On White Privilege and Education

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Today I listened to this excellent podcast from the radio program This American Life. It’s about school integration –the one single solution that has been proved successful at decreasing the inequalities between black and white students’ test scores. The podcast is eye-opening and quite infuriating –well it was for me, a white person with no experience yet of how the US school system concretely works.

The podcast reminded me of an exercise I did at a work retreat a few years ago. Picture this exercise with me: 

One group is given some construction paper. Say 10 pieces. The other group is given 10 squares of toilet paper.

Now each group has to build a tower. 

The results are as to be expected: the first group can build a tower in about a minute or two whereas the second struggles to have a tower that stands straight, if it stands at all.

This exercise is made to illustrate the chances we are given at birth –privileges we have because of where we were born, where we live, our parents’ life experience, etc. -things that do not depend on us, our work, our ethics; in short things that depend largely on the "luck of the draw." And it starts in childhood of course. Let’s choose 5 of the factors that influence a child's life: ability of parents to find and keep a job; community strength; school infrastructure; teachers’ qualifications; safety at home. Now if you are born with all of this, your tower will be easier to build. If on the contrary you lack all of that at birth, the issues you have are huge to surmount and might not get better as you get older –so the American myth that working harder will work in your favor doesn’t come true. Privilege is a matter of social-economic status, but in the US, as in many other countries, race plays a role -so blacks and minorities are more likely to be poor than whites. This is a systemic issue, not a personal or attitude-related issue.

Let's take this exercise a bit further. Let’s say the tower represents the high school experience. If you have a stack of construction paper, you can build that tower pretty fast. You don’t have to think about it. High school graduation is expected. You even have time on your hands to do extra-curricular activities, maybe volunteer, play sports, hang out with friends, spend time with a tutor, etc. On the other hand, if your resources are thin, you’ll spend all your time trying to build that tower. If you are extremely dedicated, graduation will become your sole objective and you will spend your time and energy trying to make 2 squares of toilet paper stand together –then 2 more, then 2 more. Graduation in itself is an achievement!

(My attempt at building towers today!)

Now imagine that your whole life is this: construction paper vs. toilet paper. From school to job search to relationship with authorities to perceptions people have of you. It’s hard. It’s unfair. It’s frustrating. This is why we have to look at our privileges and acknowledge that some of us have it easier than others –and that is why we need to change the status quo so that people have equal opportunities in life. This is not a zero sum game: everyone wins if we increase people’s chances at success.

I don’t know yet what I am going to do to change the way I live in order to decrease the very real and unfair inequalities that exist in this country –but I know something has to change, and change starts at the individual level. If you are white or if you feel privileged, what have you done or are you willing to do to equalize the playing field? If you are black or from a minority, what do you wish white /or privileged people would do?
(This cartoon illustrates the issue of privilege extremely well)