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Raising (White Male) Antiracists Part 3: Power and Privilege

The work of antiracism is a lifelong journey. There is no endpoint and for every step forward, there may be steps sideways or backwards. This means there are times of active learning and times of incubation and thoughtful reflection. My last post in this series was in August 2022 and much has happened since that time. My sons are getting older and they are more mature and more experienced. Our conversations have grown deeper and richer. We still read every night and often choose titles that require us to actively use an antiracist lens. While we don’t turn our antiracist lens on and off, we do sometimes have antiracism in the foreground as something we are actively practicing. At other times we keep it in the background, ready to use if something comes up in our reading.

For example, my ten-year-old was reading a fictional biography of Walt Disney’s childhood. The child narrator talks about protecting his family from “Indians” on a train trip across the country. We paused, checked the publication date of the book (1960s), and talked about the context of the time, how the story portrayed Indigenous people and why. Using antiracist vocabulary, we were able to analyze how the author centered the White narrator in the story who perceived the Indigenous people as “dangerous” and “attacking” his family as the train roared through disputed land. The narrator saw himself as a protector against an enemy. The storyline presented this viewpoint as the default historical narrative to young children who likely did not have a full mental map at the time to question this kind of viewpoint.

My son is getting better at identifying problematic storylines like this, but contextualizing them in time and making sense of them still requires much adult intervention, which is why we still read aloud every night despite his growing reading proficiency. Because I know he can generally comprehend the text (understanding words, plot, sequence, etc.), it is now time to understand the text, using what he knows about the world to help him grow as a human as he reads. I know his school teaches him to use close reading strategies, but because of our commitment to antiracism, it is important to both of us that we continue to exercise his antiracist “muscle” when reading.

A topic that comes up frequently in our discussions about reading, reflecting on the school day, or interpreting the news is privilege. My sons know the word and understand its meaning at a level appropriate for their development, but one tool helps us visualize the concept in the context of their own lives. It will also extend their knowledge as they get older and mature. The tool I am referring to is the Wheel of Power/Privilege.

I find this tool useful to identify my own privilege, to acknowledge all the ways the world is shaped to benefit me personally, and to understand how power has influenced my life. Through conversations and coaching from Edjacent Designer and Decolonizing Coach, Melissa Smith, I find the wheel to be even more useful as a tool for reframing power and privilege and as a discussion point with my sons.

Consider where “power” resides in this circle. It is concentrated in the middle, surrounded by the people who society has traditionally granted the most access and opportunity. However, the slices closest to the center are also the smallest and thinnest. As the characteristics move further from the center they get longer, wider, and deeper.

The truth is, while society grants those with characteristics furthest from the center (and furthest from power) the least advantage, knowledge resides most clearly on the outer edges of the circle. For example, a person with a large body size is keenly aware of how the world is set up for people who are slim or average sized every time they see an advertisement, ride in an airplane, or buy clothing. They have much knowledge about what life looks like for the slim, but the slim or average-sized person may be completely unaware of what it is like to be a person living in the margins. The slim or average person has more privilege but the person with the large body size has more knowledge. The same is true for other areas of the circle, such as neurodiversity, language, and ability. It is also true specifically for the skin color part of the circle.

As my family learns more about the history of racism in America, we become increasingly aware of how Whiteness has played and continues to play an invisible role in our lives. For example, my older son has always loved family trees, so we got an account. As we read historical accounts of our ancestors’ lives, I think a lot about how many of my predecessors lived their lives with little or no meaningful interaction with people of other races. They lived in relatively insular communities with other White people of European descent. Many were illiterate, low income, or both, which meant leisure activities were minimal. To what extent did they have knowledge beyond their White circles and how did that affect the knowledge of the few people of color in their midst? What might my White ancestors have learned from them? How might their lives have been enriched if they had sought their knowledge?

My family has a core value related to knowledge. We believe knowledge is power. When we don’t know something, we ask, read, watch, and learn. Decisions are made with the most information possible. In an information-rich environment like the one I’m raising my sons in, there are many ways for them to learn. They love books, but they are also skilled at looking up information on the Internet, choosing a YouTube video, or using the databases their school has to offer. Using the Wheel of Privilege, we identified one information source they need more practice accessing: other people.

When I asked the boys how we can learn more about this, I thought they might suggest books, TV shows, or movies. Instead, the boys’ answer was simple: “Ask people we know.” They knew what I did not think of initially, that the people we love and trust can tell us more about what it means to live on the outer edges of the wheel than any of these other sources. My sons are showing they are ready to expand their awareness and broaden their knowledge of others in order to access a greater level of understanding, knowledge, empathy, and depth and breadth of human experience. This will be a lifetime process of exploring how to access the knowledge they can only get from others.

We love a good biography or movie that reveals something about the world, but even more powerful is surrounding ourselves with lived experiences that are different from ours and knowing those people deeply enough to understand what life is like in their shoes. We will never know completely, but we can ask questions from people that we trust, we can use a lens of empathy to observe their challenges and successes, and we can express curiosity about experiences different from our own. In other words, we can gain knowledge from others to understand our privilege, a first and second step toward harnessing that privilege on behalf of others.

My sons are not quite old enough to understand the role the White savior industrial complex plays in their lives, but they can begin to understand how “helping people” is not the goal of examining privilege or being an antiracist. The “help” they might extend to others without really knowing them can do more harm than good. For example, we can make assumptions about the needs of homeless people that actually dehumanize them (such as when people do not give homeless people cash because they think it will be “wasted”). Kids might decide to “stand up” for classmates of color in ways that make them uncomfortable or that show lack of empathy for the preferences of each individual child. Both of these examples come from things my sons have said or heard others say about how to use their privilege. The Wheel of Privilege provides a developmentally and cognitively accessible way to host conversations about how to be antiracist as a family, children, and adults, without establishing patterns that harm.

We also used the wheel to set goals:

My youngest son (8) is curious about homelessness. Many of his YouTube heroes regularly give large sums of money away to homeless people. He knows these YouTubers are trying to “help,” but he is curious to know more about homeless people after our conversation about the wheel. He wants to know why they are homeless, what their life is like now, what it was like before, and what “help" they want and need.

My older son (10) wants to know more about people who are bilingual and speak a different language at school than they do at home. He has many classmates who are first- and second-generation immigrants, but he noticed they do not speak anything other than English at school, even when asked. He wants to know what it is like to live life in two languages and specifically wants to know what language these classmates think in. We discussed the ways he must carefully frame how and when he asks his questions, first working toward developing trust, empathy, and care with his classmates before asking questions about their identity.

My goal? I’d like to increase the depth of my knowledge about powerlessness in society - how it shows up, and where, why, and how I can reframe the experiences of marginalized people as knowledgeably powerful. I want to continue to develop deep and rich relationships with those on the outer edges of the circle so I can increase my knowledge about the human experience at all levels of power. I want to understand my role, be it past, present, and future. I am no savior and I don’t want to be. I am curious, and I always will be. But my curiosity must be deeply rooted in the respect, empathy, and trust gained from lasting friendships and collegial relationships that provide me the opportunity to learn without harm.

How might you deepen your knowledge of power and privilege?


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