• Tiye Naeemah Cort

On White Privilege...

On Monday, we had a faculty professional day. As a young student, I remember thinking that professional days were nothing more than a day off, and my teachers made them seem like they weren’t that huge of a deal, but as a teacher, I now know how annoyingly meaningful they can be.

Sure, I would have loved a couple of extra days off, but I knew that I was secretly looking forward to a colleague’s presentation on “Stereotype Threat and Micro Aggressions”. Admittedly and almost subconsciously, I wanted to see what she would say and if I, the only person of color in the room, would agree or find fault in her presentation. She distributed some reading material, andinstructed the faculty to split into groups for discussion. I knew that whatever group I was a part of would be in for a great discussion.

Amongst reading material was an article written by Peggy McIntosh, entitled White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack. I read through the first page, which included what I already knew as common knowledge. White people have certain privileges that they take for granted because they were never forced to realize that this privilege allows them certain advantages. And though it is mostly at no fault of their own, today’s white population is oft unaware of the fact that their privilege has a direct and sometimes indirect correlation with the disadvantages of other races.

On the second and third pages of the article, McIntosh listed some of the conditions and accommodations that she takes for granted because of her race. Yes, I could relate to almost everything on her list of 26 mostly “first-world” problems, but it was a perfect exhibit of white privilege to hear some of my colleagues responses. In response to number 26 on the list “I can choose blemish cover or bandages in ‘flesh’ color and have them more or less match my skin.” , I felt a bit obliged to chime in as one person stated “I never really thought of that.”, then proceeded to ask me “Do they even make brown band-aids?”

I don’t know if brown band aids exist, but even If they did, I wouldn’t be interested in them. The world has set a status quo for many years. “Nude” clothing, shoes, makeup, and yes, even band-aids have never been anywhere close to the same color as my skin. From a young age, I became accustomed to covering every cut, scrape, and boo-boo with a “nude”- colored bandage. And since the discovery of Hello Kitty and Disney- themed bandages, from childhood into my present adulthood, I have opted to proudly sport cartoon characters over skinned knees and paper cuts instead. I mean, if the nude being provided is not going to match my skin color anyway, why not have fun with it? In the cosmetic world, my skin color is commonly referred to as “deep” and sometimes simply “dark”. And though I take no offense in referring to my rich skin tone as “dark”, the fact that it is considered so only in comparison to the commonly more revered “nude” of a white person’s is what raises real questions of privilege in my mind. Here are a few from the list that really struck a chord with me:

Number 20: “I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazine featuring people of my race.”

I remember as a young Tiye, having my mother special order certain dolls for me simply because they were not widely available in toy stores. I never owned any white Barbies, and not because my parents were prejudice, but to instill in me that black was also beautiful. I loved all dolls, believe me, but I must admit that my brown Cabbage Patch doll was my favorite. She looked like me, her hair was made of a courser yarn that allowed me to braid it in plaits that would stay put, just like my own hair. I visited a toy store about a month ago, and there was a clear disproportion between the quality and availability of dolls of color and white dolls.

Think about it, if you are not a person of color, are you inclined to reach for the Mahogany company’s greeting cards when sending a nice note to mom? I am a huge fan of Papyrus cards, but I always wondered why amongst the Christmas, Hannukah, and even cat and dog birthday cards, I never once saw a Kwanzaa card. One of my favorite books as a child was Amazing Grace, by Mary Hoffman. It was a short story about young black girl who had a brilliant imagination. The illustrations reminded me of myself, with her textured pigtails and dark skin but, just as when I was a child, it is still rare to come across children’s books featuring main characters of color.

Part of white privilege is the choice to ignore things like this. You don’t have to notice that greeting cards don’t feature drawings of people who don’t look like you because chances are, you can easily see some version of yourself reflected. You don’t have to take into consideration that your young black daughter may be influenced to think that beauty is only in other races since that is what she is told by the media. For people of other races, they don’t have that same ability. We must seek positive images and messages about our own race, whereas those of privilege are fed positive reinforcement every day.

