Not Under, Just Not… The Paradox of Privilege

I’m sure you’ve heard it. Perhaps you’ve used the term yourself, perhaps even numerous times, and thought nothing of it: underprivileged

To refer to a group of learners as underprivileged is to infer an obvious, yet generally unspoken, fact: that all other students are overprivileged.

I am fond of Iyanla Vanzant’s statement: “You’ve got to call a thing a thing.” So… here’s the thing: Those learners whose underprivileged status is frequently cited as the underlying reason for their academic achievement (or lack thereof) are not. They are not underprivileged. They are not-privilegedAs educators in particular, we need a shift in mindset on the topic.

... our Black and Brown learners,  are not underprivileged. They simply are not-privileged

So let’s start with the basics. When we are talking about privilege in the form of PK-12 education, what are we talking about? In the United States, education is a right, not a privilege. Therefore, every child in the U.S. has a right to a free, public education. Thanks to Brown v. Board of Educationevery now means every. At least in theory. Our learners have equality of education, but we are worlds away from equity as long as two groups of students exist: privileged and not-privileged.

From a purely historical standpoint, Thomas Jefferson should be credited as the Father of public education. Stay with me for a minute. I recognize that we are talking about an abhorrent period in the history of America in terms of freedom; some argue an abhorrent man based on his actions with regard to slavery and his own slave Sally Henson, but his words at that time are relevant to the concept of public education at present. 

Jefferson advocated that a “general diffusion of knowledge” was essential to a free society. In 1816 he wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” 

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

-      Thomas Jefferson

In Jefferson’s time, teaching a slave to read was a crime. A slave even having the ability to read was a crime. Ignorance insured the slave would remain a slave. Jefferson did not intend the “general diffusion of knowledge” to extend to Blacks and Native Americans. Education – and freedom – was for white men. In fact, in order to establish public institutions of education, land was taken away from Native Americans. Over time, much has changed, yet much remains the same. There still exists a demographic of peoples in this country that more greatly benefit from public education than others: those of privilege. 

“Teach a man to read and he will be forever free.” 

-      Frederick Douglass

Throughout history, where privilege seems to be held by those of color, those threatened work diligently to take it from those of color in order to preserve their form of privilege. Consider the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which guaranteed citizenship to Mexicans and Native Americans following the Mexican American War. The Treaty further guaranteed the continued use of Spanish as the official language of the territory – including in education. So why was bilingual education outlawed in California by Proposition_227 and in Arizona by Proposition_203? Treaty broken. Privilege maintained. Nothing new. 

In a post last week, I asked: How can we tout "American Excellence" when we denigrate linguistic diversity and competency that is requisite for doing business in the rest of the world? (Video here on  LinkedIn.)

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This holds even greater relevance when you consider the extreme advantages that multilingualism provides in education and later life, particularly for those who may pursue careers in large, multinational corporations. In the U.S. Government, roughly 80 federal agencies need people who are proficient in 100 different languages. Languages and proficiencies we do not support in PK-12 public education. In addition, only approximately 8% of college students take a foreign language class. How many public schools have K-12 language immersion courses available for every child so that learners are bilingual and biliterate upon graduation? How many private, boarding and prep schools mandate dual language instruction for their learners? 

Roughly 80 federal agencies need people who are proficient in 100 different languages. Only about 8% of college students take a foreign language class.

Our linguistically diverse learners who come to school already speaking a language other than English are typically, at best, educated into a state of semi-lingualism by grade 2, then transitioned to English. They may speak their home language, but public schools do not routinely fully teach them to read and write in their native tongue; nor do students receive grammar, usage, and mechanics instruction in their native tongue. Where we should applaud the skill set those learners bring to the school, we instead engage in subtractive instruction. We position the highly English proficient speaker as the ideal, assigning it privilege, rather than applauding, recognizing, and supporting the increased cognitive abilities science has evidenced as an advantage in bi/multilingual learners.

The assignment of not-privileged extends beyond just academic achievement. The actions taken against those doomed to the not-privileged status in fact sustain the privilege for others. Consider how children of color suffer from a disproportionality of referrals to special education, suspensions, expulsions, graduation rates, resultant un/employment rates… I could go on. 

Some will question why I refer to Black and Brown children (or children of color) in this discussion and not include those of poverty. Simply put, poverty can be masked; it can be overcome by hard word and opportunity; however, a child cannot shed the color of his/her skin. It is easier for those who hold implicit (and explicit) bias to assign privilege based on skin tone than on income. 

Poverty is not a proxy for race. Poverty can be masked…; however, a child cannot shed the color of his/her skin.

So the next time you prepare your mouth to speak of the underprivileged child of color, take a moment. Reset. Shift your mind. Call the thing the thing that it is. Refer to them as not-privileged. Then, verbally reference those learners you’ve always considered the ideal – those who come from middle class families; whose parents take them to Sylvan and Kumon to get ahead; who conform to the assigned normative idea of the All-American student and never challenge the (believed or perceived) authority of the teacher; whose English is impeccable and whose opportunities for acceptance into, and graduation from, college are unquestioned as privileged. Think it will create discussion? It should. Think the replacement of under with not in our academic lexicon will work to shift more minds. It needs to.

Standards alone will not raise student achievement. There must be a commitment to providing #AcademicEquity, so that we teach every learner without #ImplicitBias and with strong accountability.