Last year I started a professional development journey to help me become a better ally to myself and my colleagues. I wanted to develop empathy, understand my shortcomings, and reconcile some of the feelings that I have experienced as a minority who is an educator. I found it necessary to learn more about the feelings of my students to serve them better. The professional development was based on the book “Unlikely Allies in the Academy,” edited by Karen Dace. The participants addressed racial and ethnic identities and engaged in difficult conversations about our similarities and differences in a safe environment. The class was offered over three months. By the time it was over, I was thinking about myself differently and exploring the privileges I have had during my life. Here are some of them:
- I have benefited from my service in the military. My service afforded me advantages for purchasing a home and paying for my education. I also have access to cheaper insurance and a network of social and medical assistance should I need them in the future.
- My health is a privilege. Last year I had a lengthy hospital stay and was never asked to leave the hospital. On the contrary, my mother was deathly ill and was told to leave the hospital because her insurance benefits had run out. Another family member was denied an operation because they did not have insurance or cash to pay for it. Millions of people experience the same thing every year.
- My marriage to my husband is a privilege. I can comfortably walk down the street and hold his hand without being scorned.
- While I knew some of my peers depended on loving single parents for their needs, I grew up in a home with both of my parents, who were stably employed. My parents owned their own homes and land. Both were entrepreneurs and taught me about generational wealth.
- My neighborhood has a recreation center, walking trails, and is close to several nice grocery stores that I can shop at within 10 minutes. It is also nearly crime free. I am not afraid to walk outside of my home at night.
- I am not persecuted for my religious beliefs. I can go to church on Sunday without someone judging me because I practice the dominant religion in our country.
- I am free of visible disabilities that people can use to mock me or discriminate against me for services or employment.
- I have access to technology and information. Unlike most people, I do not have to pay to access articles in databases. Nor do I have a problem with accessing the Internet. Therefore, I am not a casualty of the digital divide.
- Although many people are struggling to cope with the COVID-19 virus in isolation, I have been fortunate to have a family to support me. We do not suffer from food insecurity or feel cramped as we social distance. We all have separate spaces that we can retreat to for privacy.
- Finally, my job is a privilege. I sit here, and I write, teach, and conduct meetings online while other people risk their lives to provide the services that ensure my comfort. I am thankful for them.
I have listed just a few of the things that make me privileged. Writing the list makes me feel slightly odd. As I sat in class and discussed privilege, I was surprised when I heard some people say that they have what they have because they have made themselves successful. Sure, I have worked hard, and I do not like “handouts.” Needing other people makes me cringe. I do not like favors.
The truth is that we all need help at times. We all have benefited from a favor. And some of us have enjoyed more privilege than others. I did not think of myself as privileged until I completed my professional development. Then I understood why some of my classmates would come over to my house and make comments and ask me questions. Sometimes I thought the questions and comments were strange. But I see they were not.
- Do both of your parents live here? (My parents met as teens and were married for over 50 years.)
- Are those Nikes you are wearing? (I had several pairs that my dad would buy upon request.)
- Is this your house? (The living room was picture perfect with a huge couch and love seat.)
- Is that your TV and stereo? (I had my own in my room.)
- Did your mom make that for your lunch? (My lunch box did not have sandwiches. It had home-cooked meals.)
I felt that my life was ordinary. As a teen, I did not understand why my friends always commented that they did not have what I had. I did not find our family to be rich. In retrospect, I have always been ambitious. I was taught that I must use the foundation that my family provided to improve myself. My parents and their parents paved a rode for me so that I would not have to struggle as much.
Subconsciously, it was the privilege that I acquired that led me to be an educator. I want everyone to be their best. I have always been able to identify when my students were in need. Yet the class that I attended helped me understand that even the simplest things can be a privilege.
Understanding advantages can help us to empathize with other people and to understand their perspectives. Examining how I have evolved requires me to acknowledge that some people are born into situations where economics, societal perceptions, and internalized fears manifest themselves as chains that must be broken in order to succeed. Sometimes people want to achieve, and they don’t know how. Our profession is an opportunity to provide guidance and support.
If we fail to acknowledge the privileges that we take for granted, we cannot holistically serve our students. For example, I recall that one of my principals was furious that a teacher kept failing a child because they did not have homework completed. On the surface, it was logical to believe that a child should be able to finish homework. However, this child did not complete their homework because they were living in a homeless shelter. Their life was unstable, and the teacher assumed that the child was unruly without reaching out to them. It must have been agonizing for the student to be shamed in class because of homework.
The point of all of this is to say that we must walk in our privilege and take a moment to understand why other people may be experiencing hardship. I think that when we return to school face to face, things are going to be a lot different. Some children have not had the privilege of feeling safe and loved at home during isolation. There will be children who wonder why all citizens do not have the same opportunities. There will be others who have been traumatized by watching the inconsistencies of privilege play out on TV and in social media. Many students will be oblivious to the changes in society. Our challenge will be to bring our communities back together again. I do not claim to have the solution. But perhaps we can start by selflessly knowing our privilege. Looking at mine has changed me for the best.
Author: Daniella Smith
Daniella Smith, PhD. is a former school and public librarian. She is currently the Hazel Harvey Peace Professor in Children’s Library Services at the University of North Texas.