Beyond Ignorance: Teaching White Privilege

I work for a college-access program designed for first-generation, low-income students of color. In a class of seventeen freshmen, one student is white. She’s incredibly willing to learn about race and diversity and, even as a high school freshman, already knows terms like privilege. She wants to be educated and do anti-racist work.

I work with this student twice a week through one-on-one sessions. We’re reading Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay (a collection of essays I recommend to anyone and everyone for Gay’s humor, vulnerability and realness when discussing modern day feminism). Multiple times, this student has expressed the opinion, “I’m really ignorant” when speaking about race, especially in regard to her uncomfortability when confronted with the notion that there’s a whole world of racial injustice she hasn’t seen and will never experience directly.

Though I’ve written before about how whiteness and Jewishness feel like two conflicting parts of my identity, when working with this student (and really all of my students) I am a white instructor. Especially when working with this particular student, I have been in her situation and still am in the situation of trying each day to unlearn racism. I too have stumbled over or whispered words like “black” or “African-American”, as if these descriptors have a negative connotation and I’m uttering an insult. This is racist of me and it’s a process to unlearn these patterns of speech and behavior.

But I don’t want this student to leave our sessions believing that she’s ignorant and that’s all she can do is admit to her ignorance because she’s white. I’m trying to move the conversation to a place where she has action steps and can recognize when that ignorance might actually be guilt or another uncomfortable emotion we haven’t yet named.

I sent her an article from Everyday Feminism: “‘I didn’t Know That was Racist’- Are You Using ‘White Ignorance’ to Dodge Responsibility?” and the accompanying video. I’m thinking of continuing the conversation by speaking about white privilege as a way of framing why she’s ignorant. I’m searching for advice and suggestions to have a more specific plan.

Does anyone have any resources or suggestions on how to have a conversation with this student that moves beyond white ignorance?

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2 thoughts on “Beyond Ignorance: Teaching White Privilege

  1. I guess my approach would be to reframe the feeling of “ignorance” as indicating a potential area for growth. It might be helpful to respond to her with questions–“what makes you say that?”, “is there something specific here that you could learn more about?”, even “what does ignorance mean/feel like to you?” I have no idea how she’ll respond, but it may give you some insight, and at the least it will help instill the idea that when you feel like proclaiming ignorance on race/racism, it’s time to ask yourself some questions.

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