Be the change, being a teacher, being me

On My Own White Immigrant Privilige

I often get asked how I started writing, where this blog came from.  My answer has always been the same; this blog should b called Pernille’s Random Thoughts.  Pernille’s  thoughts that keep me up at night.  Pernille’s reflections that I need to to make so that I can grow from them.  While I know others now read it, this was never my intention, it still isn’t.

I write for myself.

For the words that otherwise haunt me.

For the experiences, I have to process.

Sometimes I write to share ideas because I am so proud of something that worked.

Sometimes I write to share failures so that others can learn alongside me.

Sometimes I write simply to think out loud, to hold myself accountable, to set my thoughts out in the world so that I can be reminded of what I believe in to my core.

On Sunday, 8 AM, at NCTE, I was part of a session with 6 powerful women.  That morning Jess Lifshitz, Katie Muhtaris, Kathleen Sokolowski, Sara Ahmed, Katherine Hale, Donalyn Miller and I got the chance to share a personal story to help others reflect on their identity and our society.  The invitation was wide open for me to share whatever I felt like.  I knew that this was an opportunity for me to take the privilege that I have been handed because of my skin color, my socioeconomic status, my resources and so many other things and shine a light on it.

And yet, I was scared.  My hands shook.  Not because my risks are great; what’s the worst that can happen?!  (Although I sometimes do forget that things can happen that would greatly affect my family) But because I was afraid of not saying it right.  Of muddling my words.  Of unintended consequences.  But the words came out and so did the tears.  So for all of you who were not in our little session at NCTE, here is the story I chose to share, some pieces already shared on this blog, and others not.

I remember clenching the steering wheel.  The red and blue lights behind me flashing.  My heart in my throat.  My breathing fast.  In my head, I kept wondering what I had done.  I knew I had followed the speed limit.  I knew I had used my blinkers.  I knew my registration was up to date.  

And yet, I was getting pulled over and all of my kids were in the kid yelling at me about the police car behind us.  As the police officer walked up, I was scared.  After all, I didn’t have my Green Card on me.  That little card that grants me the permission to be in the United States as a lawful immigrant.  That little card that tells authority that I am legal.  That little card that I am supposed to carry on me at all times, in case anyone ever needs to see it.  In case the police, or ICE agents, or any other authority ever decides to question whether I have the right to be in the United States of America.

I didn’t have it.  It was at home.  And then the police officer came up to my window.  

I rolled down the window, ready to ask if I could please go home and get it, ready to make promises to always carry it with me in the future.  I still had no idea why I was being pulled over.  

She asked me for my license and I held my breath as I handed it over and she began to speak.

 My brake light was out.  That was it.  A brake light.  I had seven days to get it fixed or else but my “or else” was a ticket, not questioning, not deportation.

She thanked me for my time.  And then she walked away.

She never asked about my green card.  She never asked if I was an American.  She never even thought to ask.  

I almost cried as I pulled my car out into traffic and went home.  

I was raised in Bjerringbro, Denmark, a small town of about 8,000 people.  My mother moved my siblings and me there, I was 6 months old when she found the courage to look for a better life.  My mother was a strong single mother, who also had a wandering heart and so when I was six years old, she moved us to America so that she could write a book at Berkeley.  I was six years old the first time I spoke a word of English taught to me in an inner city classroom in San Francisco.  For seven months I navigated this foreign tongue, I navigated not understanding what someone said to me when they spoke.  I navigated trying to find the bathroom when you don’t know how to ask to leave or even how to say “Bathroom.”  I navigated how to make friends when you don’t speak the same language, how to show I was smart even if I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing.  And just when I felt like I had mastered this new language, this new culture, this new me,  we went home.  Back to Denmark where we resumed the life we had left behind.  Becoming Danish once again, rather than a kid who doesn’t have English as their first language.   


So when you see me; do you see a woman whose first language is not English?  Do you see the ESL student I was?  Or do you just see my white skin?  Hear my American English?

When I was 18, my mother decided it was time to move again and she asked me once more if I would come.  “Stay for a year and if you don’t like it, I will buy your ticket home.”  In July of 1998, I walked up to the counter in Logan Airport and declared myself an immigrant.  I was alone, traveling by myself, and clutching my sealed papers as tightly as I could.  The immigration official, a surly man, pulled me into a small room, took my papers and then opened them without a word.  I stood there silent, afraid that I somehow would make the wrong move or say the wrong thing.  Afraid that at any moment the uniformed man, this stranger, would decide that I was not going to America and just like that I would be sent back home to a country where my family no longer was.   After questioning, he stamped my passport, handed it back and simply said; “Welcome to America” as he led me out into what felt like a whole new world.  


Newly moved to Wisconsin, in my 18 year old glory



For 19 years no one has ever asked me for my papers again.   I have walked freely wherever I wanted to without being questioned, without being pulled over, without name-calling, all because of how I look.  That is white privilege,


When I wrote about how I am never assumed to be an immigrant, someone replied; “Well, that is easy to understand, after all, you look like an American.”

