• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


White Privilege in Black History Month

Rethinking discussion topics.


March 1, 2017

This is the time of year that black heroes become a bit more visible. For example, the television network Nickelodeon is working with the initiative Because of Them, We Can to broadcast a series of PSAs designed to feature children emulating African-American heroes. Other networks air documentaries that are not as visible during other months of the year. Companies and organizations, from the Girl Scouts to Coca Cola, use this time to tout their inclusivity. And, in schools throughout the nation, children engage in projects designed to expose them to African-American heroes. 

As a white woman raising children whom I want to be able to respect and appreciate all people, I have always relished this additional programming, even the advertising, as an opportunity for them to learn more about the achievements of people of color. This year, however, I’m starting to feel that there is a giant elephant in the room. Maybe it’s the recent election and what I see as Trump’s assault on anyone outside his zone of privilege. It may be the movement of Black Lives Matter, which is striving to motivate discussion about race and privilege as a part of our everyday language. It could even be the way those associated with the best picture Moonlight, even if by accident, were muted yet again.

This year, when my daughter was assigned a project writing about Serena Williams, I couldn’t help but realize that, while my child was learning all about her accomplishments, the project did not help to bring her closer to understanding white privilege. This seems to me just as important for her and her classmates, who are in a school that is predominantly white, to understand.

I acknowledge that my own privilege as a white, middle-class woman and professor, which allows me to have the choice to teach my child about privilege, is a privilege in and of itself. Still, I have seen how little the books and articles written for children, and even the assignment itself, are not focused to teach my daughter about institutional racism. It was only through additional research of articles written for adults, such as this New York Times Magazine article, that we were able to find out about the incident at Indian Wells, where racial epithets were shouted at Williams after she won a tournament, and about her father’s writing about how he hired kids to surround Serena and her sister Venus and shout curses at them to prepare them for the racial insults they would hear during competition. We also discussed how people have described her body as “masculine.” It was harder to try to tackle the more hidden aspects of racism, like the way she might have been ignored by sponsors. It’s difficult to discuss with children that which isn’t even acknowledged by adults.

This exercise has made me re-think how I might add in more discussion of privilege all year long for my own children and in my classes. I’m finding that many topics can be re-thought through this perspective. In what ways do you work to make the invisible visible to your own children and the students you teach?


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