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Privilege and the Gap -- An Exchange

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Dear Friends,

Thanks for all the excellent feedback and thoughts on the last Huffington Post piece I put up - on the "Construction of the Achievement Gap." I appreciate you taking the time to read the (too long!) piece. Well, here is something else kinda long but I thought you'd be interested. It's from a Berkeley High student (from the small school Communication Arts and Sciences) who graduated just 2 years ago. Holy cow! How is she more mature than I am? I know this advice is what many are feeling and I know it's usually right. After her letter is my response where I try to frame why I wrote it. I appreciate her deep, deep thinking and really have to say her very ability to frame the issue and disagree with me is an argument for the small school experience she had. She actually gave me permission to use her name but I think, given the ad hominem attacks I have received since the last piece, I shouldn't subject her to that.



Hey Ayers!

So, here is my thought. 1) I am all on board the fuck the POP train, seriously, It's disgusting what they do. This is an eloquent and passionate letter, but I worry about its ability to enroll a broad audience. I think it will enliven the equity choir, but it might turn off those in positions of power, who, I hate to say it, are also those on the school board. While everything you are saying is true, it is important to remember that no one goes through the world imagining that they are an evil force that combats equity, and lesser than that, most well-intentioned citizens do not go through the world even considering that they have unasked for privileged conferred upon them based on their race, class, gender, ability, zip code, socio-economic status, religion etc. We live in a culture steeped in a "individual work ethic, pull yourself up by your boot straps, American dream" type of mentality, everyone believes, deeply and profoundly that they have worked for every shred of what they have earned and that they have never been offered any sort of "affirmative action" based on preferential identities.

I guess what I am getting at here is that your letter is a strong call for action and mobilization among the already loyal, but may lack a bit in terms of enlisting new support, especially in high-up places. You do mention areas where the PoP (note, this is a designation I made in last piece, the Parents of Privilege") and children of the PoP are struggling, but they are brief, and woven into an aggressive letter that may have already turned off the listening of the group that needs to hear it the most.

I suggest also drafting a letter that serves as an educational tool. You have to remember that knowledge is also a form a privilege, and many are disadvantaged in what they know. That is what I discovered when I made my film about white privilege. Most students were utterly unaware of what privilege was and the way it was operating and hurting them.

I think that looking into the benefits of diverse learning environments, explaining studies that show that people have negative responses to "difference" only if they have not been exposed to it, really going step by step over what privilege might look like, like a day-by-day in the lives of different students at Berkeley High, for example. One student can do an extra curricular because they do not have to work to support their family, or one student has a quiet calm place to do homework because they are not living in an unsafe neighborhood or they have their own room, or even access to tech, like having a personal computer or printer or getting rides to and from school etc.

Also, I think it might be valuable to look into the experience of students of color who are in AP classes and talk about the stress they undergo when they constantly feel as though they have to disprove a stereotype or that everyone expects them to fail. Additionally, I recently watched a documentary on helicopter parents and the negative effects that it has on children, and I think looking at stats from students' first years in school, especially mental health stats, might help paint a better picture of how the children of the PoP are being disadvantaged as well.

The bottom line is that if people do not see something in it for them, they will rarely act. It is sad, but that's how privilege works, and it might be interesting to really delve into how privilege and separation hurts everyone.

Also, I think talking to students and getting first hand accounts would be useful. For example, I found that I was more prepared for college because I had learned in an environment where I was supported in taking responsibility for my own education. People may say that these "under-achieving kids" are not motivated, but in my experience, it is the privileged kids that are motivated by fear and pressure and that have their parents trailing after them. And when they get to college they crash because they have never had to take responsibility for their own work or performance.

Also, I think it might be interesting to look into how it is hurting kids in terms of segregation. When I interviewed a lot of white kids about white privilege, I found that they were experiencing trauma and fear in school because they were intimidated by the minority students, and that this intimidation was bred from a fundamental lack of exposure and understanding. They seriously saw them as different, unapproachable and scary and this contributed to them feeling threatened in their learning environment, which yes, is petty and stupid, but is also real and is not something any parent wants their child experiencing.

