My White Privilege Story

I’m a white, Acadian-Canadian woman, raised Catholic in a predominantly white community, currently living in South Korea. I could easily say that what happened in Charlottesville isn’t my story. But having had a geographical closeness to North Korea and USA’s bids for superiority during the decade I’ve lived here, I’ve learned that what happens in the USA affects much more than the USA.

I write this from my experience, and I’ll probably do a messy job of it. I’ve accepted that. What I write might make people uncomfortable. I accept this too. I’m not looking to explain, debate, or justify anything I share, and this isn’t a time for comfort.

I do hope, however, that by writing this I spark something sacred and courageous within you. I hope my sharing empowers you to shine your own light.

Darkness can’t remain dark once you shine a light on it. What happened in Charlottesville is an example of how the darkness has strived. I’m committed to doing my part in making sure it doesn’t envelope more than it already has. As Peggy McIntosh writes in her article White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack:

“To redesign social systems, we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions.”

So to do this, I’m writing about ways I think I’ve contributed to racism and how I think I’ve benefited from white privilege. I understood why it was important to share my story after watching Brené Brown’s Facebook live video. And I found the resolve to write this after watching Vice’s documentary on the Charlottesville protests. As I’ve written about before, this documentary is something I normally would have avoided, but avoidance is what got us into this mess, and again, this isn’t a time for comfort.

Ways I’ve contributed to racism

Last week I posted this image of overt and covert white supremacy on my Facebook page. This encouraged a short discussion about the term “white supremacy” and the need to unpack the terms listed under “covert white supremacy”. My intention in posting the pyramid was to raise awareness regarding how white people might secretly, if not unknowingly, be contributing to racism. Then I suggested that we may need to create a more precise pyramid to make sure the concepts weren’t misleading.

Although I’d like to do this, and hope someone does, I’ve decided my time is better spent doing my own messy and imperfect unpacking. So here goes:

  • I’ve been teaching English as a foreign language from a mostly euro-centric curriculum in South Korea for the past 12 years. I can refute linguistic imperialism, and work on promoting English as a global language, but I can’t deny that my job was built on the shoulders of white Europeans who colonized Asian, African, American, and Oceanic countries.
  • I’ve used racist terminology. This was when I was much younger, but regardless, I did it.
  • I’ve remained quiet while others made racist jokes. This was also in my younger days. I’m not justifying having done this. I’m just providing a timeline because I’ve changed.
  • I’ve remained quiet as older people belittled the economic reality of people of color, especially that of African-Americans and First Nations people in Canada. I didn’t know how to speak up to these people I’m supposed to respect.

I may be in denial of a few more. I’m not sure. That’s the sneaky thing about racism, or maybe implicit bias; we can sometimes be unaware of our racial conditioning. But the more I unpack, and shine a light, the more aware I’ll become. And in this awareness, change becomes possible.

But there’s a bit more unpacking to do.

Ways I’m benefiting from my white privilege

In her Facebook live video, Brené Brown explains that, “privilege is not about how much you work; it’s about unearned access and authority,” and that “privilege when it comes to race is about unearned rights.” So because I’m a white, English-speaking woman from North America with a Catholic upbringing, I have many unearned rights.

My unearned access and rights have served me well in Korea. I can complain all I want about being stared at, and about being treated differently because I’m not Korean [i.e. microagressions (but also nothing like the microagressions many others experience)], but the underlying reality is I’m benefiting from my white privilege, especially as it pertains to my income and social status. Things have changed in recent years, but there is still a widely held preference in private and public schools to hire white teachers, preferably from North America, Australia, or England. I’ve never had to worry about my white skin or blue eyes being grounds for scrutiny. There’s something unjust about this.

I know there are many other ways I’m benefiting without merit, and I think that just by unpacking what I shared about my career as a teacher could reveal a lot more, but this post is long enough.

