A few years ago, there was a scandal in my hometown regarding an essay question on an 8th grade U.S. History test. The question asked whether students would rather be a factory worker or a slave, and an overwhelming number of students answered that they would rather be a slave because the living conditions or slaves were much better than those of the factory workers during the Industrial Revolution.
Here is a link to the article describing the incident:
As mentioned in the piece, a mother of one of the students in the class was upset with the notion that white, free workers had worse lives than slaves, who were treated like property. This was the first thing that came to my mind last week, when discussing the ideas of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia and Painter’s The American School of Anthropology. Both of these works are based on the notion that black people are of lesser value than other races. They are considered property, equitable to animals. Therefore, the idea that this category is better than being a free, white factory worker is a concept that obviously created a substantial amount of controversy among the minority members of predominantly white Novi who have already felt ostracized.
I remember hearing about this while in high school, and the responses from my peers were even more alarming than the initial question. My classmates did not understand the problem with this question, and defended their favorite 8th grade history teacher. It was difficult to explain to people who have never considered the impacts of race that this question posed a problem and was comparing things that should not be looked at through the same lens. Regardless of factory working conditions, freedom and autonomy are privileges that cannot be ignored.
Both the construction of this question and the casual responses to it from the white 8th graders, my white classmates, and the white administration of Novi Community Schools demonstrate privilege in a very blatant way. These people have never been told that they do not have the mental capacity or potential to succeed. They have never endured discrimination or mistreatment for how they looked. Their ancestors were not considered property and breeding mates for animals; therefore, they do not have the right to judge the situation.
Ultimately, this issue was at the forefront of my thoughts with all of the readings we have done so far, and the historical aspect of race is directly related to the racial issues we see in our society today. The students of Novi are still oblivious to the concerns that were raised by members of the district in regards to this essay prompt, an obvious display of the privilege that they see in their own lives and a luxury that minority students are not afforded.