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Teach For America Alumni Reflect on Power, Privilege, and the Achievement Gap

We originally wanted to write this post to commend—and recommend—Dr. Camika Royal's thoughtful and courageous article on the term "Achievement Gap" that was recently published on GOOD. In it she argues that the term is a manifestation of white privilege and power, and that Teach For America's use of the term makes it comes across as an organization that doesn’t reflect enough on privilege and power in our work in communities across the country. We are thrilled to share that many groups and individuals in Teach For America, including our president, Matt Kramer, and our recruitment team have recently taken on this discussion of the term "achievement gap" and that this discussion has been in the air for a number of years.

However, as Teach For America alumni and staff members discussing the article together, it was only a matter of time until we wandered into various social media spaces to see other people's reactions. In particular, a thread of responses on Twitter, Facebook, and Yammer (the internal social media platform for TFA staff) led us to conclude that perhaps the reactions to Royal's article were something that commanded more attention than the article itself.

We were disheartened to see a demonstration of what Lisa Delpit calls "The Silenced Dialogue" (PDF) on social media. In The Silenced Dialogue, the voices of the oppressed and marginalized are silenced by the power and privileged exercised by the dominant in a society. The oppressed are silenced when the powerful contradict, attack, or ignore what they have to say. In turn, the oppressed and marginalized silence themselves when they resign to hopelessness because no one is listening.

In the case of Royal's article, it seems as though the Silenced Dialogue took place when she shared her first-hand experience, her carefully-crafted reflections, and her expertise as a Doctor of Philosophy—many people took offense to either what she had to say, or how she said it. We believe acts of power and privilege that most likely exist along lines of race, class and gender are implicit in the reactions to Royal's article, and this Silenced Dialogue commands our full attention.

There were three primary categories of reactions that shed light on privilege, power and the Silenced Dialogue. One of these reactions can be categorized as folks who said, "I'm offended," or "I am hurt by the tone of the article." With all due respect, we would ask those folks to check their privilege as they make those kinds of statements.

With a statement like that, what I am actually doing is forcing others to say stuff in a way in which I can hear it, or demanding others to say things in a way that make me feel good. It's as thought someone is crying, and I tell them to stop crying because it makes me feel bad, or I say it's acceptable for them to have a sniffle or two, but please, no sobbing.

In other words, you need to change the way you're feeling so that I don't have to change the way I'm feeling. In doing so, I suggest that Royal is somehow less correct by putting such feeling behind her words, rather than seeing that her words are that much more important because of the feeling behind them. Furthermore, a person rarely gives feedback on how something is delivered, as long as they agree with what is being delivered. We only critique the way something sounds when we don't fully agree with it. We should then analyze what in the actual meaning is so difficult to accept, while asking ourselves, "Who gives me the right to check her emotions?"

A second category of reactions can be described as folks who said, "I agree somewhat, but…" From there, they might have said, "I still like the term 'achievement gap,'" or "I don’t mean it that way when I say it" or that "I know other people who come from a similar background who don’t feel that way."

If I find myself with that reaction, I need to pump the brakes and say what I really mean: "I am uncomfortable, and I don't want to give up my comfort for this person." I am allowing the pain of the speaker to continue, and in fact worsen, as I try to silence it, all in the names of maintaining my position of comfort.

That in and of itself is a massive privilege, as is the notion that my 10 minutes of reading and reflection somehow trump Royal's years of lived experience and doctoral training, and the collective voice of many people who have said the same about the term "achievement gap" for years. For those who say that "I don’t mean that when I say, 'achievement gap,'" it is a privilege to live in a world where I have complete control over the meaning of my words and how they are interpreted, and where I do not have to think about the broader implications of the things I say and the words I use. It has been said before that privilege is the ability to ignore another person's suffering, so if I find myself with the "I agree, but…" reaction, I need to ask myself, "Who gives me the right to ignore Royal's expertise, experience, and suffering?"

The third category of responses belongs to a group of folks who wholeheartedly agreed with Royal's assertions. It would be awesome to think that this group—us included—is exempt from systems of power, privilege and domination, but we know that the world doesn’t work that way. We need to remind ourselves that more people belong in this category than we think, but their voices are probably silenced by the previously described groups of people. We also need to move beyond any anguish we may feel by this new enlightenment or any affirmation we feel due to our agreement by raising our voice and moving our asses. In this group, we need to ask ourselves, "What are we going to do about it?" This dialogue seems absent altogether in most circles.

This analysis of privilege and power is not one that is done for simple curiosity, but rather one that carries serious implications for Teach For America—and for education organization and reformers as a whole. First, we need to take a further step to see the ways in which categories of responses exist along lines or race, class and gender, and along lines of power. The reality is that the culture of power always feels hurt by their loss of power. But the oppressed and marginalized feel a different hurt altogether. Whose pain we most respond to organizationally speaks volumes about whose humanity we most values.

Second, when it comes to instances of injustice and oppression, we don't need consensus to end the oppression. When we see oppression, we move against it—we don't need to wait for consensus. So for those of us writing this, it would do us well to look forward in our addressing of this issue, rather than to look around and wait for everyone to be on board. Third, we need to deeply reflect on the cruel irony that Royal was actually writing about the way our organization comes across when we don’t examine our privilege and power, and this is exactly what has played out in the Silenced Dialogue about her article. I would imagine that Royal would rather have us talk about that power and privilege, than to uncritically substitute one set of words for another.

We also must remember that in this human experience, we all bump our heads and stub our toes as we learn new things. We have to remember that even though we may think we are innocent, in many instances, the things we say and do may be incredibly hurtful to other people whose perspectives we haven’t quite learned, and whose person we haven’t quite humanized.

In the same way that Royal courageously put herself on the line by writing her article and risking the painful criticism that was sure to come her way, we all have to be vulnerable enough to endure the pain of criticism. And in the culture of power, and the Silenced Dialogue, we have to critically examine the ways in which our quest for comfort and belongingness silences the voices of others.

In taking our own advice, give us the chance to be open-hearted, patient and understanding. We are ready to dialogue.

This post is the collaborative work of Teach For America alumni and staff members Victor Diaz, Anasstassia Baichorova, Molly Bryson, Jamie Jenkins, and Tamara Urqhart

Discretion image via Shutterstock

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