Cynthia has a passion for teaching and working with school leaders and teachers as they address issues of equity in schools. As the Assistant Director of NIUSI-LeadScape, she works closely with principals and teachers to engage in professional learning that leads to making schools inclusive of all students. Cynthia worked as a teacher in elementary and middle schools in Phoenix for thirteen years before deciding to continue her learning at Arizona State University. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Educational Leadership and Policy.
Recently, I’ve taken on new endeavors that have opened my eyes to things I haven’t noticed before…namely the power and privilege that is associated with being a white person and the marginalization I sometimes experience as a lesbian. I grew up as a relatively privileged person and I still am in many ways. I come from a middle class home, with both parents as career professionals who possess graduate degrees. Thinking back on my childhood, I can’t even remember a time that I felt marginalized. Even as a tomboy who would rather play touch-football than have to even LOOK at Barbies, I rarely felt like I didn’t fit in. Maybe I was just oblivious, but this indicates to me that privilege was certainly present in my life. You don’t think about privilege when you have it, only when you don’t.
I was recently participating in a meeting at the Equity Alliance where, as a stress reliever, we broke out into song. As you may know, our work focuses on issues of equity and inclusiveness within schools. We often have very frank conversations about racism, sexism, and ableism…all the “isms” that impact how schools do the work of teaching children. Someone (who will remain nameless) began singing “Ebony and Ivory,” by Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney.
It’s a timeless song. Soon enough, we were all swaying and singing in the conference room. Another colleague actually came in to check on us to make sure we hadn’t completely lost our minds.
You know how a song sometimes gets stuck in your head? You walk around singing it for days, you find yourself humming it while doing dishes, and you think about it while wrestling with issues related to your own privilege? You know how THAT happens? Well, that happens to me. Let’s take a look at the first verse of this song…
Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony — Side by side on my piano keyboard, oh lord, why don’t we? We all know that people are the same wherever we go — There is good and bad in everyone — We learn to live — we learn to give each other what we need to survive — together alive.
I know what Stevie and Paul were aiming for…they wanted to put out a feel good song about harmony and love. But, I’m caught up on the third line of the verse, “We all know…that people are the same wherever we go.” I’m stuck on this lyric as I think about my own understanding of privilege and what it means in my life. I mean, Stevie and Paul are totally right. Where do I ever go that people aren’t the same? Wherever I go, people tend to look, act, sound, and pretty much even think the same way I do. I grew up in a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood, went to school with mostly white, middle-class kids, and went to college with mostly white, middle-class young adults. The word “diversity” was something outside of me. It had nothing to do with my experience…it centered on others. This is why privilege was invisible to me as a child and as a young adult. I could believe that I was getting by and achieving success on my own merit because there were relatively few times that I didn’t experience privilege.
As I work toward a deeper understanding of the ways power and privilege are at play in my life, I can’t help but notice that it’s literally everywhere. This new perspective has literally changed the way I view my surroundings. I’m starting to see elements of my own privilege…the way the guy working behind the counter at the deli talked to me before talking to the young Hispanic mother next to me. The way I must constantly be aware of the assumptions I’m making about interactions with people in every facet of my life. Investigating my own privilege is imperative because it impacts my effectiveness in doing equity work, something that I believe I am called to do. I cannot pretend to have an understanding. I cannot fool people into thinking that I “get it”. And it is all the more important for me, as a white woman who works for equity within schools, to engage in this reflection. At the same time, it’s not easy to understand something that, for so long, has been invisible to me. The way this happens is through conversation with people who aren’t like me. My life has changed as I’ve become an adult. People aren’t all the same wherever I go. And there is nothing that teaches me more about privilege than having honest conversations about experiences, beliefs, values, and life stories with people from all walks of life, particularly walks of life different from my own.
For me, these conversations sometimes happen naturally and other times are more “planned.” How do you go about engaging in these conversations? In what ways do you seek to deepen your understanding of the experiences of people who aren’t like you? In what ways do you engage in deep introspection on your own experiences? Understanding privilege means learning not only about people who are different from ourselves, but also becoming self-aware at a very deep level.