I pride myself, you know, on being somewhat of a conservative. I don’t like change much. I avoid it. I try to maintain traditions, and when needed, to develop them. I pray and think and feel and believe that stability is essential and necessary. I also, because of communication challenges or because of trust issues, for whatever reason, don’t really like strangers. New people take me a long time to get to know and the more different from myself they are, the more I have a hard time with them. (Yay for a chosen profession where I constantly meet many strangers who are quite different from myself in lots of ways.) As well, as an immigrant and member of a minority faith, I grew up in a culture radically different from the one held by regular society, one in which attitudes towards people were more forcefully stated, where opinions were made more rapidly, which was, perhaps more rooted in the past. The way I was raised, politeness, acceptance, and honesty come in second, after intimacy, safe spaces and success (or at least survival.)
All these things came up in my mind when a friend sent me an article on race. How do I handle people who are not white? For a long time, this didn’t matter. I simply didn’t encounter people who weren’t white. There were none in the private school I went to, there were none in the Shul I went to, there were none in the university classes I happened to be in, there were none in the small city I lived in for years. I knew no-one who was all that different from me, race wise, and I had enough of my own differences, religious, ability and otherwise, to focus on. Race didn’t even pop up onto my radar.
There have been a number of reasons why it has lately. As someone who has taught all over Montreal, I’ve met any number of students and teachers who were not white. Also, I have people in my life who have been involved in the Native community. My children have taken an interest in issues of equality and justice. I’ve encountered some non-white people now. I’ve listened to childhood stories other than my own, dealt with different approaches to behaviour management and discipline, heard about how people have been disadvantaged or mistreated, encountered people who disagree with me about respect for authority and gender issues, and come face to face again and again with prejudice.
Mostly, I’ve come face to face with my own prejudice, because other people’s is less of my business. There’s quite a bit in the Jewish faith about dealing with my failings before I start poking at those of my fellow beings. I would love to say that I’m entirely free from prejudice in the areas of race and culture, that I’m colour blind and teach with no regard for the race of my students, except to be culturally aware, and ensure the curriculum and the materials I use are culturally appropriate and relevant and…none of this is true. Whether it’s because of my conservative leanings, my cultural background, my distrust of differences, I still find myself having to deal with my own prejudice.
I’ve struggled again and again with attitudes that are extremely ugly that show up in my head, from (using … for the race of your choice) “those … kids just can’t behave!” to “well, no wonder he’s struggling, he’s …” to “oh, given that he’s …, his parents must be disappointed in him,” both expecting more (or less) from certain groups, and thinking of them differently. There is no point whatsoever in my saying that I don’t think this way, because I do. I fight the attitudes of course – I don’t like seeing them, and so I do all I can not to act or talk or even think in a prejudiced way. I don’t know how often I succeed. Sometimes, I know I do – but sometimes, I’m sure I don’t.
It’s even harder when it comes to looking at the ways I benefit from these prejudices, and what I should or shouldn’t do about that. I’m white and I live in Canada – by those two facts, I’ve got some pretty amazing advantages. What do I do about the way these advantages are available to me, but not to the non-white people I encounter, or to people in other parts of the world?
Maybe the only thing I can do is remember that the prejudice is there. I’m in Hamilton now, and again, the people I encounter are mostly white. It’s easy to say that I’ve gotten past all these issues of privilege and prejudice and can now continue enjoying my comfortable life and appreciating how very inclusive I am. I think I can do better. I can learn more about different cultures and histories, right here. I can participate in anything that will help me learn and grow. I can keep fighting the prejudice-based thoughts that pop up in my mind. I can see if there are places I can contribute. And, of course, I can remember that my comfortable life comes to me at a price, mostly paid by others. That way, should the opportunity arise to pay a bit of it back, I am just a bit more likely to do so.