Updated: Nov 25, 2020
A year ago I tried to bring some change to my school. Nothing crazy, but a little more focus on social justice. I remember a lot of the emotions that I felt during that time. I was so excited to walk down this path, albeit very conservatively. I wanted to work with Sherard Robbins and Visceral Change. He and I spoke about some challenges I was facing with my student leaders and their privilege. When I was confronted by some of my students, I was not prepared to handle the questions that came to me about white privilege - in fact, I had only just begun my learning about this in my own life. I had connected with Sherard earlier in the year unrelated to race trying to pick his brain about his role as a residence life trainer, but after this experience in my program, I knew I needed help.
When I first called Sherard I asked him to help me find another way to do the privilege walk - when all my white friends posted a video of it on social media, and claimed it had a big impact on them. What I saw when I watched this video was the learning was at the expense of those less privileged, which was not what I wanted to share with my students.
I reached out to Sherard later and we outlined a tentative way to incorporate some social justice education for my students. I don’t think we were even going to focus on race, but we were going to focus on Power & Privilege, Identity & Intersectionality, and Allyship & Advocacy. I really wanted to focus on the LGBTQ+ population at my school, since there aren't too many people of color. I shared the idea with a few of my trusted colleagues, who affirmed that this would be a great step for students in the program, because if you know nothing outside of your own experiences, then you cannot effectively lead.
I also had emotions of uncomfort and fear, as I was met with resistance, and I could not proceed without funding from my administration. I still have those feelings of fear and intimidation, especially when I pushed back after being told no, I was asked to get on board or someone else could take the program. This experience was extremely scary for me - I have always followed the rules, I don’t buck the system, but this rocked my confidence. I over-analyzed every choice I made, second guessing if I would be breaking the unwritten rules, and honestly this was such a benign attempt at sharing different experiences with my students. It is so interesting now for me to look back and realize how this started me down a new path, but this choice to change was due to my privilege.
I want my audience (which is currently 99% white) to realize this is only a fraction of the questioning that people of color feel on a daily basis, particularly when their ideas and challenges to the status quo are met with resistance. I still am experiencing the intimidation, as some changes were made to my role without my involvement. I again had my confidence shattered, and am questioning what I was doing wrong. Was it related to my push last year? I can’t confirm or deny, but there is some connection which has left me questioning my value and worth as a member of the community. I also feel confused about whether I can share this post without additional consequences. But here’s the rub - I have a choice. If I don’t post this, nothing will happen, literally nothing. You won’t read about my situation, and no one who may have made those decisions will know or have to answer for them. I have a choice because of the color of my skin, and that is a privilege.
It has taken me a long time to understand the depths of my privilege, but this one has to be the biggest. I can choose to stay silent, and my life will go on as usual. We can pretend we don’t have to deal with this (although it’s not pretending if we truly don’t have to deal with it), but not everyone has that privilege. Not everyone looks like me and has the ability to pretend these issues don’t exist. The fact that I get to choose is my biggest privilege.
Chances are the people who will choose to read this post, also have that choice. So I am asking you to acknowledge that privilege, and remember what it must be like not to be able to make that choice, ever, to do something, or say something. A good first step is to start reading and listening to people who don’t look like you. When you start doing that, you will, like me, have a hard time not seeing the world a little differently.
Elevate voices of those who are different, use your platform to promote different ideas, challenge yourself to do some of your own reflection on where you can make small changes.
Emmanuel Acho made a statement on August 27, that I want to share: “Houses are not built overnight, each and every day people are laying bricks, hundred upon hundreds of bricks, success of change, if we are looking for it, will not happen overnight, it has to be each and every person along with their society laying brick by brick...each person can affect their house, their house can affect their city, their city can affect their state, and the state can affect the nation, and the nation can therefore affect the world, but it starts with each person affecting the house.” When I listened to the video of Mr. Acho sharing this thought, I reflected on what effects I might have for making change during this period of time. I know I am working to affect change in my two sons, sharing books and movies with them about what it is like to grow up as a black boy. I know I have affected myself by reading as many books as I can to understand other people's walk in life, and by standing up and reminding others that it isn’t about our own perceptions about the existence of discrimination, but the feelings of those affected every day. I know I can have an even bigger effect by being a more vocal ally, and sharing these perspectives with student leaders, even when it doesn’t fit ‘the way we do things.’
I want to leave you with one other thing you can do with your students: encourage them to read books about these issues, but also remember there are a lot of marginalized groups, and as student leaders, especially ones with privilege, they have the greatest ability for change.
If this conversation sounds like something you want to try, I encourage you to try it it may be the first time students have had these conversations, and share this post with someone else. If you think the ideas I am sharing could be useful in a training session for you or your school - please contact me today for a discovery conversation to see if we are a good fit. I really want to spread the world with strong, confident leaders. I can work with teachers, students or your own children, there is really nothing we can’t try.
How will you help student leaders know beyond their privilege?