The Oconomowoc Area School District is limiting discussions about social privilege after a Martin Luther King Day exercise that touched on the subject of white privilege set off a firestorm in that predominantly white community.Particularly, where among the 900 ways there are probably more effective ways than hectoring and guilt-tripping. "We could consider, for instance, what happens when working hard and playing by the rules becomes a formula for privilege-shaming."
Oconomowoc Superintendent Roger Rindo said he was directed by board members during a closed-door, executive session shortly after the Jan. 15 assembly not to allow future activities around the topic of privilege except in classrooms where it is related to a specific course and teachers can provide appropriate context.
"Schools are a microcosm of their communities. And we had parents in our community who felt like the concept of privilege went a little far, particularly for some of our younger students," Rindo said last week.
"It doesn't mean we can't teach children about diversity with the other 900 ways we can approach it."
It appears that the pedagogues in Oconomowoc just rolled out the Diversity Boondoggle's Greatest Hits, and the parents were prepared to push back.
The Oconomowoc controversy erupted in January after a break-out session in which students were invited to fill out and discuss a "privilege aptitude test." Created by the National Civil Rights Museum, the test is designed to illustrate the ways in which some groups enjoy advantages that others do not.The test is in English, are there any questions that might encourage empathy for a speaker of Serbian? Middle and high school students, irrespective of their ancestry, well might perceive the security measures at the local convenience stores or the mall as singling out teens. Those privilege walks are a tendentious bit of guerrilla theater intended to make the facilitators feel powerful. Alternatively, the facilitators aren't sufficiently tuned in to the latest from the Church of Intersectionality.
While some of the questions focused on race — for example, "When I go to a store, people believe I am trustworthy and I will not steal something" — others touched on privileges related to gender, physical ability and more.The idea that skin color carries an advantage touched a nerve among some students and parents in the district, where almost 90% of the students are white. Several parents complained, fueled by conservative talk radio. Parents who supported the discussion also weighed in.
But Rindo quashed a proposal by a student club that focuses on equality to follow up with a "privilege walk" — similar to the exercises that have gone viral on social media — saying in an email that the district has to be "prudent and mindful of the context in which we live and work."
"Our board is fine with discussions about diversity ... but white privilege is a lightning rod for some parents," said [Don] Wiemer, the board president who also serves as village manager and chief of police for the Village of Oconomowoc Lake, a small, affluent enclave on the southeast side of the district.There has to be a better way to get people who are in some ways insiders to understand the ways in which tacit knowledge, whether of bourgeois convention in polite society, or of Serbian in Serbia, confers advantages over outsiders.
"We have poor people in Oconomowoc who are saying they're not privileged ... and people that say, 'Don, we worked our butts off to have what we have,'" Wiemer said.
Those are common reactions, said the Rev. Craig Howard, former executive director of the Presbytery of Milwaukee, who led a church-wide conversation about race that touched on issues of privilege during his tenure.The reverend's sailing ability is worse than his understanding of political economy. If you have no apparent wind, you're drifting, you're not really sailing. You have to move your apparent wind forward in order to go sailing. Teach the underprivileged how to move their apparent wind forward, and watch them thrive. Privilege shaming accomplishes nothing.
Privilege, he said, is often seen as a zero-sum game or a finite pie; for some to gain, others must lose. Those who have it, he said, often cannot or will not acknowledge the social and familial structures that sometimes underlie their progress.
He points, for example, to the way in which most Americans built wealth in the 20th century, through home ownership. That was often limited to whites through practices of red-lining and federally backed mortgages that could be accessed only for homes in white neighborhoods.
"Even if you don't feel the advantage, you don't feel the disadvantage," Howard said. "As you know, when the wind is at your back, you don't even know there's a wind."