I’m still not sure what will come from telling this story. I sense it has something to do with spiritual activism. I also know I’m tired of being controlled by darkness, and maybe by sharing my story with you, you’ll come to terms with how tired you are too. If that’s the case, please know you aren’t alone. There are safe spaces for you to share your truth, and to let your light shine. This blog is a place to start.

RESOURCES:

Courageous conversations:

Resources for healing and action:

  • Consider your position on using language that shames people who don’t share your position by watching Brené Brown’s video at 20:50. She starts off with,”Shame is not a motivator for better behaviour. Shame ignites two things: rationalization, blame.” She then continues to explain how you can speak to people with different beliefs without shaming them.
  • Marianne Williamson’s talk after Charlottesville where she encourages American citizens to learn more about their history and strategies for non-violent resistance.
  • 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action – I recommend choosing one item from this list, and cut and pasting it to Google. Here you’ll find examples of what that action looks like, and how you might carry it out.
  • Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha) by Mahatma Gandhi

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You’re so full of yourself!

“You’re so full of yourself!”

Could you imagine yourself saying “thank you” to this comment?

I’d like to offer up the idea that it’s okay to be full of yourself.

It’s definitely not an easy idea to accept. Most would cringe knowing others see them this way. I know I would. Although I try to put myself out there professionally, as a woman I’ve learned it’s safer to play small. I sometimes worry that I said or did something that came off as conceited: “Was it really necessary to write that comment about myself in my presentation bio?”,”Maybe I should have kept that Facebook post to myself?”

As a long term expat in Korea, I’ve observed how modesty and humility are highly valued. There is a general discomfort that seems to spread across a group of friends when someone talks about their success. It’s much safer to downplay your achievements.

In both these cultures, you won’t make it easy on yourself by acting superior. But what if it isn’t about superiority? What if it’s simply about honoring your gifts in way that you aren’t wasting your energy worrying about what others think? Imagine the ease you would feel if you could just fully be yourself. (click to tweet)

Imagine the space that would clear up if all you had to focus on was expressing your skills and knowledge without fear of judgment. My mind goes to exciting places when I consider this freedom. I imagine myself creating projects and sharing them with people in ways, well, Oprah might.

In Brené Brown’s first interview of her *Living Brave video series, she speaks to Oprah who shares how she used to be worried about being told she was full of herself. But Oprah, being Oprah, found a way to repurpose that judgment:

“Now I work at being full. I want to be so full that I’m overflowing. So when you see me coming, it ought to make you proud, to borrow a line from Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman. When you see me coming it ought to make you proud, and what you see is a woman so full I’m overflowing with enough to share with everybody else. I’m going to own the fullness without ego, without arrogance, but with an amazing sense of gratitude that I’ve been born at a time where I am female on the planet, and I have the great pleasure and freedom to fill myself up.” (see poem below)

*Note: Brené and Oprah’s conversation on fullness starts at 12:05.

This. Overflowing. I imagine myself with a perpetually full tank of gas. Think of the places I could go and the people I could see! It’s impossible to get to these places with half a tank. But this is what happens when I try to make myself smaller in order to fit in. This is what happens when I try not to offend anyone.

This fullness isn’t about flaunting my gifts. It’s not about bragging about what I’ve done just to make myself look bigger and you smaller. To honour my gifts without ego or arrogance requires me to be appreciative of the experience I’ve gained, and the skills and knowledge that come along with it. When I’m grateful, I honour everyone and everything that helped me succeed. I fill myself up with this greatness, and in return, I take myself places I could never have imagined. (click to tweet)

What does your fullness look like?

________________________

Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

The Vulnerability of Failing: IATEFL 2013 Failure Fest

IATEFL Failure Fest: how is failure a better teacher than success?

