Parenting and Social Justice
Recently there was a post in a local moms group asking for opinions on a high school student’s assignment. Seems to be a fairly standard question, to inquire about feedback and input. In my experience, these kinds of posts are typically related to math confusion but this particular inquiry was regarding an equity-based assignment. The assignment is based on a poem and adapted to include social justice components which prompts students to think about their own diversity and privilege. Students were also prompted to think about ways they can contribute to improving their cultural competency and school climate.
From my perspective as a social worker and someone who is committed to social justice, I thought this was a fantastic assignment for students to begin thinking through aspects of intersectionality because this is such an important component of improving our society and developing equity. (Note: equity is different than equality but we’re going to have to cover that in depth another day). Many other moms agreed and were pleased to see such inclusion in the curriculum. There were a few comments which ranged from subtly to overtly racist, but the majority of those concerned about the assignment were simply confused by the need for it. Some felt that it was overshadowing more “important” work for college prep. What could possibly be more important than ensuring we create a just and equitable society though? Unless of course…you are benefiting somehow from the current structure. That really is the crux of the problem right there, that some people benefit in ways from the current social structure without realizing it while others are harmed by the very same systems through no fault of their own. Together, the comments on this thread were an excellent microcosmic example of various perspectives in society – and why assignments like the one in question are necessary.
Some of the outrage stemmed from belief that “these discussions” should happen in private, at home. But here’s the problem with that: historically, handling it at home has often been reserved for situations considered both taboo and shameful – teen pregnancy, incest, substance use problems, domestic violence, etc. And by “handling it at home”, atrocities were allowed to go on unchecked and cycles of abuse were often continued. Without outside or intentional intervention, intergenerational patterns simply continue….and those who are violent continue to be violent and those who are abused continue to be abused. It’s just kept in private. Silence is actually a way of maintaining power and control.
Let’s be really clear about something – social inequity is both traumatic and abusive. Racial inequity is not the only disparity in our society, but it is the one at the forefront of many discussions right now. To be fair, the assignment didn’t actually ask students to highlight their racial identity, but it did ask them to identify their privilege, which many readers automatically assumed meant race. And there is a palpable discomfort with many white people when asked to discuss issues relating to racial and ethnic identity. Now, there’s nothing wrong with talking about this...but many white people are taught that simply discussing race is offensive. Being racist is offensive, discussing race is not. Unfortunately, much of what is commonly accepted in white culture is actually racist but deemed normative, and it makes sense that confronting this would then be uncomfortable. Not talking about race becomes an excellent way to avoid responsibility and change while making it seem as if trying to have these conversations is offensive to the person who actually needs to change. And some will then say these discussions should only happen at home. But if we look historically at the tendency to “keep it at home” or rather not talk about it in public, this becomes another one of those taboos that are never addressed and allowed to continue causing harm because it is quietly passed through generations.
I’ll give you a moment to think about that. And you’re likely to be experiencing a strong emotion right now, whether or not it is a positive or negative one will depend on your understanding of the issue. But if racism and inequity are abusive (they are) then keeping discussions about it only at home is simply going to perpetuate inequality. It can be uncomfortable to have these conversations because it causes us – no matter our background or position in life – to examine ourselves and how we may intentionally or unintentionally be contributing to the problem. And that feels scary. But that is where the growth lies, in learning how to sit in discomfort and address this. You have to go through it to grow through it, and the only thing you have to lose is unconscious bias and behaviours which harm others.
As parents, we are supposed to intentionally leave our children with a better world than we brought them into. For this generation, finally, that means addressing issues of race/class/gender/privilege/etc. in order to ensure they inherit a healthier, more just society. So how can parents help their children to become cognizant of ways they may – intentionally or otherwise – be contributing to inequity in society? Well, first it’s important to gain a deeper understanding of the issues. Remember we covered ways that racism is a mental health concern previously? Start there, then keep learning.
Then, take a few deep breaths and ask yourself what it is exactly that is making you uncomfortable. Could it be that you’re feeling vulnerable and unsure of how to handle it, because you were not given the tools to engage in these conversations? And maybe that vulnerability is making you feel defensive? Recognize that nobody is blaming you specifically for the way society is structured today, but some people do in fact benefit much more than others. This is a form of structural violence, and by refusing to participate in these conversations, you’re upholding that violence without even realizing it.
I know, this might feel like a lot to absorb in one blog post - but stay with me.
It strikes me that the word privilege makes people bristle in these conversations because we tend to associate that with rewards that are earned through hard work, good behaviour, consistency, etc. When we talk about privilege in society though, we aren’t talking about something that you have actually done to earn the reward – and that can be confusing. Especially when we also say that this privilege (which you as a person have not really earned in any way) is hurting others even though you don't realize it. For some, this translates to a feeling of being attacked when having these discussions. But it doesn’t need to feel this way. There are many different types of privilege besides just white privilege – age, gender, height, place of birth, educational level, ability, geographic location, just to name a few. Perhaps it would help for a moment to consider an easy example. Something simple – like grocery shopping. Stay with me.
When grocery shopping, people who are taller can reach items on the top shelf, whereas people like me who are shorter have to either climb onto the shelf for extra height or ask a tall person for help to reach the same things that come easily to the person who is tall. Nobody is mad at tall people for being tall, but we might wish that the shelves weren’t quite so high so everyone has equal access or maybe we want the tall people to help reach things. The structural inequality is that the shelves are normed to tall people, and the privilege is that…some people are tall so it's easier for them to reach items at the top. That’s really the same concept with all of this discussion about privilege – some people have advantages that they didn’t ask for, aren’t their fault, and they don’t realize that something presumably easy for them is harder for others because they don’t have these same unearned traits. And when we engage in these social justice conversations about privilege and society, we’re asking you to recognize ways that you might be seeing the world in a different way just because of your perspective. We’re asking you to see that just because you can reach the shelf, not everyone can. We’re asking you to pause for a moment and say “hey, this is easier for me. Let me help make it easier for you too.”
That’s really it. Except if you can't reach something in a grocery store, that's just an inconvenience. But if you're Black or LGBTQ or an immigrant in a world which is hostile towards these identities, not understanding the impact of privilege can mean death. It's the difference between being given a warning by police or being shot. It's the difference between children going to college or going to prison. It's the difference between living a healthy life or being chronically ill. It's the difference between thriving and surviving. And this matters. And our children....they deserve better, because everyone thrives in a just and equitable society - not just the ones at the top. So we have to teach them about how to recognize these dynamics so that they can learn how to change them.
And parents - of course you can have these conversations at home. Just don't restrict the discussion to only at home because none of us have all of the answers and that's how we risk perpetuating problems. If you are truly committed to this though…it's important to let your children have these discussions with others, because it is only by encountering other experiences and perspectives that we can have a fully comprehensive understanding of the world we live in. And when our children understand all of these perspectives, all of these experiences, and the ways in which people are harmed and helped – that’s when they will understand that there is a way to create a better society. An equitable society. So even if it’s confusing or uncomfortable, celebrate the fact that there are teachers who care enough to guide our children in these social lessons.
Want a recommendation for a great book to help your high school kid think through these things? Try this one. It’s pretty awesome.
Be brave Mamas. These talks take courage, and love, and lots of hard work. We have a choice - to be silent and perpetuate inequity, or to talk about these concepts and understand that we will make mistakes, but we will grow. Together. We owe it to our children to let them have these conversations and let them lead the way in making our world a better place. Because they will.