Hiding Behind My Privilege
By Dr. Paul J Bloomberg
CEO and Founder of The Core Collaborative Learning Network
My Wedding Day
This is one of my favorite pictures from my wedding day. It was illegal to marry as a member of the LGBTQIA community, so we just couldn’t get married like other people. We decided we wouldn’t marry until it was legal across the whole country. Tony and I didn’t think anyone would come since we had been together for years prior and we were dead wrong; we had hundreds of friends from all over the country join our celebration. We were shocked at how many people honored our dignity by joining our celebration by truly connecting with us.
Our favorite local singer sang a song that my best friend Talonya suggested, Choose You. Our sons, Alex and Taylor were our best men and we had hundreds of friends come to celebrate our “legal” union. Talonya led the ceremony; Tony and I couldn’t stop crying. We were in disbelief that our wedding was real. My brother Scott, wrote a poem for our wedding, and it meant the world to my new “legal” family. At the end of the day we had a huge after party at our house in Little Italy. When I said goodnight to my parents, my dad had tears in his eyes and tears running down his cheeks. He told me that he couldn’t believe that we had so many friends that truly cared about us and knew us deeply. We only invited people that made us feel we had value and accepted us for who we were and this had an impact on my father.
A hole was left in my heart on this day.
My other brother, who I don’t have a relationship with, was absent and this hole has grown larger. Our politics, our spiritual beliefs and the way we treat others are not aligned. I reached out and asked him to come to our wedding because I do love him, but he declined last minute. I know I have a role to play in our division.
We Learn Through Lived Experience
Before I tell you this story, please know that I am grateful for my experiences. They have made me who I am and I know that most people have gone through worse. I know that I have privilege being a gay, white man. I am sharing this story to help make sense of the world we live in; hopefully someone will read it and it will make sense to you too.
As a member of the LGBTQIA community, the concept of marriage was foreign to me, especially because I was brought up in the Catholic Church, where being gay was and still is considered a sin. Gay marriage is not accepted in the church I was raised in.This doctrine would be reinforced weekly in church and weekly in CCD, Catholic education for kids that go to secular schools. I truly believed every word and I hated myself because of it. Our priest was not a kind man and he went out of his way to judge, evaluate and otherize anyone who did not fit his ideals. I literally thought it was a scientific fact that I would go to hell, until I changed. I felt like I was defective and I didn’t know how to change it. I even considered being reprogrammed.
I never had the courage to say it to our priest, because he wasn’t the kind of person that exuded acceptance or love. I could not escape the teachings of the church, because the church played a role in every facet of our life; we even socialized with people from our church. Church was a place where we were supposed to be taught core values, but looking back I internalized values that taught me to judge, label and divide. I judged myself the most and felt like I had no value and my life had no value. I was terrified of our priest and as I moved into Jr. High and High School, church was a place that I never belonged (but I thought I was my problem and mine alone). I would pray every night to change and began to think of ways to end my life completely.
Going to church created intense anxiety and dissonance and it would eat at my soul and my mental health. I remember being told that if anyone wasn’t Catholic, they would go to hell; this kept me awake at night. I didn’t understand how Jesus, who seemed to be the most loving and accepting human being, would ever judge, isolate or make someone feel excluded. But what Jesus taught, was not policy in my church. My negative thoughts took over my life and I started to pretend to be someone I wasn’t. I strived to be perfect to make up for who I really was. I thought if I got good grades (which I don’t believe in now by the way) and did everything right – people would love and accept me.
High school wasn’t better. I would receive anonymous notes calling me a “fag” or other disparaging words and I couldn’t tell anyone; I just held it in and pretended. I couldn’t even tell members of my own family for fear of being “found out”. My older brothers would also call me a fag routinely, so this was a word that would kill me inside.Tony and I both “came out” in the height of the AIDS epidemic so most were afraid of us and we kept our identity a secret in one way or another. Our parents were afraid for our lives literally.
To this day, members of both sides of our family all voted for an administration that does not see me, Tony, my niece Ashley and our Latino son, Alex, as equal. Through lots of conversations and lots of political and spiritual discourse our parents are our greatest allies. They consider us in the way they worship, they consider us in the way they vote, even if it means that they have to sacrifice money. This means everything to Tony and me because we know they truly understand our perspective and that policy change is the only way to acknowledge that we truly belong.
This administration has tried and been successful at rolling back civil rights policy over the past four years. I wake up each day seeing my extended family, teachers, principals, and superintendents and school board members boast about Trump and his policies. They use the #MAGA hashtag and have no realization that America was never great for marginalized communities.
Hiding Behind My Privilege
When I went to college I thought I would finally get to be who I really am. But, my feelings weighed on me so much as a young adult, that I considered taking my own life more times than I can count and I actually tried. I thought I would be better off - not being around at all - because the hate for the LGBT+ community was not only in church, it permeated the campus and our society.