Number 14: “I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.”

How many times have I done something well and had someone offer me a compliment starting with “It is so good to see a young black woman…” I get it. It is amazing to see a young black woman achieve anything, but why more so than any other woman or person? Our society has made it such a surprise and honorable mention to be a person of color doing things that are usually associated with people of other races. I have joined boards, become a teacher, been an administrator, worked in my church, earned a Master’s degree, started a blog, created and sold art, and much, much more, but there are plenty of other people doing the same things. I have overcome many challenges that apparently I was not expected to overcome.

Even now, as the one and only black teacher at a school, many parents of my students have acknowledged and thanked me for taking on the challenge of being “the only one” because it is awesome to see “a young black woman” take on a challenge like this and do well. I have to think about this every day. If I do well, I am automatically a credit to my race, and if I fail, I am to assume that I would be an embarrassment. I am a teacher, but imagine the pressure that a black president, CEO, manager, or single parent feels in their situations. Part of white privilege is being able to be pleasantly surprised or impressed by the achievements of other races without feeling that your impression is coming from a biased place.

Number 1: “I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”

I can’t. At work, I am a minority. Most of my time is spent with people who are not of my race. This does not bother me much, except when I need that common relation and connection to people like myself. Sometimes I wish that I was back in Jamaica on vacation or in Guyana, walking the streets where it is commonplace to see black people everywhere. It is uncomfortable to constantly be surrounded by people who are of a different race because although they are all different from me, I am considered the different one because I am the minority.

I can arrange to be in the company of people of my race, but not most of the time. Meeting with friends who are also black takes planning. I have to make sure that we will all be in town at the same time, and even when we go out as a group of 4-5, the restaurants, lounges, and social environments where we fellowship are usually not in the company of people of my race. As a non-black person, every day outings or errands do not usually pose questions of what you will encounter with different races because you will most likely be a part of the majority- a privilege that allows you to not have to take minor yet very instrumental aspects of your interactions into consideration.

Number 15: “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.”

I have yet to be directly asked “Tiye, as a black person, what do you think about this?” However, particularly in discussions about race, diversity, and this time white privilege, the looks I receive requesting my insight on matters are undeniable. I don’t think these looks are malicious or meant to be in any way offensive, but particularly in an environment where I am the only adult of color, many of my colleagues have not been widely exposed to a black educator’s view on things. I always make sure to preface my responses to issues like this with “In my personal experience…” because, yes, I am black but (surprise) all black people are not the same. We do not all have the same cultural, socioeconomic, or educational backgrounds. The thing about race is that it generalizes. Yes, I am black, but I am also Caribbean, which is culturally very different from a black person from Nigeria or Mississippi. To ask me to speak on behalf of an entire race is asking for a generalized answer that is impossible to apply to every member of that race. The privilege of not being asked to speak on behalf of your race on a fairly regular basis is that since your race’s feelings are already more publicly known and expressed, there is no question because it becomes common knowledge. For someone of another race, a less familiar race, it is the expectation that they can provide a general all-encompassing view, which is extremely unrealistic.

Though it was only a 20-minute discussion, the opportunity to share my side of the privilege discussion made me feel a bit more comfortable and secure with myself. I have never been one to struggle much with the idea of how I am perceived because I am very open about my life, experience, culture, and beliefs, but actually voicing my thoughts to a group of non-black people was quite an experience. I encourage all black educators and people of color to take on experiences and discussions like these. Help your students AND your colleagues, recognize their privilege. White privilege is real, and we should not be afraid to acknowledge that. Privilege based on sex, socioeconomics, education, and ability is also very real. It is not necessarily the privileged party’s fault that they have the advantage of not being forced to take certain things into consideration, but it is to their advantage to be aware of what our society views as “normal”- a definition that characterizes normality as something that is very different from the reality that many others experience.


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