“How does it feel to be white?”

In the past few months several leading math organizations (NCTM, NCSM, CMC) have released joint statements talking about the conversations of Math Equity.

From the NCTM paper, one quote stuck out at me regarding teacher education perspectives:

Providing all students with access is not enough; educators must have the knowledge, skills, and disposition necessary to support effective, equitable mathematics teaching and learning.
In other words, while I suppose you could have students read Flatland and then connect that to social injustice etc, that’s not the point here. In December Dan Meyer wrote about the problem of the proliferation of tall good looking white guys at education (of which I don’t think I fit into two of those descriptors, but close enough).

In college a friend of my roommates came into our dorm and casually asked, “How does it feel to be white?” when he saw my computer set up (nice looking case, big monitor), and I didn’t quite know how to react. I was taken aback –  I tried to justify his comment in my head – if I’d bought it new I can see that – but I hadn’t. I’d worked extra money, made a bags of skittles last a week just to save the extra buck and things like that for years. It took me a while to fully understand what he meant. After all, I’d worked really hard to buy that computer more than just financially – but hours learning about Linux, about hardware and how to best optimize things.

I cared for my computer almost much and probably more than my car. My parents told me in 8th grade that if I saved up at least $1,000 for a computer, they would match it. They thought this would take a few years as my allowance at the time was I think $20 a month for snacks and small trips – I had $130 in ‘savings’ at the time I remember. That summer and all throughout my freshman year I took extra small jobs whenever I could, even taking over my brothers chores to double the amount of income I could make. So by my sophomore year I had the money and carefully went about choosing what I wanted. I settled on an AMD-based Gateway system with all the trimmings. This computer would last me about 6 years through upgrading everything except for the case. I added a 17″ flatscreen monitor my sophomore year of college which was about $250 but looked more expensive.

What I eventually realized about his comment was that it wasn’t the amount of money having a nice computer took, it was the priorities in my life that let me spend money on that. It was the fact that because my parents were able to provide for my basic needs so something like a computer – which at the time wasn’t really needed for any job and something as nice as that wasn’t needed for school per se. It was that I’d chosen to spend that money knowing that I’d be able to get more money later. And when I was in middle school tinkering with spare parts and putting them together, having a dad that could help explain or point me to the right places, and even drive me to another city to get the needed parts (yes, this was in the days before amazon and ebay).

As a math teacher who taught predominately in lower-income areas, I couldn’t pretend to know exactly what kids were going through, or experienced, or even what daily life was like. I’ve never struggled with not having enough money to buy food or at least couldn’t put it on a credit card if I needed too (been there in my early teaching days!). But I could listen with empathy, keep in mind that their parents may not be able to help them, and give students opportunities. Through Tri-This! Inc I was able to help take kids to the snow often for the first (only?) time, go camping, travel up and down California and complete triathlons. Through math I was able to explain things to them and encourage them to college – several of my students even ended up at Fresno Pacific University my alma mater!

Being white is not a negative thing – it’s who we are. Because we are born into white privilege – and we are – doesn’t mean we can’t be that much more compassionate and strive for empathy. I cannot be the same type of figure in students lives that my sisters and brothers of color can be, but I can just be who I am – a mentor who strives for compassion, integrity and shows students unconditional acceptance and love.

 

I’ve been writing this post off and on since about November 2016, and I’m still not sure what I’m trying to say I guess. Justification for me to be slightly offended at the comment? Guilt or embarrassment about working hard for it? Not sure. What I do know is that little comment 15 years ago helped give me perspective whenever I did have physical possessions that were important to me, but not important to other people for very good reasons.

1 thought on ““How does it feel to be white?””

  1. Interesting post, Brandon. Thank you for sharing. I was born into a family of modest means, but by the hard work of my parents and the grace of God, we always had everything we needed and much of what we wanted. That has been the pattern for most of my life. Upon moving to Texas, I took a job driving school bus. During our inservice before the school year began, a woman, Rose Somebody??, came to speak with us about poverty. I realized that true poverty was not something I had ever really come in contact with. With the exception of some mission trips to other countries. Her lessons were interesting but they were just ‘new information’. The route I was given that year included several very low income areas. Poverty level. I quickly came to realize that this information I had been given wasn’t hypothetical. It was real. I also quickly realized that although I was only a school bus driver, I was one of the most consistent people in these children’s lives. Someone who was there day in and day out no matter what was going on at home. My words could be the first positive, encouraging, loving words they heard that day. They could also be the last that they heard as I dropped them off. The free breakfast and lunch they received at school may be the only food they ate all day. It has opened my eyes, as well as my heart. i can make a difference in lives no matter what my position. Compassion, integrity, and love, reach across all socioeconomic boundaries. They also reach across all mental, physical and emotional boundaries as I am finding in my current position in Special Education.

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