Backpacks Full of Privilege
It’s that time of year again. Parents are frantically checking supply lists and packing their children’s backpacks for school. But pencils and notebooks and glue sticks aren’t the only things parents send from home. Rather, parents—or at least affluent, white parents—also send their children with strategies for securing unfair advantages in school.
Opportunity hoarding has long been a strategy of affluent, white parents. For decades, they have tried to rig the system to benefit their children and only their children. Collectively, affluent, white parents fight to maintain race-based and class-based segregationand sidestep efforts to share revenue across schools. Individually, they demand special privileges for their children, including placement in advanced classes (even when their children’s scores are too low to qualify) and exemption from punishment (even when their children misbehave).
But affluent, white parents also go a step further. They teach their children to hoard opportunities for themselves. In interviews I conducted with affluent, white parents, they describe coaching their elementary-aged children to “be their own advocates” and to use their teachers as “resources.” They describe teaching their children to ask and to keep asking; to not take “no” for an answer.
In the classroom, children from affluent, white families use those lessons to get ahead. In the elementary school where I spent nearly three years observing, 8-, 9-, and 10-year-olds ask teachers to check their work on tests. They demand extensions on assignments. They talk their way out of punishment when they get caught running in the halls and when they leave their projects at home.
Teachers feel pressured to grant those requests. They worry about wasting class time on inevitable back-and-forth negotiations. They worry about retaliation from affluent, white parents. And so they say “yes,” even when they want to say “no.”
Unfortunately, when teachers say “yes,” it creates advantages—often deeply unfair advantages—for children from affluent, white families. Those children get more support and attention from teachers. They avoid mistakes on tests and get higher grades on assignments. They don’t get in trouble, even when they break the rules. Essentially, children from affluent, white families are rewarded for demanding special favors.
Meanwhile, children from poor and working-class families and families of color are reluctant to voice their own needs. Their parents teach them that it’s disrespectful and potentially dangerous to ask—that teachers might yell at them or label them “lazy” for seeking help. And so children from poor and working-class families avoid asking, even when they are the ones who stand to benefit the most.
Looking at such patterns, it’s easy to assume that the solution is just to teach less-privileged students to act like their more-privileged peers. There are charter schools and prep school programs founded on that approach. But that approach is problematic. It’s problematic because it ignores the fact that children from poor and working-class families are the ones who are trying to be respectful and follow the rules. It’s problematic because it ignores the fact that children from poor and working-class families and families of color don’t have the power of privilege to ensure that their requests are granted. And it’s problematic because it ignores the fact that students from affluent, white families can just find new ways to get ahead.
A better solution would be to encourage affluent, white families to use their privilege for good. That means using their power of persuasion to ensure that all families have the resources and opportunities they want for themselves.
But, getting affluent, white families to think beyond their own interests is not an easy task. In an era of high-stakes testing, stiff competition for elite college admissions, and precarious financial futures, affluent, white parents are desperate to maintain their children’s advantage in school. That’s why they hoard opportunities. That’s why they teach their children to do the same.
Given those challenges, the best solution is to limit the power of privilege in school. That means decoupling school funding from property taxes. And decoupling school “quality” measures from test scores. If we make privileged parents (and children) less powerful, then teachers will be less afraid to deny their unfair requests.
Of course, those kinds of big, structural changes will take considerable time and effort to achieve. In the short term, then, we need schools to value marginalized students for their respect and deference. That means recognizing that marginalized students might be struggling, even if they don’t say so, and that their off-task or “problem” behaviors might actually be calls for help. In the short term, we also need schools to set and enforce rules in an equitable way. That means acknowledging the disproportionate challenges faced by marginalized families and protecting teachers from backlash when they deny privileged families’ unfair requests. And finally, we need policymakers to fight for smaller class sizes and fewer tests. That way teachers have the time and the resources to reach out to students who need their support the most.
Until then, affluent, white parents will continue to pack their children’s backpacks full of privilege. And children from affluent, white families will continue to use that privilege to secure unfair advantages in school.