How to Melt a Snowflake: Thawing Denial of White Privilege Among Pre-service Teachers
“I don’t use the N-word.”
“I didn’t own slaves.”
“I know Black people who have it better than me.”
“What about reverse racism? Why aren’t we talking about that?”
I hear this a lot from my college students (all education majors) as we begin to learn about racism. Many students believe that it’s about specific acts of prejudice, such as a hate crime. Students who say they ‘never do that’ believe that they are outside of the system of racism And that’s exactly what it is: a system we all need to understand.
This is the point in the learning when the ‘Snowflakes’ begin to resist. ‘Snowflake’ is a term often applied to white people whose emotionally fragility prevents them from facing the reality of structural racism. The mere mention of ‘white privilege’ unleashes a Snowflake blizzard of defensiveness and denial. After all, it’s easy for these students to stay blind to problems they don’t have—until I prod them to look more closely.
That’s what I do in my class. I melt resistance. I do this by requiring students to interrogate how society operates. They must anlayze how inequalities are constructed and maintained through social, educational, and economic institutions.
Dissolving entrenched attitudes requires carefully-scaffolded instruction that begins with an examination of personal experiences, unconscious biases and more. (I’ll save those teaching techniques for another time.)
Once we’re ready to go deeper, I put a bigger problem on the table—segregation in our region (Detroit)—and ask students to explain the causes. Why is it that the city was once 80% white but is not 80% black? Did a bunch of KKK-loving whites just decide to move out? Was it just about individual ‘choices’?
To answer this, we look at systemic causes—particularly, federal housing policies after World War II that provided loans for whites to move to the suburbs. People of color were not only ineligible, loans could not be used to repair homes in existing city neighborhoods. Students must consider the concepts of benefits, barriers, and burdens. They must ask, How did white people benefit in this situation even if they didn’t know or choose to? How were people of colored burdened? What barriers did they face? Through the inquiry, students uncover the structural roots of ‘white flight,’ urban disinvestment, and the cascading impacts on schools.
We repeat this analysis in different contexts, such as the disproportionate suspensions of Black students in schools. Gradually, students come to understand what white privilege really is: countless unearned benefits derived from rigged systems. Students realize that being ‘non-racist’ individuals is not enough; they must become anti-racist educators who accept the responsibility to melt their resistance and challenge inequities built into everyday structures.
Just as winter snow gives way to spring, thawing white resistance can give way to new growth.
Are you working to end the blizzard? Share your ideas in the comments section.