Occasionally my thoughts trick me into believing something is true when I know is not true. How this can be, you ask. Don’t you have control over your thinking, your thoughts? You are an educated person and you should know better. If you can be tricked by your thoughts then can I be tricked too?
The answer is simple; I live in America and have been taught to expect privileges. I receive unearned privileges each and every day of my life by virtue of being a 61 year old white male. I grew up when whiteness was everywhere, in schools, the media and the American culture. I saw whiteness as the norm. I was socialized as a racist, taught to be a racist and grew up believing that what I was taught was the truth. I grew up in poverty by racist parents and was physically and emotionally abused by an alcoholic father. I did not grow up believing that “Father Knows Best”, Ozzie and Harriet” or “Make Room for Daddy” were real families.
Somehow I managed to muddle through, receive four college degrees, marry and have a great wife and two sons, and be middle class. I thought I earned everything, but now know that much was given to me by being white and male in a racist society. I thought that I was not racist because I was a liberal, had friends of color and worked in education. I thought that I was a good person and had left my racist upbringing behind. I thought that since the old signs, “Whites Only” or “Colored Only”, that I saw as a child were gone that things around race in America were fine and that the civil rights movement had succeeded. This was how I was being tricked by my thoughts into believing that America had solved its racial differences with the passage of a few laws. Racial realists (conservatives) in America would say that I wasn’t tricked; that my thoughts were accurate depictions of American society.
About 25 years ago I happened to attend a workshop and attended a session where the speaker was talking about social justice. This was the beginning of my enlightenment about being tricked by a thought. The experience also began to awaken thoughts of equality and equity that I had buried. As I began to read more about injustice, meet and talk to more persons of color, attend more workshops and start talking to white males who were working on social justice I learned that just how my thoughts had been cannibalized by my socialization. I learned of white privilege and white racism and I learned that racism does not have to be overt, that it can be hidden deep within the unconscious and may not even be realized by persons. I learned that I have a lot to learn.
Over the years I have worked on my racism and on social justice. But I am not cured. I have learned that I need to be constantly vigilante because my mind still plays tricks on me. Those old, learned racist tendencies that were so deeply imbedded in my childhood still crop up now and then. I sometimes wonder “Where did that thought come from?” then I know that my thoughts are tricking my knowledge about social justice and I am trying to revert back to old ways of doing things. Old learning’s that I thought I had dispelled were trying to replace my new knowledge.
Institutions were also corrupting my thoughts. Even though I grew up in poverty; I grew away from my roots and understanding and chased the dollar as part of the American meritocracy. I was bombarded by corporations and the government telling me to make more money, make investments, buy now, don’t trust other countries or immigrants because they were after our wealth. There was no let up; I was reading market reports, financial statements, planning retirement, getting raises whether I deserved them or not and I felt that I was still losing ground. Then I realized that these thoughts were tricking me and that I had bought into the Industrial Complex-The Establishment as a good white American. I was willing to forsake my values for a bet on future riches. I was accumulating wealth while the wealth of persons of color was being disaccumulated. I was willing to exclude those who got in my way and gave no thought to those in poverty. Again, learning began to occur and I realized that the old adage “money doesn’t buy everything” was true.
During the time that I was moving toward social justice I was an elementary school principal and I began to request placement at schools with high poverty levels and schools with high percentages of students of color. I did this so that I would never again lose sight of what is really important, what really needs to be done. It was rewarding and the students and families constantly taught me and grounded me on the need for justice. I learned about other cultures and learned about other religions and belief systems. I learned that after trying desperately to leave my past behind that it was here with families in poverty; families considered different from me; families who believed that education was a way out; families who needed me as much as I needed them that I was truly at peace. Through them and their patience with me; their focus on what is right and their total acceptance of me I found the spirituality that I had lost chasing a promise that was so efficiently indoctrinated in me as an American.
I regained that fever that I had for social justice while in college and as a young man. I realized that fighting poverty, fighting for equality in housing and hiring; fighting against war; fighting for human rights was still within me and accessible. It had just been covered up by alien thoughts that I bought into even though I would occasionally bring into consciousness the thought that I was being tricked. My schools kids and families inspired me to return to social justice.
As a school principal I began to fight for more resources, more teachers and a more equitable way of dispersing funds to schools in our district. With a third grade school teacher I implemented equity and diversity training for school district administrators and pushed for the training for all school district employees. I pushed for more groups for GLBT students and curricular changes supporting social justice. I pushed my school district to change.
I had worked for my school district for 24 years and was respected for what I had done. I was once considered one of the “fair haired boys” and was given much of what I was requested until I spoke out for social justice. I found that the school district that I had once thought enlightened was willing verbalize social justice but was not willing to enact it. My thoughts had tricked me into believing that I knew the district and I knew what the district needed. After battling for two years I took early retirement to have more time to work on social justice. Now I work with teachers and administrators in different school district on issues of equity and justice. I work with community agencies and write on social justice. I do miss the daily encounters with children and families but I am more fulfilled now and actually happier since I work with school districts and agencies who are open to change and growth. I am grateful that I did not let my thoughts trick me into staying and continuing to fight a central office that was set against change.
Valuable learning came as a result of my experiences with my old school system. It was one thing to have written goals and beliefs focused on social justice and quite another to want to actualize the goals and beliefs. I learned that working with people who are committed to social justice is easy. It is harder when you try to change institutions that do not see social justice change as beneficial and are resistant. It is harder when you are out there alone. It is easier when you form coalitions and work together to challenge injustice. Working for social justice is hard work but rewarding work. Working for social justice sometimes comes in small increments rather than huge leaps. Many white folks resist social justice because they don’t have to think about race and they can hide in their white suburban neighborhoods. I learned that working for social justice was in my bones, in my heart, in my mind and that it would dominate the rest of my life.
Each day I work at social justice and chip away at the façade of injustice. Each day I remind myself that if I don’t do the work them who will? Each day I remind myself that I have privileges and I can chose not to fight injustice since I am a 61 year old white man but then I realize that there is a 61 year old African American; a 61 year old Latino/a; a 61 year old Indigenous person; a 61 year old Asian American; a 61 year old woman; a 61 year old GLBT person; a 61 year old Muslim; a 61 year old in poverty; a 61 year old person in a wheelchair; a 61 year old immigrant; a 61 year old mentally handicapped person; a 61 year old without medical care and a 61 year old world citizen that cannot chose to ignore injustice since they live it every day. I know that I have privileges and the best one is the privilege to speak out against injustice and give my voice to a more equitable world.
I realize that I can be tricked by a thought; but the thought of social justice is no trick.
Timothy A. Bess
July 25, 2011