Two and a half weeks into fifth grade, and we have already defined some pretty hard words. Some of the first words added to our dictionaries were institutionalized racism and privilege. These are words that I’m not even really comfortable defining. Honestly, most people aren’t.
Last week we watched a Flocabulary video about the week’s current events, and a hot topic of discussion was the wage gap between white college graduates and Hispanic and black college graduates. The video discussed many things, but that was what stood out to our fifth graders.
After the video, I asked, “So, what do you think? What stood out to you?” One boy said, “The money thing. I don’t like that rule. Who made that rule?” and that opened up a whole big can of worms. Because that’s just the thing, I don’t like that rule either. And more than that, I don’t like that it’s not a rule, but it’s a reality. Because it’s a whole lot easier to define a rule. It’s a lot easier to say, this person made that rule, and it’s unfair, and we should change it. But guess what? That rule has already been changed, it’s already been made illegal. And yet, the reality still exists.
It’s a lot easier to point fingers. It’s a lot easier to talk about the people who are to blame. It’s a lot easier to not take responsibility, to wash our hands clean and say, “that guy made this rule and that’s why.” But it’s not a rule, it’s a reality.
So we talked about it. We talked about what institutionalized racism is, and after a long and confusing discussion, my ten year olds decided it means, “the little things in society that mean being white is the norm.” We talked about how our classroom has “flesh” colored bandaids, and yet our “flesh colored” bandaids don’t come close to the flesh tones of 90% of our classmates. We started a conversation that I hope and pray will continue happening long after I am out of their lives.
A few days later we talked about privilege. I showed them this video, and at the end, asked the same question. “What do you think? What stood out to you?” It was dead silent, until one girl, one of our African American girls, said, “the black woman was in the back.” Another girl contributed, “All of the men were in the front, and the women were in that back.” A white boy said, “I feel bad.” As if he were at fault, as if he had chosen this privilege.
We tried to define privilege. We talked about what it means to have something without having earned it, and what it means to not have something without having deserved it. It was a quiet room, a somber room, a confused room.
There was no pretty wrap up to the lesson. No sweet take away of, “now be kind, and everything will change.” We just talked about awareness. We talked about knowing what the world around us is like, and being brave enough to have uncomfortable conversations. When I asked why conversations like these were important, I got answers like, “to prepare us for middle school,” and “to prepare us for high school,” and, “so we know about bullying.” Yes, these are all true. But more than that, my hope for my ten and eleven year old students is that they would be brave, they would be courageous, and they would be leaders. That five and ten and twenty years from now, they would be the ones at the heart of change, that they would be the ones actively standing up, using their voices, and doing something. My hope is that I would never see a single one of my students sitting on the sidelines.
So today, this week, this year, we are having hard conversations. We are having uncomfortable conversations that adults are scared to have. We are practicing being bold, and being courageous, and being up standers. We are learning what it means to be the beating center of a revolution, a generation that says, “no more.”