Letter to the Editor

Open letter to white folks who are tired of being labeled privileged:

Does the notion of White privilege make you angry? Does it make you stop listening when somebody tries to tell you about your path and your experiences?

Would accepting the existence of white privilege force us to signal that we believe we are racist?

Is it possible to defuse the gut rejection of white privilege through increasing our understanding of the concept? Can we acknowledge white privilege and still maintain a claim to what we believe is good within us?

As preface, I offer that I am a teacher. I claim no expertise in sociology or politics. I have been an educator for over 20 years. I am white. I have taught adults from 63 years of age, all the way down to 2 year old children. I value education as a pillar of civilization. I strongly support maintaining and dramatically improving public education on a regular basis. I recognize high quality education as a civil right as well as a sound investment for the future of this country.

My first classroom was in a Missouri state prison. One of my students, a man of color, an incarcerated father from Kansas City, and just a few years older than me at the time, suggested that I should be out there, in the world, teaching his kids. I took him literally. I have worked with younger and younger people in education ever since.

I wanted to serve as an educator in a prison because I believed in the restorative and redemptive power of education. I believe that when we learn, we gain strength. When we learn to think critically, we gain power. Power that can be used to make the world a better place, to spur movement towards a more perfect union.

Watching and listening to the actions and voices saturating our streets, media and airwaves over the past weeks, I, like many Americans, struggle for answers and stumble to try to gain perspective. My challenge, as an educator, is to always try to think critically, to work to identify any systems and context in place, to add depth to my perspective, to always prepare to better understand. Working through concepts and issues with students of all ages demands this preparation; and the knowledge that complexity applies to all things is a prerequisite.

Any attempt to apply critical thinking to the widespread unrest in the United States since the murder of George Floyd requires acknowledgment that there are several difficult and painful layers to sort through.

I wonder if attempting to navigate through a few obstacles regarding white privilege might allow an increase in understanding of one significant layer?

Does the concept of being privileged incite anger amongst us white folks because it feels like an invalidation of our successes or diminution of any talents, skills or triumphs which we would like to attribute to hard work? 

Can one benefit from white privilege and still be credited with working hard? Of course. Can one benefit from white privilege and still suffer loss and hardship? Of course. Can one benefit from white privilege and reject white supremacy? Yes. Benefiting unconsciously from white privilege does not necessarily define one as prejudiced. Our benefits, however, do contribute to the racism experienced by those for whom privilege is denied. 

Could it be helpful for us white people to believe that what we experience without effort and what we unconsciously take for granted should be defined as the type of privilege that should be bestowed upon every American?  Is it reasonable to agree that for every American in every city and every town and every American in every job and in every car should experience the same legally guaranteed rights? 

Should it require privilege to expect that all citizens experience freedom and guaranteed rights equally?

It should not be considered privilege to walk into any public space, indoors or out, and feel welcome, and free from suspicion.

It should not be considered privilege to fully expect that your children will never unjustly spend time in prison.

What might it feel like to know that your child, if black, will be at least five times more likely to be sentenced to a term in prison in their life then their white counterparts?

How do we critically consider that white folks comprise 64% of the U.S. population, but only 39% of those in prisons, while black folks comprise 13% of the U.S. population, and 40% of the prison population?

Inherent in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s philosophy of non-violent resistance is the belief that to turn the other cheek is not a passive act. By offering up the other cheek after you have been struck, you challenge your attacker to strike you and strike you again and again. Not until the depth of your capacity to suffer finally reveals your full humanity to your attacker, will he finally see the error in his ways. 

Challenging the oppressor’s latent decency to awaken through your demonstration of abject suffering is an astounding and courageous gift of mercy. It speaks to a profound belief in the fundamental goodness of one’s fellow man, even in the face of visceral evidence to the contrary. It speaks to the heroic power of meeting the eyes of violence with your own over and over and over again, projecting your own humanity into its dark heart. It speaks to the faith and power of the knowledge that violence will be startled to the margins, as love, buried under years of ignorance, misperceptions and fear, will rise. Love will rise, even as you are driven into the ground in service of repairing and healing mankind. From blood of non-violent resistance blossoms sustainable change.

This act of resistance changes a heart. Tweaks in law and additional regulations serve to provide access to legal recourse when oppression acts, but a change of heart transforms the oppressor.

What will it take to finally see the desperation in the eyes of our fellow citizens, our fellow brothers and sisters, our three year old children seeking hope? How many waves of destitution must seek purchase in the humanity residing in the heart of this country before we all commit to sustained eye contact?

I fear that our country has failed to transform. I am troubled that love has not risen, and that hearts have not been edified. I wonder how that concern must translate from one generation to another and another on the other side of the violence, epidemic incarceration, and intentionally prohibitive economic inequity. How many generations must continue to seek that sustained eye contact until it finally concludes that the fundamental decency sought is not latent—it is absent? 

What viable course of action remains if that fundamental decency simply does not exist in the soul of white Americans?

It should not be considered privilege to know that you will likely be judged mostly for your abilities, credentials and the content of your character.

Is it reasonable to listen to fellow citizens who do not consider themselves beneficiaries of that common courtesy?

Is it reasonable to consider repeated cries out that the rights guaranteed to all Americans are not as robustly defended for and experienced by large swaths of communities of our fellow citizens and neighbors, our friends and families, and too many vulnerable three year old children?

And what if we do not listen hard enough, or critically enough, to understand? 

Does it help to deepen our perspective to know that we can likely trace our last name far enough to determine exactly where our ancestors originated, while too many people of color can trace their name back only a few generations when a slave owner simply affixed his surname to the kidnapped people violently forced to live under slavery; to all of the children born on the plantation?

What will it take to see all of the people in the streets as our children, our family, our brothers and sisters?

What will it take to see past the color of skin and see into the eyes of those who continue to painfully bear their souls publicly in order to draw out ours?

All children must be our children.

All citizens must be our community.

What must we hear, and what must we see, to awaken outrage, not at being accused of white privilege, but at the sight of those denied such privilege?

Can we help to eliminate the discomfort of the concept of white privilege if we reach deep, work hard, sustain eye contact and make sure that all American citizens experience the standard of citizenship that white folks receive from birth?

I continue to struggle to add depth to my perspective on this question. I struggle with my grip on the belief that love will rise from the heart of this nation. I confront that struggle these days with an intensified search for what I can do to contribute; for what is demanded by civic duty, for what is pleaded for, screamed out for by my own heart. 

For now, I look out, seeking the gaze of the eyes of someone who may need me to leverage my humanity in service of theirs. 

If you want to live in a world that no longer singles you out for an unsolicited set of societal advantages, then let us make sure we are all working harder to ensure that every American in every job and in every car and in every school and in every prison is met with the same fundamental partnership and brotherhood that the American Experiment was built to achieve.

Michael Gemkow
Teacher
Ava Montessori School
Ava, MO