So, it took me a while to write this post because I questioned whether or not I really had a right to talk about something I’ve never experienced. You see, I have a mental illness and it really bugs me when others talk about the mentally ill by making assumptions or buying into stereotypes when they don’t have one themselves or any experience working with someone who does. But then I realized that all conversation about mental illness is worthwhile, as long as it opens people’s eyes and facilitates discussion pertaining to the issues we face.
In a like manner, I hope you don’t mind me talking about the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. I’m white and have never experienced prejudice or discrimination because of my skin color, but I still want to be a part of the conversation that can, at the very least, show support in some small way.
I know I have white privilege. Why is that so hard for other whites to admit? The word privilege means having an ‘advantage’ or ‘freedom’, something that’s easy for me to see based on my own experiences. Look, I know when I walk into a store I’m not going to be watched. I know when I get pulled over for speeding, I’m not going to be asked to step out of my car. I know when I go into a bank for a loan, I’ll be taken seriously. I know when I have something to say, I’ll be heard. I know if I want to find a white Barbie (Lord knows why I’d want one) or a book with white characters for a kid’s Christmas gift, it will be easy to do. I know if I screw something up, it won’t be blamed on my race. And, I know that my race will never hear the words “They are all like that.” I won’t be grouped into 1 box for ease…assuming everyone white is just like me. In other words, I’m allowed my individuality.
Further, I know I take this for granted. It’s all I’ve known during my life, and it’s not going to change. Of that I can be sure. Still, I’ve been teaching all of my professional life. I started as a teacher’s aid when I was still in college at an inner city school in my state’s capital. I did that for 2 years before student teaching (in another inner city school) and then having my own elementary classroom. I moved on to teaching men and women who were on parole and who had to get a GED in order to maintain it, and then I finally started teaching college 26 years ago. I’ve taught people from 15-70 in my classroom ever since. And yes, I’ve had scores of black students that have taught me more than I’ve probably ever taught them.
I’ll never forget one young, black lady who came up to me after our final exam, after I’d only been teaching college for a couple of years, who said this: “Thank you for treating me like everyone else this semester.” I looked at her and said: “Ok…but why wouldn’t I?” And she said this: “Usually, professors have treated me 1 of 2 ways: they either ignore me and assume I’m just here for the grant money which I’m not, since my parents are more than able to pay for school. Or, they’ll say things like ‘you are such a good writer!’, as if it’s a miracle a black woman can actually put together a coherent sentence.” It made me feel so bad that she is rarely treated ‘like everyone else’ and felt the need to be thankful when she was.
I had another young man whose last name is known in our community for the criminal behavior of his family. In his first essay for me, he expressed how difficult it was for him to be in college. It was obvious to him his profs had preconceived notions about his ability to do his work and some even asked if he was a member of ‘that’ family. But, his family also gave him a hard time. “So, you think you’re better than us, college boy?” On either side of him, he was being told he should never think that college is right for him. This was one of the first times I cried while reading an essay. Here’s this bright young man (who really had the ability to do very well in school) who felt doomed from the start. He didn’t think he’d ever get past the reputation of his last name, and without family support, he was lost. I looked for him the following semester and he had withdrawn from school. I tried to contact him a few times, but never heard back. As far as I know, he hasn’t stepped into another classroom again. How heartbreaking that is to me.
I remember going to church one morning and a black man was there to worship with my all white congregation. Everybody made such a fuss and ‘welcomed’ him profusely as a guest. In fact, it was embarrassing how people were fawning over him, and it was obvious he was very uncomfortable. Why can’t he just be a ‘regular’ guest in the sanctuary who isn’t being pointed out again and again? Don’t we all worship the same God? Doesn’t he hear us all the same? Aren’t all of our prayers just as important to him? Didn’t he make all of us in his image? Churches are not our homes. They are Christ’s homes…and because of that, anyone and everyone should be welcome. Period.
Then there are the people around me that tell me they are color blind. Okey dokey. Well, I’m not. I see color. Of course I do. How can you not see there’s a difference between black skin and white skin? To me, if you don’t ‘see’ the difference, you aren’t going to ‘see’ how you might be feeding into stereotypes. How you might be prejudice or acting in a discriminatory way without consciously acknowledging it. Blinders are not what we need. Full vision of who each one of us are, and the struggles inherent to that, are.
In my parenting class, we talk about how black parents have an extra task that white parents don’t: teaching their little gals and guys how to navigate the world of prejudice early on. Let’s be honest here: it starts very very young. I was shocked to read about the expulsion rate of young black boys from preschool: although they make up around 19% of students, they are 47% of total suspensions (Journal of African American Males). And this is in PRE-school where kids are sponges…soaking up all they see and hear. Doesn’t make for a very good beginning in academia, does it?