Let’s think about that for a moment.  How can I look like an American when I do not have a single drop of American blood in me?  How can I look like an American when I can trace my Danish roots back more than a thousand years?  How can I look like an American when my first language is Danish and not English?

Take Martha, our nanny.  She is a full-blooded American and yet she gets pulled over regularly for as she calls it “Driving while Mexican.”  She is questioned about her heritage, asked where she is really from, whether her parents came here illegally.  When we go out together, she is automatically viewed as the immigrant and I am not.  Our assumptions about what makes someone American follows her everywhere she goes.  She shrugs it off like it is no big deal, says that’s just the way it is, but I am not okay with that, we shouldn’t be okay with that.  

And I get it,  I am so white I am like a caricature of whiteness.  You see me coming; blonde, blue eyes, tall, my Viking heritage directly responsible for the four blonde children that cruise around with me in our mini-van while we bungle the words to Despacito.  I was born white, it is who I am, but I am on a journey to use my innate privilege to be something more.  Not just an ally, but a fighter.  Someone who doesn’t just shut the door when the going gets tough but leaves it wide open.

My children go to a school that does not mirror us.  It is through circumstance we came to it but by choice that we stayed.   Learning among other cultures, races and identities have brought many questions to our dining room table.  Questions that were hard for us to navigate with our young children, questions who pushed our own thinking.  I shudder to think whether these questions would have been posed by my children if they did not go to the school they do.  And so I think of the choices we, as white people, make as a privileged society to keep our lives homogenous.  How we live in neighborhoods where people look like us, we send our kids to schools where they float in a sea of whiteness, we not only elect people whose values mirror our own but so do their faces.  I can choose to step away from racism.  I can choose to step away from inequity discussions.  I can choose to step away from anything that may be upsetting, dangerous, or demoralizing.

I am privileged because I get to be afraid of the type of reaction my teaching may cause if I continue to discuss inequity.  If I continue to discuss racism. If I continue to discuss what it means to be privileged in my classroom.  I get to be afraid for my job and I get to choose whether to have these hard conversations or not.  But the truth is, there should be no choice.  We, as teachers, are on the front lines of changing the future narrative of this country.  Ugliness and all.  We are the bastions of truth, so what truth are we bringing into our classrooms?

Where is our courage when it comes to being a part of dismantling a racist and prejudiced system?  It is not enough to have diverse books in our classrooms if we are too afraid to discuss diversity and what the lack of humanity for others does to our democracy.  It is not enough to say “You matter” and then do nothing to change the world that we live in.  Or to celebrate diversity and then not accept a child for who they truly are, differences and all.  It is not enough to say we are an ally if our actions don’t match our words.   I don’t need 100 clones of me, I need to create more opportunities for the students to do the hard work.   To offer them an opportunity to decide.   To create an environment where they can discover their own opinion.  Where they can explore the world, even when it is ugly so that they can decide which side of history they want to fall on.

So this year I am planning for even harder conversations.  I am planning on being an ally, for being a fighter, even when I get scared.  We say we teach all children, but do we teach all stories?  Do we teach the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or just the sanitized version that will not ruffle any feathers?  Do we give the students time to discuss, to formulate their own opinions, to evaluate the society that they live in and reach their own conclusions?

I am so white, I am like a caricature of whiteness, but perhaps even this white person can make a difference by not being so afraid.  By listening, by asking questions, and by doing more than just saying that this world is filled with wrongness.

I am no longer just an immigrant, this summer I became a United States Citizen.  I no longer have to fear being deported and separated from my children, but then again; did I ever really have to fear that? Or did my white skin shield me from what it truly means to be an immigrant to this country?   Did it give me the cover of assumptions when I am assumed to be American?  And so I wonder; what assumptions do you make about those that you teach?



My beautiful friend, Jess Lifshitz’ also shared her story, please go read it, it took my breath away.

9 thoughts on “On My Own White Immigrant Privilige”

  1. Pernille,
    What an honest, beautifully told story. Thank you for leading us to have a dialogue about recognizing our own white privilege and making decisions to expose our children to other (and sometimes better) versions of being American.

  2. I was so honored and grateful to be at this session. Your words and the words of all of the other women who told their powerful stories will resonate with me, carry me, and inspire me to do more and do it better. Thank you so much for your honesty, vulnerability, and courage.

  3. Thank you, for not just accepting the privilege that comes with the color of your skin and instead questioning why things are the way they are and having the courage to change things. I heard you speak at Fall CUE last month and I walked away ready to question and work to change what needs to be changed.

  4. Pernille, I was in your session Sunday morning at NCTE. I haven’t stopped talking about it to anyone who will listen or thinking about it in a quiet moment. Thank you for speaking out, I have a bi-racial 3 yr. old grandson. I worry about the world he is growing up in, and with educators like you, I know he will have a much better opportunity to live and grow and be successful in this troubled world we live in.

  5. I could tell you were nervous when you told your story. It’s nerve-racking being first. But you spoke with conviction and compassion. Your story touched us all. I felt so privileged to be there.

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