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White Privilege, Teaching and Music

Have you heard Macklemore's new song yet? If you haven't, you should probably check it out. Yesterday he dropped his latest song (downloadable for free) entitled, "White Privilege II". It's the follow up to his 2005 song, "White Privilege". The song is almost nine minutes in length and has Macklemore reflecting and analyzing his white privilege within hip hop and the Black Lives Matter movement. Over the last day or so the song has received a ton of feedback, both positive and negative. Folks on both the left and right have taken their jabs at Macklemore but I can't help but listen to this song on repeat. I've probably listened to it over 20 times in the last day.

I feel compelled to write about this song because there is so much in it that, as a white-straight-man of privilege, hits me hard. Let's get one thing straight, what Macklemore is saying in this song has been said by many hip hop artists over the last 30 years. But I think this particular song, with Macklemore's particular pop culture platform, is aimed at white people. I see it as a hope that the dialogue Macklemore is having with himself in the song will push white folks to critically reflect on their privilege and challenge them to use that privilege in a way that can create a more just and equitable world.

But the main reason I can't stop listening to this song is that as a white teacher who works with mainly Indigenous youth, I can't help but feel so much of what he's saying in this song. Since the moment I've been teaching I've tried to constantly reflect on how my privilege and values impact how I teach youth and what the role of a teacher truly is for the youth and community I work in. I know that beyond a doubt that as a teacher who works with marginalized youth in Edmonton's Inner City, I've been treated as someone who "does amazing things" and people tell me all the time how my students are "so lucky to have me". I appreciate those sentiments but I can't help but think if those things are just being said because it makes sense in our cultural psyche to see a white man "helping" or "saving" oppressed youth. I can't help but feel that I'm the one who has benefited from from teaching my students rather than my students benefiting from having me as their teacher.

I can say that I do my best to be a good teacher, but I am not saving anyone. I try not to waste time feeling guilty or bad, nor do I want anyone feeling sorry for me. I can't even begin to tell you the happiness I have in my life that I get to spend (and get paid) my days doing the thing I love the most. However, with my position as a teacher with privilege, I do feel a responsibility to support the youth I teach in helping them and their community seek the justice and peace they deserve.

As a teaching profession, we have to ask why most teachers are white and middle-class and how does that impact how we view teaching and education? What are the reasons why Indigenous youth in our province are twice as likely to drop out of high school than their non-Indigenous peers?

These are difficult questions to grapple with but we can't deny that the most harmful elements of our society such as racism, homophobia and other forms of oppression exists within our schools and classrooms. We have to ask as a profession what can we do to combat these systemic experiences that many of our students face in schools across the province. We also can't deny that there are great teachers doing great things, but as an institution there is much work that we need to take on.

I constantly wonder if I am the teacher my students need and deserve. My life growing up was sheltered within the suburbs of south-western Ontario. I have no lived experience knowing what it's like to face poverty, racism, homophobia, sexism and many other forms of oppression. Since many of my students have dealt with these realities I can't understand fully how that impacts their lives and their ability to learn. I can, however, have compassion, empathy and love for them and do my best to stand in solidarity to give them an education that they're deserving of.

Earlier this year I started a project at my school called, "One Positive Moment". The idea behind the project was to take one photo a day to highlight some of the great things my students do on a day to day basis. As the project got off the ground I got an overwhelming amount of media attention. It all happened so fast that I failed to reflect on how I may have been portrayed as a teacher who is professionally benefiting from working with marginalized youth. The media stories were more about me and my thoughts of my students rather than the students themselves. I don't blame the reporters I spoke to about our project at all, but reflecting back on that experience I can't help but question if my intentions were to truly showcase my youth or was I caught up in all the good attention I was getting from the media? It's a lesson that everything that I do for the youth I teach must come from a place of love. My interests and needs are not what is important. As a teacher, the needs of my students are what should always come first.

I feel it's important for me to be critically reflective of how I conduct myself both as a person and teacher. Although my privilege has definitely given me benefits both professionally and personally, I also have to ask myself what am I going to do with the privilege I have? As a teacher with privilege, I have a platform (albeit not anywhere close to the platform of Macklemore!) to not only influence the youth I teach but also the community and profession I work in. For those of us who have this privilege, we have an opportunity to use it in a way that can bring about positive change. Whether we use it to educate, raise awareness, organize or just offer solidarity to those groups who are seeking peace and justice, we have the opportunity to play a supportive role. It is undoubtedly easier for me, both personally and professionally, to not speak out at all about social justice issues. But if I want to be a role model for my youth and work with other teachers to tackle social justice in their classrooms we have to speak out to at least engage in a dialogue about what we can do.

And this is why Macklemore's song is important. It's important because it's a great teaching tool that teachers can bring into their classrooms to learn with and critically engage with their students. I've always felt that a student can learn more from a song than they will from any textbook. I've been a big advocate of using hip hop in the classroom for a number of years now as I've seen how transformative it can be. To be clear though, using hip hop in the classroom was not an idea that was original to myself. I recognized that hip hop culture was a major part of my students lives and then did my research to see how I could use it. As I researched different hip hop teaching ideas I came across amazing hip hop educators on twitter like Chris Emdin, Timothy Jones, Arash Daneshzadeh and many many others who have been doing this work for a long time. I was so lucky to come across their work and tweak it for the unique hip hop culture that is specific to Edmonton, Alberta.

So please teachers, engage with Macklemore's song in your classrooms. Ask students to ask critical questions about his intentions with the song and how they can reflect upon their own privilege. Engaging students in examining both their privilege and oppression is a powerful tool that allows students to see the world in a critical way. You just can't forget to let them know that the world can be changed for the better if that's what they want.

And remember to not end your exploration of hip hop, music and social issues with just Macklemore. Do yourself a favour and also bring KRS-One, Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, Jamila Woods, Janelle Monae & Wondaland, Frank Waln, A Tribe Called Red  and many others to offer various perspectives of the realities that many face. Hip hop has always been political and the voice of the oppressed. It's time these voices fill the air of our classrooms to challenge us on our privilege and uplift us to create a better world for all.

Comments

  1. Great article. Thanks for sharing your experience. This made me think of the film "McFarland" where the white teacher was made out to be a hero who came in and rescued the underprivileged latino students. You make a really good point when you say, "My interests and needs are not what is important. As a teacher, the needs of my students are what should always come first."

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  2. Powerful and moving blog post. Thanks. As it happens I was listening to Macklemore's song on YouTube as I read your post. Then, automatically, the next video to pop up and play was "Ben Shapiro Destroys the Concept of White Privilege." Give it a view: more grist for the mill and maybe more content for your classroom.

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