Abby Erdmann had a pretty privileged upbringing, which she says she thinks about constantly.
But Erdmann was also something of an outsider, despite her privilege. Growing up in New York in the 1960s, Erdmann was one of three Jewish students in her school. And — by her own admission — she was fat. Some of the kids she grew up with didn’t let her forget that.
“I was aware of being marginalized. In high school, a very popular student drew a caricature of me, and had an arrow to my mouth, and said ‘n-word lips.’ I think that raised my consciousness,” she said.
The resulting awareness would eventually become her biggest asset because that combination of privilege and being an outsider helped Erdmann empathize with all kinds of people.
After she graduated from college, Erdmann became a teacher.
And Erdmann — now retired — wasn’t “just” an English teacher.
When a student in one of her classes said "race is just skin-deep," she wanted to explain to that student that it was so much more than that, but she didn't know how, and she didn't feel comfortable trying. She let the moment pass, but her discomfort sparked something within her.
Eventually, Erdmann came to recognize that she was a white woman in a world that favors whiteness. She had privilege. So, as a teacher, she decided to take her lessons beyond books. She wanted to tackle race too.
In her classroom, Erdmann taught her students about race in a very unique way.
She offered support to her students of color, but she put most of the responsibility in the hands of her white students: “Because of your privilege, you have tremendous power,” she told them.
She taught her white students that they had the power to listen, to offer support to students of color, and to challenge the power structure that undermines people of color every day.
“The problem of racism isn’t the problem of black kids, it’s the problem of white kids and the white power structure. So I used to work with white kids to teach them how to listen to kids of color when they spoke up, to see their own privilege, to understand definitions of racism,” she said.
This is incredibly important because you can’t challenge what you don’t understand. You can’t fight a problem if you don’t realize it exists. And you can’t do either of those things if you don’t listen to and understand the stories of people who are suffering as a result of that problem.
Erdmann gave her students the tools to understand race and to understand different perspectives, and it changed everything.
Tatiana Fernandez, a former student, nominated Erdmann for an Olmsted Award in 2011. The prize awards exceptional secondary school teachers with $3,000 and their schools with $2,500 to be used as they see fit.
In her nomination letter, Fernandez said of Erdmann: “She always knew how to be a support for minority students in particular and recognized the importance of having difficult and sometimes uncomfortable discussions. Abby was the first person to teach me, as a Latina woman, about whiteness, and be open about things like white privilege, and she was the loudest advocate for those who are normally silenced.”
Erdmann won the Olmsted Award and used that money to start a new initiative, Race Reels, in which films are shown at school assemblies/gatherings to give students and educators a jumping-off point to engage in difficult conversations about race.
For Erdmann, there’s no shame in being white, but there is responsibility.
“Racism is a problem of the 21st century ... and if people like me don’t take it on then who is going to take it on? And it’s not up to black people to fix it; they didn’t make the system, and we’re benefitting,” she said.
She puts the onus on people of privilege, like herself, to dismantle the system.
And while she’s made her share of mistakes along the way, she doesn’t think that experiencing discomfort should mean retreating away from the problem.
She tells her white students, “Guilt is not helpful. Shame is not helpful. Action is.”
With the country so divided, teachers like Abby Erdmann matter. They give us hope for the next generation.
With so much talk around keeping refugees out, with children in poor communities drinking poisoned water, with black bodies strewn across the street, we can begin to feel helpless. Erdmann reminds us that we can make a difference, every day, and that's on us.
What can we do? We can speak up when we’ve been hurt. We can speak up when we see injustice. We can listen. We can be allies. Together, we can challenge what’s broken in our world through acts of empathy and compassion. Together, we can follow people like Erdmann and make this world a better place.