Professor David Nurenberg was more than a little stunned the day he read an essay from one of his high school students proclaiming that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was outdated and irrelevant.
“While my first reaction was to pick my jaw up off the floor, I’d learned by then that we teachers need to listen to our students,” says Nurenberg. “Here was a student telling me that he felt disengaged with talk of racial justice because he felt it had nothing to do with him.”
The incident became the tipping point that convinced the English teacher and Lesley education professor that he should write a practical guide for addressing social justice with a focus on white students. “‘What Does Injustice Have to Do with Me?’: Engaging Privileged White Students with Social Justice” was published in May.
In it, he addresses the distance many young white people — particularly those in suburban and private schools — feel when it comes to issues of racial injustice. Written foremost for teachers, the book draws from Nurenberg’s extensive research and more than two decades in the classroom.
Doing the work
For too long, the weight of anti-racist work and “justice initiatives” have fallen to the students of color, according to one veteran African American educator with whom Nurenberg spoke.
“They’re not the ones who need this,” the longtime teacher told Nurenberg. “It’s the 70 percent of the kids here who are white, they’re the ones who need to understand this all and start making changes. But somehow whenever we start talking race and multiculturalism, they become invisible.”
“I couldn’t have come up with a clearer, more concise rationale for my book,” Nurenberg says.
Although he is quick to say that his experiences do not compare with the racism faced by African Americans, while growing up Nurenberg was often made to feel “othered” and marginalized due to his Jewish heritage.
“We get so many messages that being Christian is a fundamental part of being a ‘real American,’” he says. “And, of course, I had to deal with some anti-Semitic jerks in school who carved swastikas in my locker.”
These experiences and his Jewish upbringing drew him toward social justice, but he says it wasn’t until he met other anti-racist educators that he really began to recognize his own white privilege and to understand how racism was part of every facet of society. He began to educate himself, reaching out to teachers and friends of color, studying critical race theory and, he admits, making many mistakes.
“I want to be clear; I am very much still a work in progress; I have decades of cluelessness to make up for,” he says.
Biases ‘baked in’ from birth
Addressing and counteracting the racist biases that “get baked in” from birth needs to be part of affluent white students’ education, says Nurenberg.
“How can we in good conscience send these kids out into the world, into the positions of prestige and leadership that so many of them do wind up taking on, with such a limited understanding of the diverse country in which we live, and the challenges and inequities that are still such a part of that country?” he asks.
The task isn’t straightforward.
“If you’re white, and you live in an all-white neighborhood and attend an all-white school taught by all-white teachers, then it’s really easy to think racism is a thing of the past,” says Nurenberg.
As much as he might like to take a direct approach with students, he’s found high schoolers may respond by shutting down.
“I know people like Robin D'Angelo say this is just more enabling of white fragility, but white fragility is real, whether we like it or not, and unlike reading or writing or math, no state test creates external pressure for kids to work through their discomfort to learn something. Therefore, yes, you do have to help them get ‘comfortable with being uncomfortable,’ as Mellody Hobson says (in her TED Talk).”
Moreover, educators have to consider parents’ reactions.
“In my research, I’ve found this to be the case at suburban schools all over the country: administrators are very, very careful to keep wealthy and influential parents happy.”
Nurenberg says it isn’t a school’s job to indoctrinate students, anyway, but that doesn’t let teachers off the hook for providing an anti-racist education. They should help students think critically and question “what seems normal and self-evident," where they might benefit from injustice, where they might actually be hurt by it, and what roles they can play as allies, working with others to create a more just society.
He hopes educators as well as parents will pick up his book and find practical application to address white privilege and racism.
“I’m not someone who has this all figured out. I’m a white guy still very much on his own journey to try and become less entangled in racist habits and more skilled as an ally,” Nurenberg says. “What I can do, and what I hope I have done, is share some of the processes that helped me, that helped my students and that helped the students of the other educators whose experiences I’ve referenced within.”