I took a poetry class during my last year of undergraduate school and as part of our weekly assignments, we examined different stylistic aspects of speeches, articles and poems and then wrote original pieces employing those same stylistic devices. As an introduction to my reflection, I thought I would share my piece modeled after Barack Obama’s Keynote Address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention:
–I am the daughter of a white real estate agent from Massachusetts and a white stay-at-home mom from Washington State. I grew up with the love of a white grandfather who flew bombers in the US Airforce to ensure my freedom and a white grandmother who raised my father and uncle while papa was overseas. I attended both private elementary school and private university and lived in an affluent suburb. I was offered multiples jobs after graduation despite a lack of experience—a supposed testament to my commitment to hard work.
I have a brother, sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins of Caucasian race and upper-middle class, scattered across the country, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that ours is not the only Country in which my skin color has significantly aided in making my story possible–
I belong to a homogenously white, traditional, middle-class American family. I have a pretty large extended family as well, and for most of my life, all of us: aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and great grandparents have lived within 10ish minutes of each other. I do not celebrate much of my cultural heritage other than making lefse (Norwegian potato bread) with my family every Christmas. I am predominantly Norwegian and Swedish with a milky mixture of English, German, Scottish and Irish… so it takes me quite awhile to build a base tan. One of my best friends from college is Jamaican and I distinctly remember the first time I realized she didn’t have to buy sunscreen because her skin just never burned. And as an aside, I will say that I envied her skin; during the summertime, the goal of me and many of my friends was to add color to our pale skin. As a senior at SPU, one of my dearest friends was Vietnamese and she hated having a tan; she felt lighter skin was more beautiful. Personal and cultural definitions of beauty are a fascinating aspect of diversity.
I attended a predominantly Caucasian private elementary school and probably was unaware that I belonged to the majority until I transferred to public junior high and high school and was lost in a sea of faces that no longer looked like mine. It was a beautifully uncomfortable new reality. Then as a freshman at SPU, I was one of four tutors hired for a new program Professor Greg Fritzberg was putting together. I tutored for three years in two different low-income middle schools where as a white female, I was in the minority. More than 80 countries represented in what they called their “global village.” I had never been in a school with such a diverse body of students. I fell in love with the atmosphere and really enjoyed my mentoring role as a tutor.
I became particularly close with one student in particular. As a sixth grader, she had been in a gang for years, and she felt trapped. Her mother worked all the time to support her and her sister and the grandfather who was supposed to care for them in the meantime abused them. She had experience with drugs and carried worries and fears not meant for a child’s shoulders. I came face to face with my own privilege and although she really valued our time together, I struggled to help her understand the value of her schooling. The latest math concept didn’t seem important when she didn’t feel safe at home and her basic needs were far from met.
As a future educator, this experience was invaluable in opening my eyes to the ways in which diverse experiences shape our perspective on education. I know it is hardly a revolutionary thought, but growing up, I never encountered someone with such a contrasted childhood. It was overwhelming to decipher what my role was and how to navigate the issues this young girl was facing with sensitivity. As an upper-middle class white woman of privilege, I worry about being relevant and attentive to the needs of my future students. I want to be intuitive to the personal needs of my students without being presumptuous. My hope is to create a classroom of reciprocal respect, where my students feel like they are part of a larger family, comfortable enough to be unabashedly themselves. I know the struggles of my students will way heavily on my heart whether those are issues in the classroom or at home and I worry I will not be able to be enough for them.