Category: Race & Privilege

It was a privilege to live in Seattle. It is privilege to leave.

Our family is moving.

In two weeks, we will pack our car and drive east on I-90.  Our destination is Philadelphia, where Patrick will start a new job this summer in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Our cross-country trip will take us on a very similar route to the one I followed—albeit in the opposite direction—in 1993 when I moved to Seattle.  Patrick also moved here that year after attending graduate school in California.  We have lived here for twenty-seven years.  A lifetime. 

A couple of weeks ago, Patrick and I headed out after dinner to drive around downtown Seattle.  We wanted to see the city in its current state, a warren of boarded stores and restaurants, shuttered against the virus. 

To move cross-country in the middle of a global pandemic, after suffering from the virus, requires not a little bit of tenacity and perhaps a fair dose of stupidity.  But it also includes a huge amount of privilege. 

We drove down Pike, heading into the retail core peopled with one lone masked couple walking a dog and peeking into store windows stripped of fashion. Heading south on 5th Avenue, we passed dark hotels and cafes. The 5th Avenue theatre proudly advertised the musical Sister Act, a show that at the last minute had been cancelled. On 4th Ave, homeless people wrapped in sleeping bags occupied doorways on every block. The blocks surrounding Pike Place market felt to us like a ghost town.

I said to Patrick that it reminded me of a Seattle out of a dream.  If you looked past the empty store windows and ignored the new glass skyscrapers, it had the whiff of the city in 1993. You could almost hear the Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

A few days after our drive, we watched on television as protestors lined those same streets following the murder of George Floyd by a member of the Minneapolis police.   An afternoon of peaceful protests transformed into a nighttime of violence.  Police cars were burned at an intersection we passed. Store windows we had seen boarded up had been stripped of plywood and smashed.  Police used tear gas and flash bangs to chase protesters through block after block, hour after hour.  Gone was a bucolic sleepy grunge-era Seattle, and in its place was the city of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests. It was Seattle of a nightmare, not a dream. 

To move cross-country in the middle of a global pandemic, after suffering from the virus, requires not a little bit of tenacity and perhaps a fair dose of stupidity.  But it also includes a huge amount of privilege.  As white men, Patrick and I walk through the world with a great deal of it. That privilege has propelled us through life with economic stability, access to safe neighborhoods and good schools, trust that those who are supposed to keep us safe will see our whiteness first. 

We sold our house in one week in a neighborhood that has changed significantly in the last five years we have lived here.  We made a good deal of money on the sale.  We got tested for Covid-19 almost immediately after exhibiting symptoms, able to rely on excellent health care provided by our employers. 

It was also our privilege that allowed us to watch those early protests and wonder about the motives of the looters, willing to believe the narrative that they were from out of town. After all, who in Seattle would want to destroy their own city?  

But we can easily turn away.  Choose to focus on hotel reservations for our trip.  Concern ourselves with packing. Move through our world with privilege that is baked into our bones, that shines through the color of our skin. 

We have the ability to walk away.  To turn a blind eye.  To see what we want to see. The world works for us because of our privilege.  We try our best to be aware of it, to interrogate it, to make changes.  We work as educators to disrupt the system of institutionalized racism that leave black and brown students disproportionately under served, by design.

But we can easily turn away.  Choose to focus on hotel reservations for our trip.  Concern ourselves with packing. Move through our world with privilege that is baked into our bones, that shines through the color of our skin.  It is, at this moment, an uncomfortable garment.  And that’s okay.  More white people need to feel uncomfortable.

About a year ago, Patrick and I were driving home through downtown, another trip through Seattle’s crowded, glimmering, city.  It was late at night and Seattle Mariners fans were pouring out of the stadium after a baseball game.  Police had blocked off several roads around the stadium to aid traffic flow.  Our direct path was blocked.  We would need to detour.

It was an inconvenience.  Patrick rolled the window down and yelled his frustration at the police.  He shook his fist.  How dare we be so inconvenienced. 

After telling the story to some friends, our friend, who is black, stared at us, mouth agape, and shook his head in disbelief.  “You did what?”

That is privilege. 

We don’t have to worry when we walk into a store that we will be followed and suspected of stealing.  It is assumed that we are law-abiding citizens.

If we go for a run or a bike ride or a walk in the park, we don’t have to worry that someone will be threatened by our mere presence and call the cops.

One of our children, who is also white, was treated fairly and appropriately when he acted out during school and was not too severely punished because of the color of his skin. 

When we watch television shows and movies, we see characters who look like us and share many of the experiences we have as white people. 

We don’t have to pay the accumulated tax of systemic racism that compounds over time, building on itself in horrible dividends of challenge, frustration and anger.

We have walked through this world with the unearned advantage of a privilege that comes by virtue of the color of our skin.  The insidious nature of that advantage propelled us for years to be unaware of the vastness of the benefits as well as the ability to retreat to its comfort when addressing it got too uncomfortable and difficult.  Levers of power functioned very effectively to support the continuation of our privilege. 

We don’t have to pay the accumulated tax of systemic racism that compounds over time, building on itself in horrible dividends of challenge, frustration and anger.

At this moment, our work to change the way we educate our students does not seem enough. The protests do not seem to be enough. It is not enough.  The way things are—and the way we move in our world—is not okay. 