My friends and I were chased through my college town with men armed with guns because I was a “fag”. The police did not care and thought we were being dramatic. For years after, I was afraid to walk alone at night, unless I was with big groups of people.
Later that same year, my friends and I were hit by bottles and cans after leaving a gay bar in Lansing. We didn’t go to the police because we knew it wouldn’t matter and they would find a way to place the blame on us; it had happened before.
There was no hate crime legislation in the 80’s. And for the most part, the LGBTQIA community feared the police. Keep in mind, this was before “Will and Grace” and the internet as we know it. If you were gay, you had to keep it a secret. I just continued to hide and pretend to be someone that I wasn’t. I will never forgive myself for this, but I even victimized other gay people so my secret wouldn’t be found out.
As a white I could hide behind the privilege I was born with. I created a person publicly that I thought people would love and accept - but it wasn’t truthful and those lies eventually ripped me apart inside.
The Journey Has Just Begun: Educational Equity
To this day, if I want to actually be myself, there are parts of the country and communities that I have to avoid completely. Just last year I lost two job opportunities because I was gay. In the same year, after we moved permanently to Brooklyn, Tony and I were walking through our neighborhood and five men started calling us fags and kept doing it. We picked up the pace and found a safe place to hide.
But again, we were able to find safety. Tony and I can use our white, male privilege as camouflage when we need it. I know I would not be alive today, if I didn’t have that camouflage.
In 2018, I was coaching a school administrator and he told me he wanted to integrate his school but his parents would not accept it. Parents enrolled at that school so their kids didn’t have to be around “those kids”, speaking of students from poverty and students of color. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
I also hear educators labeling kids by their grades, test scores or numbers. In some states they call kids by numbers based on scores. I have heard, “Oh she is a one so she belongs in that group.” They use terms like “English language learners” or “SPED” labels, as a way to describe their students. These labels, when publicly said, communicate to everyone that these students have deficits. These labels are deficit minded and this is acceptable practice because our system encourages it. Our system encourages test prep so kids are prepared for the test. Our priorities are off as a country when our students and parents don’t feel safe inside or outside of school and in their community at large.
We also judge teachers for using the same labels our system encourages: “the low kids”, “the ELL’s”, “the SPED kids”, the “AP” kids. From a leadership perspective, I personally know principals that don’t allow “just anyone” to be enrolled in their school. Especially if the student doesn't have a high-test score transferring in.
However, the education community is just responding to the policies and culture of “testing” that our federal government, state agencies and school boards have adopted and designed. And in our country, we use test scores as a weapon, even though It is common knowledge that standardized tests are biased and racist. Yet, we label the best schools as the schools that have the highest scores; there are websites devoted to spreading lies about the kind of education a child will get if they go to “those schools”. You can’t say logically that there is an achievement gap when our policies have been created and our tools for measuring learning are systematically flawed.
The fact of the matter is, the students we label as low achieving, are largely students from poverty and from communities of color. We have students suffering from depression and trauma and they are labeled as lazy or not motivated. The labels we throw around so fluently (and I catch myself doing it too) are biased based on systemic flaws. Our system and the accompanying accountability system was designed to sort, separate, divide and label.
How is this system good for kids? I have always been able to hide behind my privilege but there are so many people in our world that don’t have that luxury.
The problem isn’t the students or the parents, it is the system. And our national accountability systems for public education have systemic-racism baked into the cake. Some of the best schools I have ever had the privilege to coach were so-called “low performing” schools, but the teachers and principals believed in the kids, believed in the community and created a compassionate community where everyone knew they belonged. All kids made progress based on where they started, but this progress wasn’t enough for federal accountability systems and or local benchmarks.
Accepting and Working On My Ignorance
I will never understand deeply about racism because I have never lived It and because I was born with privilege. However, I try to understand as best as I can through my own lived experience of being judged, labeled, excluded and even physically hurt. I try to empathize, be patient, truly listen and not judge the kids or their families. I try to remember what it was like when I didn’t feel safe when interacting with the police. I strive to remember what it felt like when people of power dismissed my complaints or just told me that “life is hard – just be a real man”.
I have no idea what it is like to be followed in a store, or to be pulled over by the police in fear of your life. I don’t know what it is like to be afraid to go for a walk in my neighborhood. I don’t know what it is like for police to break down my door and decide I am guilty before even knowing me or having a just trial. I don’t know how it would feel if the president called white nationalists “very fine people” in Charlottesville. I don’t know how Latino families feel when they see their community being caged at the border when they were legally seeking refuge.
But every time I have been challenged, hurt or afraid, I have always been able to camouflage my true identity behind my privilege.
And now I take you back to where this story began – my wedding day. For the FIRST TIME in my life on my wedding day I felt valued by the country I live in; I felt like I belonged. And up until I got married, I would not publicly tell anyone about my personal life or my family – especially when I got a new client in a different state and city. Even when I was a principal I didn’t tell the parents at my school anything personal. And even though I am ashamed in writing this, I still eliminate facts about my life, depending on where I am working.
