Highlights from the National White Privilege Conference in Madison
April 1, 2014
by Nick Novak
MacIver Institute Director of Communications
Our first account comes from the breakout session titled Stories from the front lines of education: Confessions of a white, high school English teacher.
The session was facilitated by Kim Radersma, a former high school English teacher in California and Colorado. Radersma is currently working toward her Ph. D. in critical whiteness studies at Brock University in Ontario, Canada.
Radersma argued that teachers must fight against the oppressive structure in education and society. She said anyone who is going into teaching and education must be a political figure.
“Teaching is a political act, and you can’t choose to be neutral. You are either a pawn used to perpetuate a system of oppression or you are fighting against it,” Radersma said during the session. “And if you think you are neutral, you are a pawn.”
She said educators need to challenge the system, otherwise they are giving in to white supremacy. Radersma also argued the first step is realizing that all white people are carrying the signs of oppression.
“Being a white person who does anti-racist work is like being an alcoholic. I will never be recovered by my alcoholism, to use the metaphor,” Radersma said. “I have to everyday wake up and acknowledge that I am so deeply imbedded with racist thoughts and notions and actions in my body that I have to choose everyday to do anti-racist work and think in an anti-racist way.”
She argued that until white people admit they have a problem, they will not be able to fight against white privilege.
“We’ve been raised to be good. ‘I’m a good white person,’ and yet to realize I carry within me these dark, horrible thoughts and perceptions is hard to admit. And yet like the alcoholic, what’s the first step? Admitting you have a problem,” she told the session attendees.
Multiple educators attended the breakout session of about 50 people and seemed very interested in how to bring the ideals of social justice and white privilege into the classroom. One attendee, a teacher and the diversity director at his school, spoke about the activities he is implementing and said it is important for teachers and administrators to discuss social justice with their students. Radersma echoed his sentiment.
“If you don’t want to work for equity, get the fuck out of education,” Radersma said. “If you are not serious about being an agent of change that helps stifle the oppressive systems, go find another job. Because you are a political figure.”
During the session, Radersma also discussed the problem of growing achievement gaps between white students and students of color in schools across America. She told a story about her time as a teacher in Denver, Colorado.
Radersma said she taught a lower-level English class at the high school and her students were exclusively people of color. However, she said the Advanced Placement course in her school was almost all white and Asian students. Her principal observed class one day and commented on the difference in students between the two courses.
That experience, and the fact that her boss did not know how to tackle the problem, led her to leave the classroom and work toward her Ph. D. Radersma told the group she realized the problem was the institutionalized racist structure of education and her white privilege was causing the racial achievement gap.
“I came to higher ed to study. What is this problem that I’m scared of? I don’t know what to do. My principal is scared of this. Where do I point? Who’s at fault? My white body is at fault,” she said. “My racial identity, as a white person who believes that I am somehow better or more deserving, is the problem. The white supremacy, the structure is the problem.”
Since discovering her white privilege was the problem leading to the achievement gap, she said that she is now working to get more minorities into the education profession. Radersma told the group she thinks that students of color cannot learn as well from white teachers.
“My partner, who is a man, can’t tell you about feminism. He knows a lot about it. He considers himself a feminist, but you want to learn feminism from him? No,” she commented during the session. “You need to learn feminism from a woman. You need to learn what it is like to be a woman from a woman. He can’t teach that. I can’t teach students of color nearly as well as a person of color can.”
Another topic of discussion was how white people’s actions, like donating to charity or helping a family in need, are inherently racist. A white attendee of the conference told a story about how her family donated school supplies to one of her classmates when she was in first grade because the family could not afford them.
The receiving family had moved from India, according to the attendee. While she was happy to be helping when it happen years ago, she was now questioning her family’s motives.
“It was like ‘well why don’t you swoop in and save the day and give her all this stuff because we can afford to do that for them’ kind of mentality,” she said in the session.
Radersma agreed and said the family that was helped likely felt discriminated against.
“It’s that savior mentality, like ‘save them, because they are not like us,’ and that normalization of whiteness. Whiteness is best and those poor others aren’t as good as us,” she said. “So, we need to think of them and give them our sympathy and our charity and our generosity, which is so demeaning to the people on the receiving end. It’s so demoralizing and disempowering to be receiving it.”
Before ending the 90-minute breakout session, Radersma encouraged current and future teachers to use an organization called Facing History and Ourselves as a resource. She said it is a non-profit that offers curricula on the topics discussed for middle and high school students.
The White Privilege Conference aims to provide “a challenging, collaborative and comprehensive experience,” and “empower and equip individuals to work for equity and justice through self and social transformation,” according to its website.
It hosted more than 100 breakout sessions including: Stories from the frontlines of education: Confessions of a white, high school English teacher (discussed above); Against the Tea Party Movement; If You Build It, They Will Come: Developing a Pre K-12 Curricular Scope and Sequence for Whiteness and Anti-Racisim; and others which can be seen here.
The conference was paid for in part with taxpayer dollars. According to the Wisconsin Reporter, the conference received at least $38,000 from hotel room tax revenue, University of Wisconsin schools, and the City of Madison.
In addition to taxpayer and private funding, individuals had to pay upwards of $440 to attend the four-day conference.
Continue to check MacIverInstitute.com for updates as we highlight more breakout sessions from the White Privilege Conference.
Check out Part Two of our coverage of the White Privilege Conference: “The Longer You are in the Tea Party, the More Racist You Become.”