I’m Lost: On Privilege, Identity and Teaching

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Continually with this world, I am at a loss. I think that’s an important quality that I can carry into the classroom because I think this temper of loss manifests itself in many ways. I am a person filled with both wonder and bewilderment. One I see as a stand of capacity and opportunity. The other I take as a feeling of confusion and a posture of exasperation.

In this day and age, people are always two things at once. At least two. And in this moment, in these trying days for my underserved community and at-risk students, I am white. And I am male. I am cognizant these distinctions help me access the world in ways others cannot. But I am also gentle and a poet. So I am vulnerable and sensitive. These help me access the world and those around me in ways that see through, or beyond, or into.

From eight years of teaching in northern New Mexico, I have a pretty strong idea of what my whiteness and maleness represents to my students: I am powerful, authoritarian, wealthy, worldly, and decidedly other. I was conscious of these facts from day one and I continue to grapple with them as to how I can better serve these young people.

Trust is a key to working together. And in light of those five descriptors associated with my skin-deep identity, I have had to work earnestly and tirelessly to earn that trust from my students and the larger Taos community. I have struggled to do so at times, as in when I have believed myself actions to come from the courage and vulnerability associated with being a teacher in the twenty-first century only to be stopped in my tracks by distrust or my ignorance.

My students, when they are most lost and struggling for their own answers, revert to seeing the world in that we/other binary that separates us. Of course, neither of us are conscious of this in the moment of our conflict or misunderstanding, but the mention of how I am treating them because of their brownness or my perceived authority always amps our emotional responses as we try to work through a challenge.

I also know that my students only do this when they are on the defensive. And after years of moving first with compassion or humor or understanding, I have established the level of trust that allows us to cut to the bone more quickly and efficiently. This way we can more effectively tackle the education system that so often marginalizes these young people with such heartbreaking efficiency. I am blessed to have this sort of working relationship with my students.

But as their life circumstances conspire against them (homelessness, divorce, illness or loss, addiction or depression, teen pregnancy or abandonment, and often a cruel cocktail of many factors), their perception of the world devolves into the simplest, but deepest, separation of us. Overtly or not, they’ll deflect the support into an attack because of their skin color because they don’t want to be accountable…to me. After the initial shock and spike, we’re able to find the common ground that supports us in our shared goal: the sparkling, if not beleaguered graduate.

I am lucky enough to have the patience to weather that storm of misunderstanding and see through that student’s shield. After all they are mostly protecting the wounds from past injustices. Whether they were inflicted against my students and whether or not they were carried out by me, those wounds are legitimate and often generational. This is a critical understanding I must carry into every workday in that my job is one of participating within and repairing a world that I had no part in creating. It is a razor-thin double-edge.

But also, I am also operating within a classroom, where safety and positivity and the belief in opportunity are fundamental to our work. I am not working a beat or street corner. I am lucky in that I have not had to push something illicit to make a living, and that I am not sworn to protect those streets. On both sides of that coin we find Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, two young men who found themselves in an extraordinary, but an increasingly common, moment where souls intersect and collide for all our world to see.

And here is where I am at a loss. As a teacher, how do I contribute to a world where this generation operates beyond the fear and explosiveness that define the deeper associations to the names Travyon and Zimmerman? Tamir. Fruitvale. Garner. I am talking about associations beyond the umbrella term of racism. I am talking about: Why was George Zimmerman so afraid that he was compelled to follow a young black boy through his neighborhood? Why do police officers solve their disputes with firearms in communities where the police and people are of different colors? I am not ready to assert the answers to the questions are solely based upon racism. But then, a counterpoint: How are fears racist?

How can I tackle these issues of identity and association head on? Our communities of color, my school, need answers. My students do not live in a world like Ferguson, but Ferguson reinforces what my insular community understands of how the world works. And I do not want my students fearful of entering a world that sees them as only Indian or simply Brown. I want them to emerge from high school ready to live anywhere and do anything. I want them to live their dreams. And now I wonder how naïve that is.

The access that I have to the world beyond where I grew up is an opportunity that everyone has, but it is a privilege that I can take advantage of that opportunity and enjoy living anywhere, even as a minority. I have been aware of this as I work as a teacher in my community. But never has it been so painful and obvious. I want to create a different world with my students because I am beyond expecting this one to change for them. We have to play the long game and trust each generation will be subsequently less and less lost.

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