by Sean Scribner
Christina Horner is a senior associate at GSP; she’s been working with RSU-10, a rural and predominantly white district in Maine, to develop a shared understanding of educational equity, with a particular focus on racial equity. One of her goals was to help build the capacity of school-based equity committees (student, administrators, and teachers) to work collaboratively with each other so that they can lead the district’s professional learning about educational equity.
Sean Scribner teaches Social Studies at Mountain Valley Middle School (RSU-10) in Mexico, Maine. He’s interested in groups that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion.
I’m part of the Equity Committee at RSU 10, and I am also part of the Civil Rights Team at the middle school. The Equity Committee was formed in response to the death of George Floyd in 2020 with the goal of creating a safe space for all students, families, and staff. The Civil Rights Team has a similar goal that includes the belief that bias, prejudice, and hate have no place in our school community. We emphasize celebrating our differences and working together to create a sense of belonging. As part of the Civil Rights Team, I am contributing by making posters with the definitions of civil rights vocabulary. Today, I did some reading and then designed a poster about white privilege. I understand it to mean, among other things, that I as a white person have built-in advantages because of my race. I learned that white privilege means that I can always choose to back off and not get involved in a matter that involves racial inequality. I can do this if I am not feeling like I want to deal with confronting someone about something they may have said or done. If I feel unsafe or nervous, I can avoid the issue. A person of color could not do that as they are living the inequality and their skin color makes them stand out and noticeable in a room of white, or mostly white, people, whereas I simply blend in. There is no hiding for a person of color, even if they don’t feel like confronting the issue at that moment. And, why would anyone always feel like confronting inequality or any other issue for that matter?
This is where I want to talk about a connection I think I am making with this topic. I recently earned my masters in trauma and resilience in educational settings. I chose this in part because of the many students in RSU 10 who struggle with trauma, and also because I was a student with trauma. Ten years ago, I got married. As a result of my issues with my past trauma, we ended up getting divorced a year into the marriage. I recall my now ex-wife saying to me that she cannot be with someone who has experienced the trauma that I experienced, as it is simply too hard. She is right, the trauma is hard and I am still working through it.
Here is where I think I can to some extent understand what you may experience as a person of color. My ex-wife can opt to not date or marry someone like me. For her, it is a choice. For someone with a background of trauma and who may still be working through it, there is no choice. I cannot escape it simply because I don’t want to deal with it today. It is here no matter what mood I am in, or who I am around, in good times and bad. If I choose to do nothing about it, it is still there. If I feel strong and ready to confront it, then I can do that too. The point is that with white privilege, I as a white person can choose to deal with inequality or not. But with a person of color, the issue is not a choice. It is always there, whether spoken or not, confronted or not, wanted or not. I admit to feeling a little angry that my ex (who is actually my best friend today) can choose to have a life that does not involve someone with my background experiences. She can turn this issue off whenever it is inconvenient to deal with. I, and all others like me, cannot. There is some anger in me about that reality, but my background experiences are not her fault either, and so anger toward her seems somehow wrong, too. White privilege and systemic racism are bigger and different issues from what I described here, but I feel a connection in this way that never occurred to me until now.
I see there are many layers to white privilege, and I know there are many layers to trauma. As a white person, I have not experienced the trauma of racism. I have experienced a different kind of trauma. I feel a connection with you in this way. I imagine others who, like me, have not experienced racism might find a similar connection based on a traumatic experience of their own.
My background issues with trauma are well-hidden from my colleagues and students. I can be having a conversation with anyone about trauma without them even knowing I am interested in it for reasons beyond the purpose of my career. Of course, a person of color cannot ever be invisible in the way that I can with trauma and letting others know only when it suits me. And, to date, it has not suited me at all to bring it up. But now, this seems like a time when it may be worthwhile to do so.