Writing about Race

I am white and middle class, I have always had health insurance, been financially stable, never had to fear retaliation from family or friends for dating someone of a different race or gender. In other words, I am privlidged–something illustrated by the privlidge line we conducted in class last week. 

For most of my life, I have operated unaware of this privilege, perhaps understanding in some abstract sense the forces of racism and classism in society without appreciating the way such foces granted me an advantage. As I made my way through public school in NYC in “gifted” programs I was for the most part surrounded by students from the same background–white, middle class, privileged. I recently discovered my college application essays. To my horror I describe my local high school as being filled with “mediocre, unmotivated students”–the same high school one of my younger sisters now attends. My warped perception was based on a misconception that the largest–if not only–factors in academic achievement were intelligence and hard work.

If I didn’t realize the way that privilege influenced my education, you can be sure I didn’t realize the way it influenced my life as a whole. Thankfully, my education–both academically and socially–over the past three years at CUNY has been eye opening  Finally exposed to a diverse learning environment–in terms of not only race and socioeconomic status but also age, gender, sexuality and general life experience–I came to appreciate my own privilege. As a student not just at Hunter but also at Macaulay, I realized the way that our education system functions (especially in defining “gifted” students) is negatively impacting diversity in our schools, which not only negatively impacts marginalized students but also (a more selfish realization) that I–and students like myself–also suffered from the lack of diversity in our eductional experiences.

Such realization has pushed me to write my public policy capstone next semester on diversity in gifted education, looking specifically at public high schools in NYC (I’m sure many of you are familiar with the current controversy over the SHSAT and Specialized High Schools in NYC–one of which, Stuyvesant, I attended). Readings I’ve undertaken this semester (including bell hooks) that highlight the way our education system can reinscribe racialized hierarchies have pushed me in developing my own understanding of privilege and how it functions in my personal life and society.

It is an ongoing process, and I have often struggled with how I–coming from this privileged, white background–should write about race. Though I would like to think that I can sympathize with the disfranchisement faced by people of color given the disfranchisement I face as woman, I know that at some level, such comparisons are apples and oranges, and I cannot truly empathize. In other words, who am I to comment on the obstacles and prejudice faced by women of color?

I hope the answer is that I am an ally, and that I can write and comment on issues of race with sensitivity and clarity–especially if I write with an understanding and acknowledgment of my privileged background.

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About Kaitlyn O'Hagan

Kaitlyn is a Macaulay Honors student at Hunter College, where she studies History and Public Policy.