I guess that bottom line is that the PoP think that they are doing the right thing, they really do, and telling them that they are wrong will be fruitless because these people are not wired to ever believe that are wrong, it just does not work like that. So while I think that essay is well written, I think that it works off a fundamental assumption of understanding that is not there. I think that you need to pretend that you are writing this letter to people who live on the moon and that you need to seriously explain inequity and why it is hurtful to everyone like you would explain it to someone who had never set foot on our planet, because seriously, that is what the PoP are like. Trust me, I know, I never cut class, but when I was in dance productions, I could barely go because I felt so suffocated by the privilege, social capital and inequity, it was overwhelming. When I stood up against not having rap songs that used the N word and not having our costumes by bling and mary j, the whole group turned on me. It was ridiculous the amount of ignorance.

Anyways, I am with you on the letter, I just think it is important to take a little more responsibility for your communication. Are you speaking into ears that are listening? Are you speaking to create the listening you want? Or are you speaking to speak, regardless of who hears?

P.S.I would love to come to your classes, can I really? I'll be home in March, will you still be teaching then?

Dear __________

Absolutely you can come to my class. You can see the dates from my syllabus. You could be guest expert (maybe a student panel??). Or you could just join the class.

Great analysis and critique of my letter, I really appreciate it and I'm blown away with the sophistication and wisdom you bring to the discussion (hope that does not sound patronizing).
You know, I totally feel you on this point of trying to be heard, the responsibility to be educative and not just confrontational. It's not that I hadn't thought of that approach. Moreover, I should add that I believe there is a strong majority of Berkeley parents who are interested in equity.
And I even believe that a strong majority of white, privileged parents want equity and, given the chance, want to take a good stand. What I started calling the Parents of Privilege (PoP) is really a small, highly vocal group that operates by sowing fear and disinformation.

The sad truth is that many people look at Berkeley, the first city to voluntarily integrate in the 1950's, as a possible center of hope and vision for school reform. Yet once they get here, they find schools that look more like a typical American factory-model ones from 1962, lacking imagination or boldness. To really attack the achievement gap, we need to start building strong communities, integrating services, and transforming assessments (developing ways to encourage real achievement, not jeopardy-style standardized tests).

I've sat on committees and shared points of view with these PoP parents and elitist teachers for years - where we all make nice and try to educate each other. But any deviation from that 1962 school, any suggestion that 21st century skills might include understanding group dynamics, social ethics, and innovation, is shot down. So my construction of this letter was not just an emotional response. It was a calculated letter, which I am in a unique position to write as a now-outsider, to sharpen the debate. Yes, no one likes to be called a racist. But then again no one likes to have to listen to racist code language year in and year out and keep smiling. (Example: the assumption that integrating programs results in "dumbing down" when I've only found it makes the learning, and the depth of the curriculum, more powerful). In a sense, my letter brings to light the comments that are muttered all the time by students, parents, and teachers in this debate but which never see the light of day. So let some board members and parents feel pissed off, defensive, or whatever at being called a few things (I think I included liar, racist, selfish for starters). But let everyone line up where they will stand on the issue. That's what I was trying to say. There are times for education and there are times to draw the line and say: "We stand for this. You stand for that." I actually believe the PoP know damn well what they are doing. They don't just want what's best for everyone. So someone should say it.

Interestingly enough, I got some very positive letters from people in all parts of the school community - feeling I had said what they couldn't. My critique was refreshing for many. But, sure, we have to get back to the business of getting along. Plenty of honest people who were against "getting rid of the science labs" can be reasoned with. But not some of the leaders. The latter declared at the board meeting that the small schools had caused or exacerbated the achievement gap and should be closed. They are like tea party crazies in this process. Yet I sat in meetings with them for two years where we were all shepherded together to find "common ground." Well, someone needs to call them out. Also at the recent school board meeting, a few members decried the "divisive" and "polarized" language that had crept into the debate. I guess that was a reference to my letter. I agree. Let's get divisive language out. But where was their complaint of the "divisive" and "polarized" language when the PoP fired away, month after month, at any attempt at positive change.

Again, I would remind you of the Civil Rights movement. There was educating to do. But there were also opponents to defeat. One problem with the present structure of social change - which relies so much on non-profits, NGO's, consultants, and processing - is that change is professionalized and the struggle part is often subtracted from the equation.

We need our own force, something like the PCAD (Parents of Children of African Descent) of some years ago. Then we might get something done. My letter tried to introduce some language and discourse from the PCAD tradition, and perhaps to energize those who are ready to get involved. I believe if the majority in Berkeley, those who are shouted down and pushed aside, could begin to formulate our own vision of how to make education work for all; we could begin to make this a modern city.

Again, thanks for taking the time to read it and for your deep insights. I only wanted to explain the context of my thinking on it. We shall see what was/is most effective.