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Our Opinion: White privilege assignment treads on teachers’ rights

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Goldsboro High School’s principal is under the microscope after some say he required more than a dozen teachers to list examples of white privilege they observe in their daily lives and in the workplace.

The News-Argus of Goldsboro and WRAL-TV reported last week that Wayne County Public Schools is investigating teachers’ complaints after independent journalist Kenneth Fine exposed the issue March 26 on his local news website The New Old North.

Principal Christopher Horne assigned some teachers to read Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” published in the magazine Peace & Freedom in 1989, complete a “privilege scavenger hunt” to identify their own privileges and keep a journal to catalog examples of privilege they witness, according to a screen capture on The New Old North that appears to be an email from Horne.

The assignment was part of teachers’ professional development but was not given to all Goldsboro High educators. Several teachers have reportedly filed complaints under the school district’s discrimination policy.

If Fine’s reporting is correct and his copy of Horne’s email authentic, the principal is requiring educators to parrot ideological claims they may not believe, a violation of their First Amendment rights as American citizens and government employees.

White privilege is a component of critical race theory, a controversial discipline whose conclusions are hotly debated. McIntosh’s “Invisible Knapsack” popularized the term, and though it’s been widely cited, “Knapsack” itself is a personal essay, not a peer-reviewed research paper. Many academics have questioned the work’s scholarly bona fides.

It’s a working hypothesis, not an established fact, that race is the source of most societal privileges. Critics say dozens of factors, primarily inherited wealth and power, are responsible for people’s inherent advantages. As for race’s role, that could be reduced to majority privilege — members of the ethnicity that forms the largest component of a society’s population may receive unearned benefits.

White privilege awareness is inexorably tied to our nation’s mistreatment of African Americans. While we acknowledge the horrors of slavery and indignities of segregation, we believe sons and daughters must not bear the sins of fathers and mothers. It’s difficult to see how interrogating every social interaction for hints of privilege will instill equality. It seems designed to provoke defensiveness, sow discord and stoke grievance.

“The idea that you can target an ethnic group with a collective crime regardless of the specific innocence or guilt of the constituent elements of that group — there is absolutely nothing that’s more racist than that,” Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson said in response to a question about white privilege theory in 2017. “It’s absolutely abhorrent.”

Fine claims on his website that white staff members “reflect the minority” at Goldsboro High. If true, are there really countless examples of rampant, unchecked white privilege at the school for teachers to dutifully catalog?

There’s nothing wrong with requiring teachers to read something with which they may disagree. Writing and sharing critiques of McIntosh’s work may have been a useful academic exercise. Telling teachers to take the work as gospel and collect evidence that supports its conclusions, however, is indoctrination rather than education.

Wayne County Public Schools has an obligation to investigate this assignment and report its findings publicly. The school district must voice unequivocal support for its teachers’ right to free speech, free inquiry and freedom of conscience.

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