Be mindful of your privilege

Bias shapes our environment. It influences how we deal with different situations, how we teach our class and our ability to empathize with students, staff and parents alike. Our experiences shape who we are, for good or bad, and create a framework for us to view the world around us. Being cognizant of your bias, and your privilege, is key to making you a better educator and human being.

I am the child of privilege. At first glance, I am a fair skinned, blue-eyed Canadian born woman who can afford her own car and home. I live in a major cosmopolitan city, speak both English and French fluently, am married to a man and was raised Christian. As a child, I was even a blonde-haired!

Of course, there is more. I was born in a little southern Ontario town in the middle of farm country. I also lived up north in Owen Sound and North Bay, spent my summers in South Porcupine and settled in the Toronto area where I attended two well-known universities to get my degrees. I am now raising two amazing kids with my patient husband in the GTA and have access to the best medical and dental help my OHIP and insurance can cover. Wow am I lucky. On top of all of this, I am the child of both European and Caribbean immigrant parents. That’s right: Caribbean. I can locate some black and aboriginal ancestors in my family tree. I have played “Mass” in Port-of-Spain, I can tell the difference between different rums, I understand a fair amount of patois have a family member that is literally every colour of our glorious rainbow. Oh and did I mention my married name is Tang (as in the dynasty)?

Like everyone else, this is the “Coles Notes” version of my story. There is so much more to tell, but to an outside observer, I am sitting near the top of the food chain. There is very little that I cannot access. My experiences alone enable me to connect with various groups and take on the mantle of different cultures in our larger society. I can see glimpses into life as a member of a racialized group but I can also choose to take on a different story if I am uncomfortable with the narrative.

“When I am confused and frustrated by apparent student roadblocks, I take the time to do my mindful minute and take three deep breaths. It doesn’t solve all the problems but, it often works to help me see a different perspective.” – Brenda Tang

How can I then dare to understand the story of a single black mother with three children? How can I relate to her working three jobs to make ends meet (when it rarely does) and using the television or computer to babysit while she runs out and to catch up on groceries? Who am I to tell a family that they need to get their children to bed before 11 pm, when I don’t understand that dad works shift and never sees his kids until he gets home at 10:30 pm. Can I truly think it is appropriate to lecture a Muslim family about the need to have their children eat properly at lunch during Ramadan?  I can’t. – but I have.

These students come to us to learn and we often know nothing about them. We assume they come from similar beliefs and privileges as our own and, unfortunately, that is often farthest from the truth. Maslow before Bloom’s, as the saying goes, is barely scratching the surface.

Think now about your own upbringing. What cards do you bring to the table? What experiences, genes, traditions and privileges influence your teaching? What do your students see when they look at you at the front of the class? What do their parents see? Do they recognize themselves in you and in their learning or do they see only the same privilege and division between those who have and those who have not. How can you change the narrative?

I tell you all this in the hopes that it will make you aware of how lucky we really are. I want you to recognize how much privilege you have coming into the classroom and the advantages you take for granted from the very beginning. I ask you to be cognizant of your actions and to try at every turn to learn from your charges, their parents and your school community. I implore you to look past what you have experienced and to learn the differences that make each human being unique. Learn from your mistakes. Please take the time to be mindful in your practice and to teach that mindfulness to your charges. Educate others to embrace difference, to be tolerant and empathetic and to never read a book by it’s cover.

Mindful Minute:

“I must learn to walk in their shoes; I must listen to their stories, hear their voices and opinions and constantly strive to learn about the world around me. I cannot be complacent and teach in a single comfortable style. I MUST evolve. I must become uncomfortable. I must listen, see and hear. I must be mindful of the privilege I bring with me.”

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