SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2015       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Luke Dale Emerson

A Child's Realization of White Privilege

image            I was living in South Beach, Florida and I attended North Beach Elementary School. At this school white people were a minority and often found in accelerated classes. I was not in one of these advanced classes so I found myself in classrooms filled with predominately African American and Cuban kids, or as I saw it, black and brown students.

            It was 1998 and I was in 4th grade. I was young and I was under the impression that I, along with my family and other white people, were just a little bit better than everyone else. It didnít matter to me that in class we learned about civil rights, because my parents made me out to believe that civil rights didnít matter. This was a time when civil rights issue were in turmoil due to things like the Rodney King race riots, blacks and Hispanics being targeted in a number of high profile police brutality cases, and affirmative action controversy. These issues, along with past civil rights issues, helped shape my parentsí views on civil rights, which directly influenced my perspectives of civil rights and on the students in my class. That perspective was that I was somehow superior for being white. 

            It was the third day of class and our first homework assignment was due. I chose not to do the assignment so I could go to the beach with my older brother.  I had nothing to turn in when the homework was collected. My teacher, Mrs. Hotaling, called me up to see if a homework assignment with no name on it was mine. I thought to myself, I would be in less trouble if I said yes so I lied and said yes it was mine. Next, she called Cameron up to ask him why he didnít have his homework. He swore he did the assignment and even suggested he may have forgotten to write his name on his paper. The teacher asked me if I lied and I said of course not. Mrs. Hotaling, my white fourth grade teacher, believed me over the young black boy, who was at times was a bit of a distraction in class. Cameron even got sent to the principal and had to do a writing assignment about honesty. I could have told the truth but I just figured if the teacher had made up her mind, and the only person in trouble would be a black boy, that I would be ok. I know Mrs. Hotaling believed me because we were the only two white people in a class full of ďminoritiesĒ at a time when civil rights was such a hot topic. It was the first time in my life I felt the benefits of white privilege. 

            My name is Cameron, I am a 4th grader who attends North Beach Elementary in South Beach Florida. I go to school with mostly African Americans and Dominican Americans. There are a couple white people in my class but my mom taught me that I shouldnít trust those white people.

            See I live in a time of great racial turmoil. A few years ago a jury of 10 white people and only 2 minorities acquitted four police officers who had been charged with using excessive force in arresting black motorist Rodney King. The announcement of the verdict enraged my black community because of the brutality caught on film. Not only that but I live in a time where affirmative action must be implemented just to give my brothers and sister a fighting chance at a good job and good education. It is complete madness what white people are allowed to do and thatís why I listen to my mama when she says donít trust those white people in your school.

                I am a gifted student who never forgets to do my homework. One day my teacher accused me of stealing some white kidís homework. I told Mrs. Hotaling that I did my homework and I forgot to write my name on it. She called me a liar and said it was Lukeís homework. She then made me go to the principalís office for lying. I knew I was in a lot of trouble. And for what? Because the only two white people in my classroom got together and called me a liar.

            I ended up having to write a paper about honesty, but honestly I wanted to write about how it wasnít fair that my white teacher took a white studentís side no questions asked. It was unfair treatment and I am so livid. This is exactly the racist thing my mom warned me about. I am afraid Luke is going to steal all my work again and I canít do anything about it. I hope this type of racism doesnít continue on. Itís not fair and there is NOTHING I can do about it.

            The day I stole Cameronís homework will always stick out as a predominant memory because since then I have tried so hard to not be like my parents or the Luke who took Cameronís homework. This desire to change and be more accepting of all cultures can be difficult at times due to the morals instilled in me by my parents. My parents, the media, and events like race riots all proved to be evidence that minorities were not to be trusted. I am obviously not the only one who felt this way, as my white teacher trusted me over Cameron. In my young mind I remember thinking, ďwho cares anywaysĒ and I canít help but wonder if my teacher thought the same thing. As I have developed into an educated man of the world, I canít help but feel bad for me, for my teacher and for my parents. We were the face of white privilege as well as the face of back tracking on civil rights issues.

            Every time we have a major stride in civil rights I feel as if America as a nation takes another step back. For example, in 2008 Barack Obama was elected the first black president. In 2010 Arizona passed the nation's toughest bill on illegal immigration SB 1070. Its aim is to identify, prosecute and deport illegal immigrants. The law would make the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and give the police broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. Arizona's controversial law gives local authorities the power to enforce federal immigration laws. Even though the US Supreme Court invalidated most of SB 1070 as unconstitutional in 2012, this is proof that in the fight for racial equality that for every 2 steps we take forward, we take 1 step back.

            The day I stole Cameronís homework is just like American history for me. Today I am a changed man, a better refined person who voted for the first black president, but then Iíll get upset when someone speaks to me in a language that is not my own. It is my own personal battle with civil rights that I fight every day. Cameronís stolen homework is the incident I can look back at and say without a shadow of doubt this was the first day that my own personal battle with civil rights started.


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