Donna Grethen, Tribune Media Services

White privilege is most potent when denied

  • March 14, 2012 - 8:56 PM


I am a white educator.

I have spent most of the past decade working in schools that serve predominantly nonwhite students, the kinds of schools and students Katherine Kersten focuses on in her most recent column ("Running the wrong way on learning gap," March 11).

I've been a classroom teacher, building administrator, principal, and district level administrator in Minneapolis and Philadelphia.

In fact, Kersten wrote a column about me and the charter school I was opening in Minneapolis in 2008 ("The toughest school you'll ever love is opening here," July 16, 2008).

My experiences have shown me the impact race can have on our educational system.

Sometimes this impact is overt, as it was when I took a group of black and brown students to visit the memorial for three black men who were lynched in Duluth in 1920. Two white men nearby told my students they were glad it had happened.

Sometimes this impact is subtler -- like the cultural bias that can sometimes be observed on standardized tests, or the inability of an educator to connect with students, or the higher rates of suspension and referrals for special education for students of color.

Kersten downplays the role race plays in our educational system. She claims that the research about the academic achievement gap "demonstrates overwhelmingly that the gap ... springs from socioeconomic and family risk factors."

What she fails to mention is that research also clearly shows that the achievement gap between white students and their African-American, Latino and Native American counterparts persists even when controlled for factors like income.

Educators of all backgrounds across the country understand this fact and work to improve outcomes for students of color by developing their own "Cultural Competence."

This refers to developing the understanding, mindset, and behaviors of individuals to allow them to effectively work within and across different cultural groups. Developing Cultural Competency is not something reserved for white teachers, and its focus is not solely on race.

This is not a new concept. And in the world of urban education the importance of Cultural Competence isn't even controversial.

I would encourage Kersten to read the work in this area by researchers and educators like Lisa Delpit, Beverly Daniel Tatum, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Gary Howard and Sonia Nieto, just to name a few.

To Kersten, however, districts working to develop educators' Cultural Competence is something that you should be "astonished to learn." She argues that education officials are embracing "the extraordinary notion that white teachers are primarily to blame for the racial learning gap."

How she gets from developing Cultural Competency to claiming that administrators think white teachers are primarily to blame for the achievement gap is unclear, as she quotes exactly zero people expressing this opinion.

Kersten focuses in her column on the concept of white privilege, which, it seems, she finds preposterous. Of course, the single greatest advantage of white privilege is that a white person may be completely unaware of its existence (or, like Kersten, willfully deny it) and still reap its benefits.

These benefits, as Peggy McIntosh has explained, include the ability to move to a neighborhood where you would want to live without worrying about apprehension from neighbors based on your race; the ability to consume media that widely represents your race in a positive light; the ability to buy a bandage that matches your skin color, and the ability to send your kids to a quality school with teachers and students who share their background -- among many others.

I would challenge Kersten to consider that maybe, just maybe, there really is a meaningful difference between being a student of color in this country and being a white student.

I would challenge her to consider that differences among cultural groups can impede effective communication and learning if they are not confronted.

And I would challenge her not to allow cynicism and self-righteous outrage about things like Cultural Competence to stand in place of facts and a genuine effort at deeper understanding.

Kersten asks: "How does indoctrination like this help children who struggle to master phonics and the multiplication tables?"

The answer is simple. First, it's not indoctrination; it's learning.

Second, good relationships are the foundation of good teaching. The more a teacher understands about her students, the ways they think, feel and communicate, the more effective she will be.

Education reformers working to close the achievement gap often observe that there will not be one 100 percent solution, but rather 100 1 percent solutions.

Certainly improving parent education and early education programs, improving teacher training and evaluation systems, increasing the compensation and prestige of teachers, and holding high expectations for students, parents and educators alike are among those solutions.

But so, too, is developing Cultural Competency so that one can more effectively work with all students.

I am a white educator. I can never know exactly what it is like to be a person of color in this country. But I can promise never to stop learning.

* * *

Michael Spangenberg, of Roseville, is an educational consultant.

© 2018 Star Tribune