Privileged Language: Poor Choice of Words

I recently turned to an article in the New York Times for a sermon illustration. So-called “overachieving” communities such as those near Stanford University in Palo Alto, California exhibit an especially high teen suicide rate. Researchers believe the pressure on students to do better and better and the accompanying belief among some teens that they can never be good enough contributes to anxiety, depression and suicide. I compared the experience of these youth to the plight of children in the inner-city who face other sorts of challenges that also lead to feelings of failure and loss of hope. South Church, I suggested, sits right at the intersection of these types of communities, within an easy drive of many of the top prep schools in the country and smack in the middle of New Britain’s urban poverty. In describing this New Britain context I spoke of “New Britain’s failing public schools.” I used this same “failing” language when I posted the New York Times article on the church’s Facebook page.

We have had forums about public education at South Church where I learned that the tax-base in New Britain cannot generate as much income in support of our schools as more prosperous neighboring towns. One of the results of this is large class sizes. Compared to other more suburban settings New Britain has a large number of immigrant families that do not speak English in their homes. And poverty comes with a number of accompanying social problems that interfere with a child’s education. These and other factors combine to contribute to lower scores on standardized tests.

I experienced some of these challenges with my own daughter Abby who attended New Britain public schools beginning in Kindergarten. By the time she was in the third grade we were seeing signs that the large class sizes and the attention required from teachers to attend to children with behavior or developmental challenges was contributing to a decline in Abby’s comprehension, especially in math. These are the kinds of issues I had in mind when I spoke of “New Britain’s failing public schools.”

Pastor Jane recently asked to talk to me after our Tuesday morning staff meeting. She told me that this way of talking about our public schools does a disservice to the hardworking and dedicated administrators and teachers in the New Britain school system as well as New Britain children and families who work hard every day to succeed. This language also takes attention away from the many educational triumphs in New Britain, successful schools and programs, award winning teachers, and standout students, and fuels a widely held prejudice about New Britain schools in neighboring communities.

I felt immediately convicted. Though I knew many of these great things about New Britain public schools I had allowed myself to use the pejorative shorthand, “failing schools” that erased the hundreds of good people working to make the system better and succeed within that system. In fact, our experience with Abby’s public school teachers was always great. They were skilled, hard working and caring, heroic even. But now that Abby has been in the privileged setting of a private school for four years it was easy for me to overlook all this with a dismissive turn of a phrase.

I immediately acknowledged to Jane that I was wrong and thanked her for bringing this to my attention. I didn’t minimize her concern or try to justify or excuse my comment. Yes, the New Britain public schools face unique and complex challenges; and smart, resourceful people are responding to these challenges every day. But facing challenges is very different than “failing.” I am humbled by this experience and reminded how just a little bit of privilege can skew our perspective.

The reason I tell this probably-too-long story is as a reminder for us all about just how easy it is for our perspective to narrow based on our personal experience. I think of the way media and popular culture has come to refer to young, urban, black men as “thugs.” We may think we are using the word to critique particular behavior, but that word fuels a widely held prejudice and erases the many individuals who are striving everyday to achieve better lives for themselves and their communities in response to harsh challenges. Those of us who don’t live in that context enjoy a privilege that allows us to use this pejorative “shorthand” because we don’t see the daily heroic action taken and victories won by young black men every day.

It was because I trust Pastor Jane and know that she loves and respects me that I was able to admit my mistake so readily. I/we often find it much harder to humble ourselves and see from a different perspective. When we feel criticized we tend to dig in and defend ourselves. But being the church is all about offering each other a safe place of love and respect where we can confront each other, identify our limitations, and grow together. This requires practice, practice, and more practice. So let’s get to work!

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