Best-selling author discussing white privilege
Brendan Kiely, an award-winning New York Times bestselling author, will offer a candid conversation about how he, as a white man, experiences privilege and what can be done to change our culture during a virtual dialogue at dinner time on Monday March 7th.
Presented by SUNY Cortland’s Anti-Racism Task Force and the University’s Literacy Department, the evening with Brendan Kiely will take place from 7-8 p.m. Registration is mandatory.
This inaugural dinnertime dialogue builds on the rich history of sandwich seminars supported by the Office of the President of SUNY Cortland. The dinner dialogues, which give attendees a space to engage in conversations about issues related to anti-racism and anti-oppression, are free and open to the entire campus community.
Kiely’s 2021 book,The Other Conversation: Counting With Our White Privilege, offers this much-needed conversation for white kids who probably haven’t given much thought to racism. He is also the New York Times bestselling co-author of All American Boys (2016, with Jason Reynolds). He also wrote Tradition… is no excuse (2018) and other books. Her work has been published in more than a dozen languages and has received the Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award, the Walter Dean Meyers Award, and the American Language Association’s “Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults.”
A former New York high school teacher and administrator who also taught at the City University of New York (CUNY), Kiely now teaches on the faculty of the Solstice MFA in Creative Writing program which is part of Lasell University in Massachusetts. He holds an MFA from CUNY in Creative Writing.
“I grew up in a predominantly white, working-class neighborhood and city,” said Kiely, who grew up just outside of Boston in a town called Melrose, Mass. “And that influences a lot why I think about what it means to have white privilege in my most recent book.
According to Kiely, most kids of color grow up experiencing “The Talk” with their family, the honest discussion about surviving in a racist world. But most white kids are barely talked about race, and that needs to change, he said.
“Because not talking about racism doesn’t make it go away,” Kiely said. “Not talking about white privilege doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
“Even though I lived in an area where it didn’t seem like ‘quote-quote’ racism affected many of us around me, looking back it’s thinking about how my experience growing up wasn’t diverse and I think it helps influence why I think so much about racism and racial identity today.
He remembers very well, when he was in high school, the cover of The Boston Globe the next day, rock band Green Day held a free concert in Boston that turned into a riot, injuring over 50 people. Although from later publicity the 1994 melee does not appear to be race-related, the newspaper photo tells a different story.
“The photo was of a white man – who looked Irish to me – with tattoos on his bicep, fist back ready to punch a black man. It resonated with me like, “This kind of racial tension is happening in the city that I identify with the same way it was happening in the 1970s during the bus boycott riots.” It was quite a surprising moment for me to realize how little had changed since then, despite my thought that it had come before in my life.
It also appeared to Kiely that he had never socialized with the black children who were bussed through his predominantly white town when he attended elementary school.
“I wanted to be harder on myself to find out why I hadn’t done a better job of being more inviting.”
He is amazed that people whose own ancestors found a new life in America but faced adversity – such as discrimination against Irish immigrants or Catholics – does not always welcome newcomers.
“It’s interesting how quickly we let go of our allegiance to people when we use the same story to glorify our own family’s story,” Kiely said. “How do people whose Irish ancestors fought so mightily have no heart for people fleeing war and famine in Guatemala or elsewhere?”
People of color, even across many generations, struggle to overcome their “alien” treatment by white people, who prefer to explain the difference with the narrative of “getting up by their bootstraps.”
“Yet two generations later, I don’t have the same struggles that are attached to my identity, as an indigenous people, people from many black families, people from many multi-generational families in this country but people of That’s why I think it’s critical that white people like mine recognize what privilege looks like as our family history changes from generation to generation, in ways that don’t change as drastically for people who are not white like my family.
“It says nothing about individual character and everything about systemic issues that could and should be solved,” he said.
Kiely estimates he has spoken with about 50,000 school children across the country in recent years as an author and speaker. He hears more stories from them about being culturally accepted and sees more of them on TV shows and in the pages of novels.
“We are a multiracial country and these kinds of stories give me hope that we can better normalize this kind of experience,” Kiely said. “Because it is for so many people.”
For more information, contact organizer Keith Newvine, assistant literacy teacher and president-elect of the New York State Reading Association.