I Enabled White Male Privilege in My Classrooms for Years

The Covington Catholic conflict and Esquire cover story helped me to see the mistakes I made.
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“It took me years to register that this behavior isn’t endemic to maleness—it’s endemic to White maleness. Rules are written and broken for these people. The system protects them, and they feel that.”

Photo by Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Despite the recent rise of women leaders in Congress and in other institutions and organizations, and a slowly shifting narrative toward diversity that includes women of color, non-Christians, and the LGBTQ community, I see that the White supremacist patriarchy’s grip is still firm.

Just look at the strange aftermath of what occurred in Washington, D.C., last month between Native American activists and Covington Catholic High School students. Nick Sandmann, the 16-year-old student at the center of the conflict, now has a legal team of seven attorneys. This week, Sandmann filed a suit against the Washington Post for defamation in the amount of $250 million, but he is also considering legal action against at least 50 people and organizations—including Nathan Phillips, the Native American activist involved in the D.C. incident, as was recently reported. 

Immediately following the incident, Sandmann was interviewed by Today’s Savannah Guthrie, whose questions and body language appeared sympathetic toward the teen.

And what about Esquire magazine kicking off its series about “growing up in America” during Black History Month with an article about a White male teenager? “I know what I can’t do,” the teen’s quote reads on the cover. “I just don’t know what I can do.” The headline reads “An American Boy: What’s it like to grow up white, middle class, and male in the era of social media, school shootings, toxic masculinity, #MeToo, and a divided country.”

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While Editor in Chief Jay Fielden described Esquire’s plan to feature LGBTQ, Black, female, and other youth in future issues, the decision to begin the series with a story about the travails of White boys—and gloss over the privilege of this demographic (lack of awareness of that privilege)—speaks volumes.

It says that we have a long way to go to dismantle the system that author bell hooks calls imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

I have played a part in it, too.

As a White female educator, I saw this deference to White boys during my teaching career. But as our cultural climate shifts, forcing us all to ask hard questions of ourselves, I’ve come to see that I also propped up this broken system. From the moment I began teaching, in 2008, I allowed those boys to dominate my classroom.

I began my student teaching assignment at a mostly White high school in central Oregon. On the first day, I met my new supervisor, the vice principal, a White man in his 60s. I was a 31-year-old graduate student. In a matter of moments, he mentioned that my self-proclaimed passion for reading made me sound like a “sissy” and that I shouldn’t bring it up in front of my language arts students.

I was immediately reminded of my place in the system—and of the unspoken understanding that I needed to modify my behavior in order to succeed.

It started off badly.

In my first class, a 16-year-old blond student in ripped black clothing raised his hand after I introduced myself and said, “You are a worthless human being. Everything you think and everything you are is worthless.”

I thought it was a joke for a moment, but when his friend who was sitting behind him gave him a high-five, I realized he was serious. I was stunned.

How had this 16-year-old developed such audacity? If I pushed back, I would lose. So I pretended to be unaffected by his words and said, “That’s a perfect way to segue into the classroom code of conduct.”

It took me years to register that this behavior isn’t endemic to maleness—it’s endemic to White maleness.

I feared standing up to him, so I tried to beat his game by playing the caring and subservient female role: What’s going on today? What can I help you with? How can I make your day better? I spent valuable class time speaking with him at my desk, trying to understand him, giving him more attention than I gave anyone else in the class.

There were a few times I was forced to confront him, for instance, when he made racist or sexist comments. But in the end, there were no real consequences for him.

Detention and phone calls with his apathetic father didn’t affect him or alter his behavior. It seemed like he could get away with just about anything, and he knew it.

Later, when I took over teaching a new class, the only student of color pleaded with me to move him away from a classmate who had been bullying him for months—including calling him gay and spamming him with pornographic images. I knew I had to confront the bully, not just resort to moving the students farther away from each other. But I was terrified. Just as with the student from my previous class, I knew my attempt to draw a line and take control of the situation would be met with aggressive resistance or patronizing nonchalance.

Sure enough, I got the latter.

“Is this like a mom thing?” he asked, downgrading me from a professional with an advanced degree to an interfering mother figure. “’Cause you’re making way too big a deal out of it. We’re just two guys horsing around.”

In the end, my response to the situation did little to protect the student who was being bullied. I was inexperienced, scared, and once again willing to let a White male student exert power over me and everyone in my classroom.

We have to work at dismantling every part of ourselves that keeps us upholding this broken system.

There was no end to it over the 10 years of my teaching career: a male student who wouldn’t let me speak and kept screaming profanities every time I opened my mouth; a 14-year-old boy who whistled at me one day when I took off my cardigan in our overheated classroom; an eighth grader who brazenly approached me and pretended to pat my back while trying to tape a “kick me” sign onto my shirt.

It took me years to register that this behavior isn’t endemic to maleness—it’s endemic to White maleness. Rules are written and broken for these people. The system protects them, and they feel that.

Covington Catholic High School and families could’ve led a broader discussion about race and White privilege instead of circling the wagons. Esquire could’ve introduced their new series with an article about a Black teenager.

This is the legacy we educators contribute to when we revolve around the young White men in our classrooms, in our lives, and when we let fear keep us silent instead of teaching them, drawing clear lines around appropriate behavior.

Looking back, I see my mistakes so clearly. My failure to take strong action hurt everyone in my classrooms, perhaps especially the White boys.

As educators, we know that adolescence is a powerful time of transformation for our students. It’s a time to model healthy behavior. It’s a time to teach students how to ask deeper questions about our culture’s perspectives and prejudices.

But first, we have to look inward. We have to work at dismantling every part of ourselves that keeps us upholding this broken system.