What is enough? What is a place to start? Recognize the anger, sadness and fear.  Listen.  Recognize our privilege.  Listen some more.  Do work to educate ourselves.  Challenge and interrogate the privilege.  Move forward with empathy.

It’s what we are trying to do right now.  It’s not enough.  But it’s a start. 

We will pack our car and drive away in two weeks’ time.  We will drive through an America torn apart by a system of institutionalized racism that daily confers privilege on some and denies it to others. It is also a country that is still reeling from the impact of a deadly and unprecedented pandemic, a health crisis that has disproportionally impacted communities of color and is potentially only going to get worse in the wake of the crowded protests that are attempting to change the systems of power that exacerbate that devastation. 

Our privilege allows us to look through the windows of the car and maintain a safe distance from that which may be too uncomfortable, too threatening, too bleak.  But it will be there.  And we will force ourselves to not turn away. 

We will drive to a city where we will continue to work to challenge the systems of power that benefited us when we were students and continue to benefit those who look like us.  We will listen, reflect, and do more.  We will do better.  Our conscience requires that we do better.  Our humanity demands it. 


The Frightened Tennis Shoes of Black Kids

Dear Mom,

You were here in Seattle when the grand jury decided not to press charges against Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown. Isabella mentioned that you two saw protestors when you were downtown. What was that like? By the time the grand jury made it’s decision in the Eric Garner case you had gone back home.   We have had more protests here, and heard from friends who attended a youth-led protest this past weekend. Have there been any protests in Buffalo?

I read an interesting article in the Seattle Times last Saturday that struck a chord. In it, police officers were quoted as saying “Everyone is just demonizing the police” and went on to say that many “feel demoralized, misunderstood and ‘all alone.’ “ While politicians, protestors, and even the President are calling loudly for change, according to Patrick Lynch, president of the NYPD police union, officers “feel like they are being thrown under the bus.”

black lives matter

I get the protests. I empathize with the need to get out and vent your frustration. I think some of it will in fact do some good. But how much time and energy can we spend trying to convince one another that racism exists? It does. Of course it does. Anyone who suggests that police departments are not filled with policemen and women who sometimes act out of racist beliefs is just talking from a position of privilege and power.

While I understand the need to protest, I also understand the defensiveness coming from the police officers quoted in that article I read. As a public school teacher, I can empathize with other public servants who feel the weight of having to correct right now the collective injustice of a privileged society that we live. I think that we have both felt the weight of being blamed for the incredible harm perpetuated by a small percentage of the bad apples in our profession.

We have talked at length about the achievement gap that exists in our national public schools system around race. (There are also huge disparities that exist in public schools for those who identify or are even suspected of being LGBT, or for those who are poor, and for those who need special education services—but those are conversations for a different day.)

Teachers are consistently blamed for not doing enough to address this gap. We are told—by building and district administrators, by college researchers and academics, by pundits and politicians—that we are not doing enough, or not doing the right things, or just not doing anything, to address the inequalities in our system. And they are all right. We are not doing enough. We need to keep trying. We need to figure out a way (as our district says) to work smarter and change our practices and evolve our perspective.

But where is the time? Where are the resources? How can we really be expected to effect meaningful, lasting change when we are only a part of the problem? Patrick reminds me—and again, he’s right (there, I said it baby)—that doesn’t allow me, allow any of us teachers to sit back and say “it’s not all my problem so it’s not my problem at all.”

There are teachers out there—I am fortunate to work with so many of them in my district—who care deeply about social justice, who spend time considering their own internal racist attitudes, and who struggle each and every day to combat the achievement gap. Sadly, it’s just not enough yet. We still are not making enough change. But we do try.

It’s hard to believe that after all we have seen in the past few weeks, months, years and decades that there are police out there who are also trying, but I am sure they are there. Of course their mistakes and shortcomings can lead to much more dire consequences in many ways than mine or my colleagues. If I fail, or the education system fails, the consequences are not as immediately drastic. For police, as we have seen, the consequences can be deadly.

constance rice

Constance Rice, a civil rights attorney who has worked extensively with the Los Angeles Police Department on how they treat minority populations, offered her perspective on NPR’s Morning Edition last week. She spoke about how the overwhelming response she heard when she interviewed over 900 cops over 18 months was that they were scared of black men. According to Rice, “when cops are scared, they kill and they do things that don’t make sense to you and me.”

Fear isn’t a justification or an excuse, but Rice believes that the simple admission of those she interviewed hints at a starting point:

“So what I’m saying is that for people who have to be in the business of solving this dilemma you have to be able to step into the frightened tennis shoes of black kids; black male kids in particular. You have to be able to step into the combat boots and scared cops, and racist cops, and cruel cops, and good cops. You have to be able to distinguish between all of those human experiences and bring them together. On a single platform of we’re going to solve this by empathizing. We’re going to solve it with compassion and we’re going to solve it with common sense.”

Listening and seeking to understand seems like a possible way forward. We need to find a way to stop yelling at one another, and move beyond protests, beyond the 24-hour news cycle, and beyond the blame and helplessness. It sounds like a tough path, and not especially quick. But it just may make some change.

Love, Christopher