Controversial teacher conference focuses on ‘white privilege,’ crushing student resistance to radical ideas

May 1, 2013

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Ashleigh Costello Ashleigh Costello

Ashleigh is a research specialist for EAG and joined in 2012.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – More than 200 Wisconsin teachers and school administrators traveled to Green Bay last week to attend CREATE Wisconsin’s 2013 state conference.

whiteprivelagelessonEAGnews decided to join them, to get a first-hand look at what the program, sponsored by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, is all about.

State officials contend the CREATE program is nothing more than an effort to help teachers better understand and serve minority students. But as EAGnews previously reported, CREATE appears to have a much more broad and progressive agenda than simply working to close the achievement gap between students of color and their white counterparts.

Many of the presentations focused on how public schools supposedly promote “white culture” and “white privilege,” to the detriment to students of color. Presenters called on educators to recognize and acknowledge their white privilege and encourage their students to do the same. Only then, presenters argue, can all students truly receive a multicultural education.

The conference also focused on teaching race-based topics in the classroom and how to respond to student resistance when talking about white privilege. The goal seems to be to crush dissent, convince  white kids that they need to feel guilty about themselves and the society they grew up in, and convince minority kids that current American social structures are hopelessly stacked against them.

Who will ultimately benefit from such a divisive and negative approach? We wonder if anyone will at all.

Teaching ‘white privilege’ to children

In a workshop titled “Establishing Critical Thinking and Multicultural Education in Rural Wisconsin Schools,” Dr. Marguerite Parks discussed the importance of multicultural education and how to create culturally responsive classrooms.

Of course the concept of “white privilege” was near the center of the discussion.

Parks, an associate dean for the College of Education and Human Services at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, said educators are often ignorant of their own “white privilege” or do not know how to broach the subject in class.

“What we often discover is that teachers don’t have the resources or don’t know what books to use,” she said.

To deal with that perceived problem, Parks included a list of “authentic multicultural books” for elementary school-aged children.

One of the recommended books is “The Jacket” by Andrew Clements.

The story centers around a young white boy named Phil. After wrongly accusing an African-American boy of stealing his brother’s jacket, Phil must confront the truth about his privilege and what it means.

It turns out, unbeknownst to Phil, his mother gave the jacket to the African-American grandmother. Phil later learns that was the case.

Phil asks his mother why she never told him he was prejudiced. His mother, clearly confused by the question, asks Phil if someone accused him of being prejudiced, at which point the boy responds:

“No, but it’s true. I know what it means because we learned about it on Martin Luther King Day. It means you don’t like black people.”

What exactly is the point here? Would Phil have reacted the same way if the boy wearing the jacket had been white?

Does being suspicious of a black person, or even mistakenly accusing that person, make one a racist?

Parks praised the book as a way to have an honest discussion about “white privilege” in the classroom.

“I start with this book because first [students] have to understand who they are as whiteness and the white privilege issue before they can move into multicultural literature,” Parks said.

Another book recommended by Parks is “My Name is Maria Isabel” by Alma Flor Ada.

The fictional book recounts the story of a young girl, Maria, who moves to a new school. On her first day the teacher suggests Maria be called Mary to avoid confusion with the two other Maria’s already in the class.

“I had a second grade teacher who read this book, she was doing this multicultural stuff, and she’d been teaching for 32 years or something and her comment was, ‘All I can think of is how many kids I’ve hurt over the years by saying their name wrong or by changing their name so that I could say it.’ So when you talk about issues of privilege, this is a wonderful book,” Parks said.

Aren’t we promoting oversensitivity a bit here? There are a lot of things in this world every person of every race could be offended by. Life is a lot easier when we learn to avoid emotional devastation over every little slight.

Dismantling student resistance

Another conference session labeled “Power, Positionality and Identity in the Culturally Responsive Classroom: White Privilege and Dismantling Student Resistance,” addressed challenges that may arise when teaching white privilege to upper level students.

A description reads, “This session centers on teaching dynamics that stand in the way of student learning and create resistance especially when the teacher’s position places them at odds with their students. Issues to be dealt with include examining those painful contradictions that arise while teaching White Privilege.”

Dr. Bola Delano-Oriaran, one of the presenters along with Parks, expressed her frustration at student resistance.

“I’m not trying to confront my students, but day in, day out, I keep getting that resistance,” Delano-Oriaran said. “I don’t even know how to describe it. You know the pain that goes through my mind as I keep talking about it, about this resistance, because for me the intent is not for my students to get annoyed with me.

“I would like to move my students beyond guilt and anger. And what I’m trying to get them to understand is we have to walk together. Now we wouldn’t have all these issues we’re having right now in present day society if we talked about it.”

Parks also discussed her experience with student resistance.

“Rather than hitting them in the face – because I was verbally hitting them in the face, you’ve got white privilege, you’re middle class, you’re white – I [realized] I need to back off,” Parks said. “So that to me was an ‘ah-ha’ moment. I’ve got to change my tactics. Not, not do it, because I still do it, I still hit them in the face quite a lot… But there is a better way of which to do it than just blame them, because that’s what I was doing. [I was] blaming them for the fact that they grew up in a small white town…”

Neither presenter acknowledged that students might have some valid criticism of the “white privilege” concept. Instead, they believe resistance is due to student ignorance, and that ignorance must be crushed.

There is an ironic humor involved in this sort of radical teaching. According to Parks, “multicultural education is about critical thinking.” Yet, both women only allow their students to engage in “critical thinking” when they are in agreement with the lesson at hand.

Establishing a revisionist history

Presenters at the conference also took issue with how American history is taught.

They claim students learn American history from a “Eurocentric” (or white) point of view, minimizing the role of people of color. Moreover, they believe teaching the idea of America being “exceptional” stems from institutionalized privilege.

They recommend books like “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong” by James Loewen and “A People’s History” by Howard Zinn. Neither author is very fond of the United States, and they want students to share their dim view.

“I very early on give my students an American history test that I took from the book ‘Lies My Teacher Told Me’… because I want them to have a background understanding of how much their education has left out,” said Parks.

Example test questions from the book, according to Parks, include:

“What freedom was the Alamo fought for? How many times has the United States tried to kill Fidel Castro? What U.S. President since the Civil War segregated the White House? How many Europeans did the Black Plague kill? How many Native Americans died of disease in the Northeast following the European settlement?”

What is the point of such “lessons” other than to inspire guilt and anger? And how do such lesson plans help to close the achievement gap?

Wouldn’t the time and money spent on the CREATE conference be better used hiring individual tutors and additional instructional aides for struggling children, regardless of their race? Wouldn’t afterschool programs focusing on reading, math, and science do more to close the achievement gap?

But maybe the achievement gap is a secondary concern for CREATE Wisconsin organizers.  Perhaps the real goal is to undermine the American narrative.

Wisconsin parents would be wise to monitor the “lessons” their children are receiving at school, particularly if they have concerns about kids being doused in the philosophy of “white privilege,” or being taught that America is a racist nation with a corrupt and shameful history.

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