Sunday, September 22, 2013

School bus in the city: A reaction to "Colorblindness is the New Racism" by Margalynne J. Armstrong and Stephanie M. Wildman

After reading Margalynne J. Armstrong and Stephanie M. Wildman's article "'Colorblindness is the New Racism': Raising Awareness About Privilege Using Color Insight," I found myself reassessing a trip to the city of Boston that I took with my Norton High School seniors this past Thursday night. 

In their article, Armstrong and Wildman argue that white people's "color blindness" with respect to racial differences is as detrimental to people of color as overt racism has been throughout the history of American society. Armstrong and Wildman point to specific examples of the "knapsack of benefits" that white people carry with them every day; the privileged position of remaining above the power line that enables white Americans to never truly reflect on all of the benefits that being white provide in society at large.  According to Armstrong and Wildman, "In this so-called colorblind and post-racial world, educators in the classroom setting often to fail to name and examine whiteness. ... Identifying and understanding whiteness should be an essential component of education in the United States."  "Color insight," according to the authors, is the antidote to color blindness.  The authors say that this four-tiered process includes the following steps:  "(1) considering context for any discussion about race; (2) examining systems of privilege; (3)unmasking perspectivelessness and white normativeness; and (4) combating stereotyping and looking for the 'me' in each individual."

In this age of President Barack Obama, of popular mainstream television shows like Ellen and Modern Family, power couples like Jay Z and Beyonce, of affirmative action and equal rights, how in the world can institutional deep-seated prejudices still exist?  According to the Armstrong and Wildman, society's "colorblindness" enables the cultural privilege of whites to pervade society; America is a white man's world and everyone else who isn't white is by virtue of their skin color, less important.  I wholeheartedly agree that white people are rarely forced to examine the privilege that being white affords us.  I know that racism exists, and the unspoken "norms" of white people exclude those who are not in so many daily situations.

The Senior Cruise

I'm now going to relay the story of my senior cruise this past week.   I'm the senior class advisor, and in keeping with Norton High School tradition, the senior class takes an evening dinner and dancing cruise of Boston Harbor as part of our year-long class spirit builders.  I had my chaperones, my emergency lists, and my busses ready to go this past Thursday night; a perfect evening for a cruise.  We loaded up three busses of 108 predominately white kids, and our white bus drivers left the high school at 5pm for the city of Boston, white chaperones on each bus.  The other 80 members of the class who opted not to attend may have either been busy, lacked interest, or simply could not afford the $25 price tag.

By all accounts it was a picture perfect evening; gorgeous weather, spectacular views, amazingly well-behaved students, low-flying planes gracefully landing at Logan Airport... so why is this a story?  It really isn't, but for the fact that I felt perplexed by the bus ride.

My friend Robin, the art teacher, and I chaperoned Bus #16.   We were the first bus to be loaded up, and about 30 of the 40 people on board were girls.  The football team was running late because they had practiced, so just before leaving, some hot and sweaty players got on and filled up the front rows.  I sat up front with Robin and the team.

I've known most of the kids in this class for four years, and I've taught the majority of them for two to three years.  They're more like friends than students, particularly now that I will never teach them again.   I speak candidly with all of my students, and I tweet with many of them too, so they are pretty at ease around me.

One boy, Dan, told Robin and me that he wanted to become a state trooper.  Robin responded, "How does it make you feel to know that less qualified people will probably get selected over you due to their gender or race?"  She told us that she herself had taken the state police test many years ago and was invited to join the class even though she had scored less than other white male applicants.  This led to a conversation about Affirmative Action, and I found myself in an awkward position of both wanting to defend it but also feeling that it is unfair to white men who scored better than my friend, Robin.  How would Armstrong and Wildman have responded to this situation?  Would they have delved into the roots of Affirmative Action and the racial inequity that didn't just go away now that we have a black President?   What would they have advised me to do?

A football player, Mike, yelled out at one point, "Dude, look at those brothers at the intersection.  They probably stole that car."   I instantly flung around and pointed out that his remarks were offensive to me.  He retracted his racial comment and turned it into a class comment, but the entire conversation made me feel uneasy.  I don't know how to impart upon my students the right message if I can't find the right words to use do describe all of the inequity in this world.  It makes me feel sad, frustrated, and even angry with myself.

