Trying to find math inside everything else

During the slow Parent-Teacher Conferences tonight, some of my colleagues and I got into a discussion on privilege. We shared some things about our experiences, and I figured I could write up what I talked about for my #MTBoS30 post tonight.

I used to think racism didn’t exist anymore, that affirmative action was reverse racism, and other such things. On top of that, when I’d hear about things that certain groups faced, I would just counter with my own. My family was stolidly working class (though not as poor as when my oldest brother was growing up), my “summer camp” growing up was sitting in the public school cafeteria playing Connect Four, I’m queer and have faced my share of discrimination from that. Certainly not privileged, right?

When I went to Bard for grad school, one of the classes we took was called Identity, Culture, and the Classroom, taught by Michael Sadowski. There were a lot of interesting readings and deep sharing of stories in that class, but the single most powerful moment was when we did an activity about Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

Michael had us all go outside and stand in a line on the grass. As he read he had us look straight ahead and, if the sentence was true for us, take one step forward. As he went down the list, there were a lot of items I did not step forward for because of the aforementioned class and LGBT spheres. At first, I felt like this supported my feelings, as I watched much of the class pull far ahead of me.

When Michael had finished, he told us to look around. At this point, I was about halfway across the grass. Ahead of me all the way of the front were all of the other White students. To my side, about level with me, was my friend Jack, who is Asian.  And then I looked behind me and, back at the start, were all the Black and Hispanic students in the class.

In that moment, the idea of intersectionality suddenly became clear. Sure, I may have not been privileged in some domains, but I was privileged in others, and this was a physical representation of that fact. It felt like my eyes were opened and I saw the world as it really is, and I haven’t closed them since.

Talking to my colleagues, it seems they had similar experiences, so I know mine isn’t unique or particularly noteworthy. My one colleague was fascinated that I grew up in Queens (the most diverse area on the planet), went to the schools that I did (middle, high, and college), and it still took until I was 23 for this idea to get through to me.

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Comments on: "When I First Learned about Privilege" (2)

  1. James- this is so clearly written- I can see you and your classmates (and myself, for that matter) out on the grass. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Very poignant. Thanks for sharing and giving me a visual to reflect upon my privilege. I am starting a Senior Math Class in the fall (after Alg 2) and want to start with a Social Justice and Math unit. Thank you for the food for thought.

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