black. You’re Terrance.

Yes, he is Terrance. And he is Black.

On one hand, it certainly is infuriating to think that you have to be twice as good just to reach the same success as someone else. But in many cases, isn’t it true? Reconsider Picture #3: Reality.  If someone is perceived as starting from a ditch while his colleague is standing on top of 7 crates, but they both have the same goal, to watch the game, something significantly different needs to happen with the child in the ditch if they are to ever access the opportunities that are actually their birthright.

What can educators do to provide crates for children and then help them discover how to provide crates for themselves?

  1. Schools can teach, lead, coach, and manage students AND staff in the areas of Academic Achievement, Cultural Competence, Critical Consciousness, Community Activism, and Healing Practices.  And we must do our own work on ourselves in these same areas.
  2. Be honest with yourself about the opportunities and head starts you have been given when others have not.  This means with adult colleagues as well as children and families.  Ask yourself in what ways your privilege is comfortable for you and find ways to sacrifice your privilege for the benefit of others.
  3. If you believe in color blindness, don’t.  That’s like saying, “You’re not Black.  You’re Terrance.”  Ignoring someone’s reality because you are uncomfortable with what he might face isn’t justice. To be clear: we do not want to give students reason to feel inferior.  We are not saying that they are inferior because of their experiences. We are saying that given the history of this country, certain identity elements are viewed as superior.   Conversely, others are viewed as inferior.  As educators, we need to acknowledge this reality.
  4. Empower students to understand isms, where they come from, and what they can do about them. Even if you (the teacher, the principal, the superintendent) are the problem.  One high school teacher shared, “Some students express that they don’t feel racism in their schools but then they go off to college and experience racism but aren’t prepared. Students want to feel that support from their professors and then they don’t have the coping skills to handle when they are not getting the support.”  Let’s ensure that we love students by preparing them for the real world, just in case they too are denied access to a restroom.
  5. Rather than negate teachings from home, try to understand why a child may be taught to believe a certain thing.  Consider the family perspective.  Graciously ask questions.  Consider the world that the student lives in and help them to develop relevant mindsets and strategies, such as having a positive racial identity.
  6. If you believe we live in a true meritocracy, stop it.  We don’t.  Does hard work matter?  Yes. But does doing the hard work guarantee the same outcome for all who do the same work?  No.  Consider our former and current presidents.  Would Obama have been elected if he had said or done some of what Trump has? I don’t think do.  Students need to know this and think about the ways in which this reality may emerge in their lives and what they can do about it.
  7. If someone asks you if you are disrupting inequity in your career, and your immediate answer is yes, reconsider the 5 outcomes that matter for children.  Instead of seeing this as a yes or no question, use the question as an opportunity to note the areas where you may see yourself partnering more deeply with students and families as well as those areas where you need to do more mindset shifting and more authentic partnership.

Disrupting inequity is a pretty significant thing.  Inequity is a monster* really.  All of us have biases and mindsets that can hinder true service to children and families, particularly Black and Brown children from lower income backgrounds.  Let’s continue to do the self work required, all the while affirming that all children and their families are brilliant, in spite of the unjust way society is structured.

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For bookings and inquiries, send an email to [email protected]  I’m more than happy to confer about ways we can partner in achieving meaningful outcomes for students, particularly the ones below, outcomes that align with cultural responsiveness and social justice.

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Kelli Seaton

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