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Coming out as willfully ignorant

< privileged individual who plans to go into the field of education, I’ve been especially interested in the role that people like me play in the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a system that disproportionately affects youth of color.  This “pipeline” refers to a national trend in which certain school characteristics like zero-tolerance policies, a police presence in schools, and high-stakes testing result in the funneling of certain students out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.  While many aspects of this system might seem removed from our experience, the role of “willful public ignorance” in expanding the prison-industrial complex is something that is relevant to us all. 

It is important to make social justice issues like this one relevant to those in society who aren’t forced to think about them on a daily basis.  Take me, for example- I grew up in the suburbs, a place that fundamentally seems to be, in my experience, one of complacency.  As described by Erica Meiners in her book Right to Be Hostile, whites are more segregated than any other racial group in the United States, and this self-imposed isolation, though it may be unintentional, can have the effect of “cognitively impairing” whites through an “epistemology of ignorance” (95). That is, they are kept from knowing the effects of the white supremacy they themselves have constructed.  At a very privileged place like Carleton, we’re accustomed to thinking of ourselves as being more socially “aware” than the general population, and overall I believe this to be true in some ways.  We have amazing opportunities to study abroad, to hear talks from experts in their fields, to volunteer, and to encounter people from a diversity of backgrounds (if we seek this out).  However, Meiners is pointing out that the very privilege that benefits whites (or wealthy people, or cisgender people, etc.) can actually “impair” the recipients of said privilege. 

In the context of the education field, white or otherwise privileged teachers could be considered less equipped on average to effectively reach students of diverse social identities.  While this might sound abrasive, I think there is truth to this claim.  What is important about Meiners’ assertion is that if we grow up segregated, we can’t expect to automatically be endowed with the skills that enable us to communicate effectively with those who are different from us.  For those of us who hope to go into direct service when we leave Carleton, we can’t expect to be the superheroes.  Rather, we have to continually work at our ability to understand society from a different vantage point. 

I am not writing this to bash anyone or to promote my own social awareness. In fact, I’m one of the people I might be bashing, hence the title of this article.  Most of all, as a senior looking back on my four years here, I’m writing this to encourage everyone to take risks during their time at Carleton- to get to know people different from themselves and to address a little of the “cognitive impairment” we all have, since we all grew up around bias, prejudice and ignorance in some way. 

As I prepare to graduate, I’m often thinking about how important cross-cultural communication skills will be in the real world.  In my experience as an individual who grew up in a relatively homogeneous community, Carleton has provided me with many opportunities to expand my world and to form connections with people who are different from me. 

Sometimes those opportunities at Carleton fall into our laps, and sometimes they don’t, so I want to emphasize how important it is to actively seek them out.  Go to Chili Nights and Bubble Tea Nights; study another language; start conversations with strangers; participate in the newly instituted intergroup dialogue class, “Talking About Diversity.”  Be prepared to be consistently proven wrong in your perceptions of others.  The first step in confronting your own ignorance is recognizing that you have it (and by the way, guilt and defensiveness are highly unproductive responses).  In my experience, one of the most important things we can learn at Carleton is how much we still have to learn, and a permanent openness to what others have to say.

The senior Educational Studies concentrators will be giving a presentation about the School-to-Prison-Pipeline in the Athenaeum on Thursday, May 26 during common time.

Katie Derrah is a fourth-year student and writes on behalf of senior Educational Studies concentrators.

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