But, at least I always have a choice. I can hide who I really am depending on the circumstance. I can camouflage my identity.
I am writing this blog, because a teacher that I love and admire wrote me and told me that I have changed recently and I was full of hate and that she wouldn’t do any work with TCC ever again. She was a friend of mine on Facebook and she clearly was talking about my political stance. I took her feedback to heart and realized that my language must be polarizing.The last thing I want to do is divide us even more, but I feel I have a responsibility to speak up when I know things aren’t right.
I am gay, I am a husband, I am a parent of a hispanic son and a son that has struggled with mental health and drug addiction. I am a small business owner that employs 14 people and contracts over 70 consultants. The actions of the White House and local politics negatively affect my family, the schools we support, my business and my friends.
Now, I am trying to pay closer attention to the language I am using in my posts, but realized even more that I must be a change agent, just like everyone else should be in our country. What is happening to our country and our citizens is unacceptable. We are the richest country in the world and our citizens' well being and their lives are at stake and have been since our country was founded.
Using My Voice
I have come to the decision that I will continue to use my voice and whatever influence I have to be truthful about what is going on. I have vowed to watch and read news with varying perspectives so I am well informed. This isn’t really about politics for me, this is about humane, compassionate leadership and legislation that ensure that ALL citizens flourish. This is about having a competent strategy that is communicated clearly and concisely from leadership and having accountability systems in place so policies are implemented with quality. We must demand new policies so everyone feels valued and honored for their lived experiences, especially for marginalized communities that existing American policy is not working for.
It is clear that COVID-19 magnified the problems we have had for hundreds of years. We need national healthcare and this is a right for every citizen since we are the richest country in the world.
I will continue to speak out against policies, language and lies that our current administration is using to divide us. I will speak out against our secretary of education that has never had a job in public education and is diverting public funds to private schools.
Our leader is not compassionate and he says racist things often; I have concluded he is racist and by researching his life and his actions, he has been racist his whole life. This administration has dismantled policies that lead to cleaner air and water.
Our administration has jailed children in cages on the border. He speaks about immigrants like they are not human beings; he describes them as murderers and rapists. His administration has not created a clear federal response during this pandemic and it is ravaging the elderly and communities of color.
Our own White House has released CDC guidelines and our own administration encourages states not to use them. Our business has struggled to make things work because of poor federal communication and their complete lack of planning.
Our president refuses to wear a mask and now NOT wearing a mask is a political statement of freedom. How can protecting other people be seen as political?
You may call it hate; I call it truth. Using my voice, based on my experience, is the only thing that I have. I owe it to my family (Tony, Alex and Taylor), my friends, the people in my education network and marginalized communities, to speak out against hate, division and poor policy, especially when our own White House continues to sow hate and division.
I have realized that I can use my privilege to make a difference for my family, friends and for the learning network we support and using my voice and embracing who I am is vital.
Looking to the Future
I remember the day my brother Scott, a devout Catholic and a Republican, spoke at our wedding. We aren’t the closest, we don’t spend a lot of time together, he doesn’t really know our boys and he really doesn’t have a deep understanding of our mission at the Core Collaborative. We differ in our politics, but I love and accept him and his whole family unconditionally. As a young gay man my brother and his wife were always there for me and I will never forget it.
I got this picture from my niece Kelsey; this is her daughter Eliza. My brother Scott is her grandpa.
Scott and his wife, Linda, raised Kelsey and her brother, Luke, and lesbian sister, Ashley, to be free thinkers, compassionate, empathetic critical thinkers and I know they will all say personally that they have priviledge. Ashley and Kelsey have devoted their lives to public education and I know they are incredible teachers. When I saw this picture, memories of my life flooded over me and I felt not only hope, I knew that change has to start within our families, at church and in our local communities.
Most people would agree to raising our kids with the values Eliza is holding in her hand. I also know that Scott and his wife Linda, raised my niece Kelsey to actually care about humanity. I know Kelsey and her husband Ryan are devoted to making policy changes locally. They will raise Eliza to be compassionate, empathetic, kind, open minded and a change agent, just like Scott and Linda raised their own kids.
After 50 years of life and using my white privilege as camouflage to hide my true identity, I just added “LGBTQIA Proud” to my Twitter account. I know it seems like a small step, but progress is progress. I will no longer hide behind my white privilege and I will continue to use my privilege to make a difference for others.
Dr. Paul Bloomberg is the founder and Chief Learning Officer for The Core Collaborative, a learning network that specializes in student-centered approaches to learning. Paul is the co-author of the best-selling book,Leading Impact Teams: Building a Culture of Efficacy, published by Corwin Press. He is also a national Author Consultant for Corwin Professional Learning and is a North American Visible Learning consultant for John Hattie. In addition, Paul serves on the advisory board for Spiire, a network made up of individuals, coaches and thought leaders committed to growing the potential of LGBTQI community.