The Privilege Pass

What’s really in OPS’ diversity training book & what you might have been missing

“I want to see your sources. Our library doesn’t have these sources.”

A college professor was scrutinizing one of Franklin Thompson’s papers during his post-graduate studies at the University of Southern Mississippi in the mid-90s. Now an Omaha City Councilman and University of Nebraska at Omaha professor who lectures on multicultural education and race relations, Thompson recalled battling performance bias.

Thompson drove to a larger library and brought the information back. “And you know what he said to me? ‘I’ve never had a black student do that before.’”

“And I said, ‘Sir, at least in Nebraska they teach us to do that.’”

Today, he said the same thing happens. And if it’s happening in elementary school classrooms, then it’s happening to young students unprepared to recognize and stand up to it. As Journeys in Cultural Proficiency makes it way to every Omaha Public Schools employee this month, the diversity training book brings fresh sources.

The book Omaha Public Schools chose to teach its personnel about cultural awareness reads less like a manual, as it has been called in some media, and more like a spirited compilation of research findings urging teachers to do what’s right in the classroom.

How to get to what’s right, though, will depend on one’s worldview. And when the worldview of a community is entrenched, even mild attempts at cultural awareness may be reported as radical.

Rather than rely solely on media reports, The Reader has partnered with the Omaha Public Library, Conference for Inclusive Communities, Anti-Defamation League and Omaha Table Talk to encourage the public to go to the source and actually read the book, available through the library or for purchase at Learning HQ in Aksarben Village.

OPL and OTT will host a table talk style discussion on the book on Thursday, February 9th, 6-7:30pm at the Omaha Public Library, Millard Branch, 13214 Westwood LN (on South 132nd St, just south of Center). Click here to register

An OPS committee liked the book because it offered a more condensed approach for all employees, according to OPS’ Janice Garnett, assistant superintendent of human resources.

The book advocates for the stickiness of actual competency, trudging through conflict resolution, fleshing out conflicting worldviews in the classroom before they can be glossed over. It urges a coziness with resolution dialogue, with the uncomfortable middle ground where two cultures meet. 

The authors often mention privilege and define it as a sense of entitlement that arises from indifference to benefits that accrue solely on one’s membership in a gender, race or other cultural group. White privilege, specifically, is the concept that’s stirring negative reaction. But the authors rarely mention it.

In OPS classrooms, where 97 percent of teachers are white, the majority culture meets the 67 percent of students from minority cultures every school day. What does it mean to be the majority or dominant culture, to have privilege?

In crystallizing the concept of white privilege back in the late ‘80s, Peggy McIntosh, a scholar in women’s studies, first wrote about men’s unwillingness to acknowledge “their invisible package of unearned assets which [they] can count on cashing in each day, but about which [they] remain oblivious.”

Turning the same observation on ethnicity, McIntosh recorded a long list of conditions her African American friends and colleagues couldn’t count on in daily life – conditions she took for granted. A small sample includes:

--If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

--I can be pretty sure my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

--I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.

--I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

Her schooling gave McIntosh no training to see herself as an oppressor or an unfairly advantaged person. She noted in her paper that most white students in the U.S. think that racism doesn’t affect them because they aren’t people of color; “they don’t see ‘whiteness’ as a racial identity,” she wrote.

“It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all.

“Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have it most already.”

Privilege is everywhere, according to Thompson.

“Males have privilege over women. We all have privilege over most Native Americans. All Americans, including the poor, have privilege over the kids in the street in Bangladesh. Regency kids have privilege over kids who live at 13th and U Streets. Privilege is no mystery.”

White males, though, show the most resistance in acknowledging it, he said. So it becomes the most controversial.

“Don’t call it white privilege – call it majority group privilege. Cover all the majority groups – male straight, American, able-bodied -- and then show how the underdog group has to scrap.

“Not only is it more palatable, it’s more accurate. [If you] harp on it … it makes white people feel they have to fire back and defend themselves.”

posted at 12:50 pm
on Thursday, January 19th, 2012

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