I started writing this blog on Black Friday, and instead of doing my part to boost the economy by scoring an awesome deal on some Powerbeats by Dr. Dre I’m sitting in a coffee shop reading headlines coming from college campuses around the country.

You might say that things have been brewing for a while, but the student protests that ended with the ouster of the University of Missouri president have spawned dozens more like them across the US — along with a great deal of backlash:

  • Black tape used to cover an allegedly racist seal at Harvard Law gets a counter protest when the same type of tape is used to deface portraits of black faculty members.
  • A sit-in at Princeton in protest over the allegedly racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson leads to a counter charge of bullying.   
  • Protesters hit closer to home at UNC-Chapel Hill, demanding the firing of newly appointed system president Margaret Spellings during a school-sponsored town hall on race and inclusivity.

All of this has played out against a wave of “political correctness run amok” charges, and even a primer on how to write your own blog on the issue.

Unfortunately, the impetus for many protests around the country is all too real, and very much still in the news — with massive protests over the shooting of Laquan McDonald shutting down parts of Chicago for several days.

At this point, you might ask why I am writing about this at all. A shooting in Chicago. Sit-ins at Princeton? Things at Cary Academy are fine. Or at least I think they are. Are they?

Earlier this month, Dr. Peggy McIntosh visited Cary Academy to speak to our employees and hold an open session on “Coming to See Privilege Systems.” Her visit was not in response to any particular issues here, but part of an ongoing effort to understand ourselves and others. For two years now, we’ve had employees and parents participating in McIntosh’s SEED program to foster conversations that drive positive change.

McIntosh is a living legend in her field, and from my view her particular genius is her ability to create the climate for self-reflection and empathy.   

McIntosh helped our group unpack what she calls our “invisible knapsack” — ways in which we experience life as a result of the color of our skin, the place of our birth, or anything else that we may have been privileged with rather than earned. The way she tries to get at this is to ask self-reflecting questions: Some examples:

  • If a traffic cop pulls me over, I can be pretty sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

McIntosh’s original 1988 list had 46 such questions, many of which dip into what we might consider regular parts of life (like easily finding greeting cards depicting your race or ethnic background) and to read them made me feel that I am walking through life experiencing a different world than others. It also caused me to reflect on my 17 years living as an expatriate overseas, and in particular 10 years in Brazil.

There were many times in Sao Paulo where I felt unease with daily living: getting stares in grocery stores, feeling worry about getting pulled over by the police, watching unfamiliar faces and customs on television. At eight-months pregnant, my wife was sideswiped by a speeding truck driver after dropping off friends at their apartment. I will never forget the helplessness and anger I felt as I arrived on the scene. Was she being held at fault for having the audacity to drive while pregnant? For being female and a foreigner? Was she getting the care she should, or were the medics and police downplaying her potential injuries to minimize the headache of doing paperwork or to protect the male truck driver? The rules were unfamiliar and things moved faster than I could process them.

Thankfully, she and the baby were OK — even if my adrenaline still spikes to this day when I think about it. Interestingly, McIntosh’s visit got me thinking about the rest of the story. The story I don’t tell myself too often.

You might imagine that the following weeks were a mess for us — filling out accident reports, fighting with insurance companies, worrying about getting ripped off by the mechanics. Instead, I walked into the business office at the American school where we worked and was given full support to take care of everything.

My treatment had less to do with race than with resources, but reflecting back made me realize that with the one exception of being overseas during 9/11, we always felt that we had the means to leave our situation at any time should it become too uncomfortable or dangerous.

At the heart of the SEED program is a protocol that McIntosh calls serial testimony. The process involves bearing witness to our own experiences and taking responsibility for our own thought. The first aim is not to solve problems or even create dialog. It is to share experiences (as opposed to opinions), which is a powerful first step in building the trust to create strong community.

There are a lot of strong opinions being shared right now regarding the wave of college protests, with strong support and sharp criticism. It is not my purpose here to weigh in on whether I think these students are enlightened or entitled. However, in what can be a pretty cynical world, I can applaud these kids for wanting to make things better, and I’m grateful that there is space at Cary Academy to talk about these important issues.

Despite calls to make college all about job training, I firmly believe in a much higher purpose for education than creating more purchasing power for Black Friday or Cyber Monday. If college isn’t the place to protest perceived inequality — be it enlightened or entitled — where is? Young people caring about social justice and actually wanting to make change? I don’t want to live in world where this no longer is the case.