Another bus ride story: as one would expect in a city on a Thursday night at rush hour, we hit traffic.  When we got of in Chinatown, we were in a standstill for about 15 minutes.  There was a volleyball game between Asian men taking place, and the windows of the bus were down.  The kids were roaring laughing.   I heard comments like, "Dude, that guy is 99-years-old," and "OMG, this is SO funny!"  When one guy spiked the ball, the bus went wild.  The guys playing volleyball waved and one of them bowed.   I was left feeling a little uneasy about all of that, but I don't know why.  Would the kids' reactions have been different if it had been a group of white 20-year-olds playing volleyball on a college campus?

It's hard to imagine how people would react if they really were color insightful versus color blind.   How do I as a white teacher send the right message to my students all the time?   I am going to begin by encouraging my students, as Armstrong and Wildman suggest, to participate in a little reflection as to who they are and where they fall in respect to the power line.  I happened to notice in today's paper that poet Martha Collins will be appearing at Wheaton College on Thursday night from 5:00-6:30p.m.  She speaks directly to white privilege in American society, and she writes about a lynching her father once witnessed as a boy.  I am going to try to attend if I am able, and I am going to encourage my students to attend as well.  Sometimes it is hard in a monoculture to relate to the world at large, but I feel as though I can try as best as I am able to bring the world to them.


  1. Did Dr. Bogad send you the reading for this coming week. I did not receive it. If you have a copy can you email it to me at I would appreciate it.

  2. Remind me not to get on a bus with you and a bunch if Norton's finest. All I can say is that it is difficult to address these issues under good circumstances, never mind while on a bus with rowdy kids. Did you try "Kumbaya"? Joking aside, you have posed some good questions. How does one impart such a heavy message without sounding punitive or preachy (especially while on a bus with rowdy kids). Sometimes the best that you can do is to let them know that you disapprove. Kids (even rowdy ones) generally want to please the adults in their lives, let that moment of disapproval be a seed that has been planted - water and wait. I am sure that there would be just as many other ideas as there are people who read this. I am also certain that most things would be better than ignoring it.

  3. Amy, this is a very tricky situation. I do think you were right in saying something, and showing your disapproval. I think that you are spot on in saying that all you can do is "bring the world to them." Discussing the topic on the bus really wouldn't have been the appropriate environment, but maybe bringing this observation back into the classroom would work? I think it's great that you bring up the topic of affirmative action, it's very interesting to me that this was a topic of conversation you witnessed between a student and another teacher. I think that Affirmative Action is one step in the opposite direction of colorblindness, it forces workplaces and schools to really account for diversity through data, despite the fact that it's a very controversial topic.

  4. Amy, thanks for that personal story which is quite in tune with the readings. We often find ourselves in awkward situations with students when attending field trips that take them out of their normal environments and comfort zone. So, I would be interested in hearing how your exercises go with your class. Also, you are fortunate to teach in a college town and I hope your students will avail themselves of the upcoming lecture. Perhaps you can add that to a class assignment to accompany your exercises?

  5. Amy,
    I agree with Polly I would add that lecture to my class assignments. Or maybe the principal could suggest it for all the seniors.

  6. These stories are exactly what all of this looks like off paper and in the real world! So messy and difficult. I look forward to talking about these in class. Thanks for sharing!

  7. People tend to make fun of or find peculiar things that they do not truly understand so I do not find it odd that the students behaved the way they did. Armstrong and Wildman really made things clearer even thought they used the word "privileged" which is a word that I am definitely not fond of. Using the words "Colorblindness" and "Color insight" really paint the picture of today's society. No one really wants to face the "elephant in the room" because it it too painful or it just us feel uncomfortable.

    I would agree that we really need to learn about race inequality and be able to articulate our feelings when we hear inappropriate racial comments. I do not believe it is enough to just say that it is inappropriate. The authors in our weekly readings bring race to the forefront and provide us the words that we can use in conversations about race.