"The Caveat of Privilege in Discussion-Based Learning" by Matt Gnolfo
In my last commentary, I discussed the need to cultivate an environment in which activism is a visible reality for our students. This cultivation is enabled both by a top-down commitment from school leaders and by a grass-roots focus from students, alums, teachers, and parents. However, just as we, as teachers, cannot and must not force students to participate in discussions around our tables, so too must we avoid the tendency to demand activism from underrepresented groups about their underrepresentation. In forcing dialogue, we reduce the capacity for individuals to respect individuality. When we assess people, formally or informally, for the quality and/or quantity of verbal participation in a discussion, we do not show respect to the person who is contributing to the conversation by remaining silent and thoughtful in an effort to engage meaningfully when the time is comfortable to share. Furthermore, when we mandate participation around a table, we are subtly (or not so subtly) perpetuating what has seemingly become a "norm" of white privilege at Rocky Hill that manifests itself in such scenarios as increased "airtime" for majority groups in discussions. Given the breakdown of racial demographics at Rocky Hill, this airtime dominance from white students should come as no surprise at the purely statistical level. Therefore, it is even more incumbent upon us as teachers to be the arbiters of equity in our classroom discussions, enabling voices to be heard and valued rather than observed and assessed.
Although socioeconomic privilege is not universally shared by white people at our school, the privilege bestowed upon us merely because of the color of our skin is inherently embedded within the sociological framework of our society on a macro level, and within the confines of our campus on a micro level. It would be a loathsome and dangerous exercising of white privilege for us to expect our students and faculty of color to be the spokespersons for issues regarding their race or ethnicity. Rather, we need to continue to cultivate an environment of justice and inclusion by being attuned to our whiteness and what that means for the community in our own discussions and meetings with students and colleagues. Our students and faculty of color should not have to feel that they are being asked to be the teachers of white people around issues involving racial and ethnic dilemmas, and as our community continues its discussions around issues of equity and inclusion, it must be supremely aware of both the presence and effect of its own collective majority privilege in order to inculcate a community that is truly equitable for all its members.