Monday, May 28, 2007

How to teach your white male child about cultural bias

With today off from school, the Kid was watching Oprah while I managed to waste a perfectly good afternoon doing absolutely nothing (yay me!) Oprah is doing a “How cultural bias makes me feel not pretty” show and the Kid was struck by a segment where a bunch of African American kids decided that white dolls were more attractive than black dolls. Ahhhh- learning moment presents itself.

I have tried to explain to the Kid that aside from his mother’s crushing poverty level- he hit the cultural bias lottery. He’s white and male. This doesn’t make him better than anyone, but it does mean that he gets a lot pf privileges for no reason other being white and male. For instance- his placement in the gifted program at his school.

We live in one of the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in American with a high portion of African Americans as well as Ethiopian and Somali immigrants. We are the only white people in our apartment building and have been for all the years we have lived here. His school is two blocks away, and Seattle has a program of putting gifted students into schools with high levels of poverty (it’s no coincidence that high levels of poverty also coincide with high levels of minorities- we all know that already). The idea is that the smart white kids will help pull up the brown kids while giving the smart white kids an environment with more cultural diversity. But that’s not how it works in real life.

The gifted kids have little to no interaction with all the other kids at school. I asked the kid to think about how many African American students are in his gifted classes. There are only 2. Contrast this with his special ed class, where he is the only white kid. So we went and did a little research on the school’s ethnic breakdown.

The school is:

23% African American

28% Asian American

10% Hispanic

38% Caucasian

If there was no racial bias then we could expect that in a class of 30 students then only 12 would be white. The reality is that there are 2 black, 2 Asian, and 2 Latino students in his gifted classes- or 20% of the students are not white in a school where 60% of the students are minorities. (As an aside- I love combining a sociology lesson with a math lesson).

Then we went on to talk about how cultural bias is insidious. Nobody says that black students aren’t as smart as white students (ok- people do say that kind of racist crap, but the ones who are upfront about being idiots are so much easier to make fun of) but the way that the classes are made up shows that there is a bias.

So I went back to a math problem that the Kid had recently- Ricardo buys 3.2 oz of prosciutto to make sandwiches. Each sandwich uses one 0.4 oz slice to make a sandwich. How many sandwiches can Ricardo make?

Prosciutto is expensive. Most poor kids (and a huge chunk of middle class kids) wouldn’t know what the hell prosciutto is. Hell, Microsoft Word’s spell checker doesn’t even know what it is, it keeps wanting to change it from prosciutto to prostitute. The only kids who would know what prosciutto is are ones who can afford very expensive meat to make sandwiches, the rest of us stick with bologna or ham. While the math problem itself is not difficult- how many non-privileged kids would get caught up just trying to figure out what the hell kind of sandwich Ricardo is trying to make.

So the Kid’s math book, designed for gifted kids, is culturally biased towards more privileged kids. This is a pretty good example of the millions of tiny ways that bias influences everything and why poor minority kids might not do as well on tests or in gifted classes when just the basic homework questions assume a frame of reference that these kids just don’t have. Why not ask how many bologna or turkey sandwiches could be made? Why prosciutto? (I love prosciutto, so does the Kid, but then we are poverty gourmands- exception as opposed to the rule).

In the end the gist of the lesson was this: Life is unfair, but that doesn’t mean you don’t work your ass off to make it fairer. Cultural bias is everywhere, but just because you hit the bias lottery by being a white male doesn’t mean you get to ignore that bias. You have to work your ass off to understand your privilege and then make it easier for people who didn’t hit the bias lottery to succeed.


Batocchio said...

In the end the gist of the lesson was this: Life is unfair, but that doesn’t mean you don’t work your ass off to make it fairer.

This is it in a nutshell. Privilege doesn't make someone a bad person, but neither does it automatically make him or her virtuous, either. I've always noticed that the folks that like to say, "Sh** happens" are the same people doing the sh**ting. It's more about absolving themselves of any responsibility or accountability. Life has both unavoidable and avoidable hardships. The existence of the former does not excuse negligence in working to minimize the latter.

The Red Queen said...

Shit is a perfectly appropriate word- I only take issue with racist or sexist words, but thanks for the consideration.

And yeah- it's always the people making the messes who don't want to clean them up.

Wonder said...

a message from Mom (and me) THANK YOU for raising a thinking child... we need as many of those as we can get!

DeeK said...

Awesome, one less person who lashes out because of 'white guilt'.

Why does it take effort equivalent to explaining quantum physics to some people that our 'bounty' in the western hemisphere was built on the backs of slaves and on land stolen from its original inhabitants? OK, I'll answer my own question. Because they are so insecure in themselves they have to think they live in the perfect country, that their advantage is based on brilliance. Ipso facto, they think they are better than everyone else.

I lived a sheltered (but fucked up) childhood. I believed in the kum biyah crap until my late teens. Coming to grips with how racist our society is something I struggle with all the time. It's one more scar I'd rather not have.

The Red Queen said...

Deek- I promise to work my white ass off (and you know I have a quite an ass) to make the world less racist not just cause it's the right thing to do but because I hate the idea that a friend that I love and adore as much you would have to carry around generations of racisms scars.