Cynthia Mruczek 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.

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7 Responses to “Privilege and the Song Stuck In My Head by Cynthia Mruczek”

  1. Helen on 11/18/11 4:48 PM US/Eastern

    Deep personal observation. Your questions though provoke deep thought -how do we?

  2. Peter Wilson on 11/18/11 5:21 PM US/Eastern

    Thanks for your thoughtful and helpful self-reflection. I particularly liked the examples you gave of privilege playing itself out in your daily life. I was left wondering about two things that you mention but don’t eleborate on. One, how do you feel being aware of your privilege is essential to being effective in your equity work? Two, you start out my mentioning your new awareness about being privileged as a white woman and being marginalized as a lesbian. How does the later inform your equity work? Peter

  3. Jennifer Huber on 11/18/11 5:42 PM US/Eastern

    Thank you for opening yourself up and discussing a critical yet sometimes sensitive topic. I wonder, how understanding personal privilege has affected your work around equity in schools specifically. What is different for you because of this reflection? What do you do with it I guess is what I’m asking.

    Engaging in these conversations is stimulating I think, but, especially with deep seated family prejudice, I have found it difficult too. When I have enjoyed discourse with people whose life experiences have been different from my own, I have thoroughly enjoyed the way such talk opens my eyes and my mind to new ideas. It has been as if seeing something I’ve looked at forever as new for the first time! My best friend is from Kenya and when she and I were going through our doctoral program together, it was so interesting to watch and learn from the way she observed student teachers and schools for example. Doing our observations together helped me question practices and procedures that I previously had just taken as the norm; I learned from my friend to ask, “why do we do it that way? Is there another way that might be better?”

    I wish I knew more though about how to handle my own privilege and also how to not feel resentful or isolated by the experience of non-privilege in my life.

    Thanks again for a thought provoking blog!

  4. Janet Duncan on 11/18/11 8:00 PM US/Eastern

    Thank you Cynthia for your thoughtful comments today. It is such a pleasure to see how you have pursued your studies and life in general. I think we may have shared the same white, middle-class college experience. This lack of awareness about diversity, in all its glory and complexity is one of the main reasons why I decided to move on to another situation. Sometimes we just need to go and be with people who are more in tune with us. At the same time, we need to be open to the possibility that others may change their minds and sing with us. Good luck!

  5. Cynthia on 11/21/11 1:57 PM US/Eastern

    Thank you, Jeni, Peter, Helen, and Janet for your comments. Jeni, the question you asked, “What do you do with it,” is one I try to ask myself every day. I think that understanding my own privilege is a necessary step in my development as a white woman who works toward an equitable society and equitable schools. I don’t think I can effectively do this type of work without engaging in deep critical reflection of how my own experiences inform the way I look at the world. I don’t do this work to make myself feel better about my whiteness or the privilege associated with it. I do it because I believe in equity. Peter, your question about the ways my identity as a lesbian informs my equity work might be a whole new blog in and of itself! Briefly, I believe it helps me understand the ways oppression works… that inequity is the result of more than just individual biases. Inequity is also the result of institutional and systemic policies that are deeply connected to beliefs held by individuals. An example of this is the amendment to ban gay marriage here in Arizona. Another example is the English Only laws that impact the school experiences of kids across our state and country. Individuals who have biases against certain groups of people are obviously less powerful than the systemic and institutional discrimination present in our society. Janet, your comments remind me why I chose to pursue a PhD. I love coming to work and being challenged by my colleagues every day. They inspire me with their dedication and willingness to share their own perspectives on this important work.

  6. Lorraine Smith-Collins on 11/23/11 12:22 PM US/Eastern

    Hi Folks,
    Wow!I am pleased that folks are blogging about privilege, but it blows my mind that in 2011 we are still trying to get our heads around this concept and all that it holds or does not hold.
    When I was participating in my Masters in Education, so long ago, I had an ‘Ahaa’monent:
    went something like this. My view of ‘different’ has always been a positive one. To be different, to have different thoughts, experiences was a good thing. It allowed for uniqueness and offered fresh, insightful ideas. I went all through school with this positive notion of ‘different’ only to come to the understanding that many dominant culture folks saw ‘different’ (with regard to people) as ‘not the same but actually less than, certainly not equal!
    So many events that I could not figure out in my life, I now understood more clearly. WOW! That was my eyes being opened to ‘privilege’. Different is not ‘less than or a negative’ but if difference is truly, genuinely embraced, it becomes ‘greater than the individual parts’, a positive. Multiple voices, is always more interesting…or so I have always found…you see, I have been privileged to be born a member of the Mi’kmaq First Nation, in Canada. My families history is one of Residential Schools..but that’s another story.

    To increase your knowledge and move along the cultural proficiency continuum, I would suggest reading some of the works of Randall Lindsey, Culturally Proficient Inquiry or Culturally Proficient Leadership.

    Happy reading.

  7. Stan Weser on 2/15/12 10:59 PM US/Eastern

    “You don’t think about privilege when you have it, only when you don’t. ”
    I found this statement very powerful! I have found myself marginalized due to my “non-mainstream” beliefs and history; but, upon reflection, probably less so because of my race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

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