Then, Northwestern University found that the physiological response to racism in schools causes elevated stress in black youth with a psychological response where the student has to develop some sort of coping mechanism to deal with this. The effect? Concentration, motivation and learning are impaired by both unintended and overt racism.
When Jane Elliot started doing her ‘brown eye / blue eye’ experiment in her 3rd grade classrooms, her goal was to make sure her white students (in Riceville, Iowa) understood what prejudice and discrimination felt like in order to help them understand the issues of blacks during a time where there was so much social upheaval. She first performed the exercise in 1968 after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. and placed the children in one of 2 groups based on eye color. One day, the brown eyed group was on top and received much privilege and inclusion (she talked to her class about how brown eyes were smarter, more talented, etc.), and the next day, the blue eyed were on top (she said she had made a mistake the day before, and actually it was the blue eyes that were better). To easily show who was in the ‘bottom’ group on either day, the kids wore collars around their necks (much like the Jews wore stars during the Nazi regime). The results were horrific. Kids that had normally been great friends were (within an hour or so) bullying one another, ignoring each other, and a fist fight broke out between boys who had been buddies. If a ‘bottom’ kid complained about something, they would have their argument turned against them and their words weren’t taken seriously…you could see the anger and frustration in their faces when this happened. The ‘down’ kids were quiet, more inside of themselves, as if they didn’t want to draw attention to their new status. What really shocked me was when the brown eyed kids got to take off their collars the next day to give them to a blue eyed. You would think that having experienced something bad themselves, they would want to spare someone else that pain. But instead, they quickly GAVE that treatment away to someone else…a friend.
There was another intended consequence Ms. Elliot didn’t see coming: on the day a child was in the ‘out’ group, their academic performance dipped considerably, and when they were on top, their work excelled. When she talked to the children later about this, one boy said it was hard to concentrate on work when you’re being treated differently…because that’s all you think about. Wow.
And it’s horrible when you think about how many stereotypes still exist regarding blacks, even though we have more access to information than ever before in our history. For example – 39.8% of all actual welfare recipients are black, and 38.8% of welfare recipients are white (Department of Health and Human Services). This refutes a lot of current thought that blacks receive significantly more welfare benefits than whites. Another? A study published in Contemporary Educational Psychology found that “Black students experience more suspensions, expulsions, and disciplinary actions that white students, even for exactly the same behavior.” Finally, in a Report to the United Nations on Race Disparity in Criminal Justice in the U.S., it was reported that blacks are more likely than whites to be arrested for a crime, to be convicted, and to be given longer prison sentences. Period.
Then, 46 year old George Floyd was killed on May 25th. So many people don’t realize why the store clerk called 911: it was after Floyd used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy a pack of cigarettes with. OK. A counterfeit $20 bill (20 bucks), and it’s not known if Floyd was aware of this or not since other business owners have said that bad $20’s were being circulated around the area. The punishment for this is usually less than a year in prison and a $3000 fine. In fact, a white college professor, Mark McCoy (Southern Methodist University in Dallas) was arrested for the exact same thing and spent one night in jail and received 6 months probation for his crime. But George paid with his life. And people still say racism doesn’t exist.
I know people are fond of saying “All Lives Matter” and that’s true…all lives do matter. But the “Black Lives Matter” movement is so important to our society. There has to be recognition that although all lives matter in terms of intrinsic value, not all lives are treated equally in terms of race. And by looking at the Floyd case as one example, it’s easy to see that, in the eyes of so many, not all lives do matter. Period. Why is that so difficult to understand? Why is it so threatening to others? I write this blog to show how those of use who are mentally ill matter. Why is it wrong for the black population to shed a spotlight on why their lives matter when they live in a country that is telling them otherwise?
Look, I know this post isn’t going to change things…I may be mentally ill, but I’m not stupid. But I do know this: all of us have to rally together and correct this wrong in our society. How can it be that in 2020, we still judge people by their skin color? What happened to perceiving and treating people as individuals? To looking at what’s inside of them? Why can’t we look at a person’s character…intelligence…humor…personality? Why do people have to be grouped in the most negative way possible? Why in the hell is it so difficult to understand that skin color is not the entirety of a person? And most importantly, why aren’t all of us aware that “Black Lives Matter” isn’t a ‘black issue.’ Instead, it’s a people issue where all of us have to work together to ensure our children, our families, and our future generations will know from the start that everyone matters…no matter what.