Social justice learning in a predominantly white school

Ted McCarthy • Principal Leadership Article

Growing up in Lowell, MA—the setting for Mark Wahlberg’s movie The Fighter—in the 1970s and 1980s, I never thought that I was privileged. My dad was a mechanic, my mother was a homemaker, and we were far from financially comfortable. My extended family consisted of cooks and contractors, hairdressers and house cleaners. No one in my family was well off, which meant that everyone worked hard for the life we had. My dad would leave home at 5:30 a.m. and return at 7:00 p.m. I remember many nights listening to my parents argue about paying bills, worried about what would happen if we ran out of money. We had enough to survive, but there wasn’t any money for extras. The idea that my working-class family was privileged seemed crazy. What advantage did my family have over another?

Forty years later, I understand why that isn’t so crazy after all. As a straight, white, able-bodied man, I’ve never wondered if I was pulled over because of the color of my skin, never worried that I was getting paid less because of my gender, and never questioned my choice to marry any person I loved. Why did my thinking shift on these issues? Because of my work as an educator.

When I was growing up, my parents never sat me down to talk about systemic racism or any of the other “isms” that prevent so many people from reaching their potential. I believe that many caring teachers and dedicated administrators who are white had similar experiences where systemic racism was never mentioned at home. For the parents of my students at Sutton High School (SHS) in Sutton, MA—where I am currently the principal—I believe their experiences also reflect mine.