When I first heard that Ken Wilson was going to lead a session on failure at IATEFL Liverpool, I was intrigued, but mostly I was grateful. I imagined the Failure Fest as a space for reality checks, healing, and great learning for ELT professionals. Sophia Khan wrote about this beautifully in her debut blog post, Why We Should Celebrate Failure Fest,

what I like about Failure Fest is that it says: “I am human, just like you”. It focuses on our similarities rather than our differences. Finding a shared emotional experience creates a sense of solidarity, mutuality and possibility. Because we are alike – human – I can learn from your mistakes – and your achievements – as if they were my own. What is possible for you is also possible for me. No matter how qualified or experienced you are, we are more alike than different. Think about it: have you ever had a worry, feelings of self-doubt, anxiety about what the right thing to do is – then you find that someone has gone through, or is going through, the same thing as you? It is such a blessed, wonderful relief to know that you are not alone, even if you still don’t have all the answers.

And this sense of relief is what we all felt during the fest. The relief was expressed through having a bit of fun (Caroline Moore‘s punctual cow bell and Ken’s witty introductions), and through the presenters’ ability to show their vulnerability.

What struck me about each of these engaging storytellers (Ken Wilson, Bethany Cagnol, Chia Suan Chong, Andy Cowle, Herbert Puchta, Jeremy Harmer, Rakesh Bhanot, Valeria Franca, Willy Cardoso) was the fact that they were all able to laugh at their failures. However, among the laughter, each presenter also expressed a sense of discomfort that came along with the initial moment of failure — or as Kathryn Schulz described during her TED Talk, On Being Wrong, how it feels to realize that moment of failure. Jeremy Harmer embarrassingly admitted that the first thing he had ever taught a student was to describe his “big, red, bushy beard.” Chia Suan Chong talked about how she cried after the miscommunication with a German bus driver. Valeria Franca described the dread of seeing little Luciana come up to her after her revamped English lesson on clothing. Bethany Cagnol shared the devastation she felt after being fired for having fun with her students.

“embracing our fallibility”

For many of us, the laughter doesn’t usually come immediately after these moments. It may come years after and for some people it may never come. There is something safe about hiding in the belief that we shouldn’t make mistakes:

“We get sucked into perfection for one very simple reason: We believe perfection will protect us. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame.” – Brené Brown

I think one of my biggest failures has been holding on to this idea of perfection. I used to work late hours planning the “perfect” lesson, and on a few occasions I even broke down crying after class, realizing I had answered a question “wrong”. “I’m a trainer dammit! I *should know these things!” Although I may not be in a space where I can laugh at this failure, I feel a great sense of lightness at being able to admit it. And I know I am able to express this thanks the Failure Fest and also thanks to what teachers have been writing about failure over the past few weeks (Kevin Stein, As many flavors of failure…; Chris Wilson, Failing at Modal verbs).

The Journey of Failure

An old post of mine, The Teacher as the Archetypal Student, came to my attention the night of the Failure Fest when a new reader left a comment. I hadn’t read this post in years (written on September 11, 2010). Although my post doesn’t directly express my concern about failing, this reader saw it clearly:

I think it is the responsibility of the teacher to show her students that it is okay to make mistakes. Students can learn more from a teacher who allows herself to be vulnerable in front of her students, rather than an obviously flawed person who pretends to be perfect. Students will respect a teacher who openly admits her faults or knowledge gaps. When a teacher does this, learning can become a journey that the teacher and student go on together.

And so I thank Ken Wilson and Caroline Moore for providing a space to the world of ELT to embark on this journey of seeing the light between the cracks of failure. I also have great gratitude for all the presenters for sharing their light.

Willy Cardoso left us a wonderful quote to keep us pondering along this journey of embracing failure:

It is this great struggle, to choose between having a lot of freedom and having a lot of stability that makes us people. (…) And when you believe you can achieve both, it’s probably the beginning of a failure story…which is inevitable. You have to choose one when you know you won’t have much of the other. (…) I’m not likely to go about cycling on busy roads ever again because I don’t want to run the risk of falling, although I know it would give me a great sense of freedom. So in this regard I choose stability over freedom. In love, on the other hand, I will always be willing to fall.

In teaching and in learning, what is this love you are willing to fall for?