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Nate Beeler, The Columbus Dispatch

When White Is ‘Normal’

Teaching MLK Leads to Paradoxical Consequences


As I was shuffling through a stack of papers my 6-year-old daughter brought home from 1st grade, I noticed a paper she had worked on as part of this month’s lessons on Martin Luther King Jr. The children were supposed to write a few sentences summarizing what they had learned about the famous leader, and my daughter chose to write this:

“He was sad because he was a different color.”

This sentence would have little impact on most readers; in fact, many people might express a similar sentiment about MLK or at least agree with this one. But when I read this statement my heart sank at the idea that this is what my daughter took away from her study of Dr. King. The problem with her takeaway epitomizes what’s wrong with American culture when it comes to our understanding of race, both in the past and currently. The problem is ever-present, but we shine a spotlight on it during our well-meaning commemoration of the great leader Martin Luther King Jr. In doing so, I believe that we achieve the opposite of what he intended.

Based on my daughter’s sentence, I gleaned that that is what she learned about race: Black is different, white is normal. This is the bottom line in the concept “white privilege,” a term that most white people, ironically, have never even heard of. White privilege is the unspoken, undocumented, subtle, and taken-for-granted paradigm that we live in, in which white people are the “main” group and black people are the “other” group. Nonwhite. The otherness isn’t limited to blacks, of course. Consider the term “ethnic,” which we so often use to describe food or people we can’t place (“She had an ethnic look.”) “Ethnic” means nonwhite; it’s an all-encompassing category for anything that is not the standard.

I witnessed my daughter’s first cognizant experience of white privilege when she was in kindergarten. She stepped off the school bus after her first day of MLK curriculum, put her little hand in mine, looked up at me with giant brown eyes, and said, “Alan said I was a brown girl so he might not want to be my friend.” On the second day, she came home and said, “Jonas called me brown on the bus.” When I asked her whether these kinds of comments had ever occurred before, she assured me that they had not. She seemed confused, stunned by the suddenness with which this “otherness” was brought to her attention. When I asked her if anyone had ever made fun of Jonas for being white, she said “No, of course not.” Her young mind didn’t associate the lessons in school with the new ammunition her schoolmates had against her, but I knew better.

Reader, before you become defensive and suggest that you personally do not think this way (or if you’re a teacher, that you do not teach this way), please realize that it’s not your fault (and also read up on the “third person effect,” which suggests that we erroneously think that our own behavior is different from and better than the behavior of most other people). Whether you are black or white, white privilege is the rhetoric you’ve been raised on if you grew up in the U.S., and it’s a belief system that is often hard to pinpoint and definitely hard to break out of because it’s everywhere.

Television characters provide one small example: There are a disproportionate number of white to black characters on television such that the world represented in television doesn’t even come close to representing the actual racial demographic in the U.S. While a white person doesn’t typically tune in to the BET channel (Black Entertainment Television), black viewers are stuck watching “WET” (that is, White Entertainment Television) because that’s what’s on the major networks. White privilege, or the perception of white as the standard from which all other things differ, is almost like a religion; if you’re raised on it, it’s almost impossible to see that it’s just a socially constructed belief, let alone imagine another way of being.

In our culture of white privilege, we teach our children to associate white with normal and black with different. Perhaps this wouldn’t be a crisis if it weren’t followed by subtle forms of discrimination on every level, from keeping a closer eye on black shop(lift)ers, to convicting more black men than white men for the same crime. See Harvard’s Implicit Association Test for race if you want to get a closer look at your own biased racial perceptions. Or, just answer these true or false questions adapted from an online survey about white privilege:

1. If a traffic cop pulls me over, I am certain that I haven’t been singled out because of my race.

2. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my own race.

3. I can turn on the television or open the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

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

5. If my day or week is going badly, it’s not because of situations whether I felt that my race was an issue.

6. I can take a highly competitive job without anyone ever thinking I may have gotten it because of my race.

If you answered true to most of these, you are likely a white person benefiting from white privilege. Again, it’s not your fault, but I think it’s time you became aware of it. I also think it’s time our kids stopped learning it.

I’m not suggesting that what my daughter is learning at school is what her teachers intended for her to learn. But I also want to stop using “intention” as an excuse. This is what she and many other children in the class took away from the lessons, which tells me that the lessons are faulty and need to be revised. If we dedicate time (and money) with school curriculum to address the issue, it should be done right. In the very least it shouldn’t exacerbate the problem we are trying to fix.

Here are the lessons I’d recommend:

Lesson #1: Across history, people have tried to get power by putting others down. For this lesson, it would be so easy to cite examples across the world, using variables in addition to race to point out varying criteria by which others are discriminated (gender, class, eye shape). Discuss Gandhi and the Untouchables in India, César Chávez and migrant workers in the U.S., Asma Jahangir and religious minorities in Pakistan, Leymah Gbowee and the women of Liberia, to name a few. Let it be an interdisciplinary lesson encompassing geography, politics, culture, and human rights.

Lesson #2: When a person seeks power by putting down others, it’s simply wrong, and you should stand up for the person being put down. This lesson has an obvious tie-in with anti-bullying curriculum, but I’ve yet to see MLK lessons align with anti-bullying curriculum in school. Focus on how we want to be, not on vivid and (possibly appealing/empowering) examples of how not to be.

That’s it. Really, that’s all. You don’t even need to talk about race. But if you do, please, I beg you, don’t use the words “black” and “different” in the same sentence, and don’t let race be the only example of the nonsensical variables people use to discriminate. History is important, but a large part of why we teach history is to avoid the mistakes of our past. Our current method of teaching about MLK is flawed because it encourages children to think about race in a potentially divisive way that subconsciously and accidentally continues a cycle of perceiving blacks as “others” and whites as “normal”; that is, we are perpetuating white privilege. To put a spotlight on skin color during MLK appreciation, while well intentioned, is misguided. I don’t think it’s what he would have wanted.

Carrie Hutchinson is a tenured professor of Communication at Santa Barbara City College with a PhD in intergroup communication.

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