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Students sitting at large desks in classroom
Photo by Christine Cousins
Feature

On Privilege: Building Community Through Classroom Conversations

Mandi Hardy

Next, with a different colour marker, I underline all the people on the board who are white. It usually takes them longer to fi gure out what this group has in common. This is not the fi rst time in the year that we discuss race. In an earlier class we talk about the difference between racism and talking about race. We talk about how racism is hurtful and tears people apart, but how talking about race is inclusive and builds community. I have noticed among students that, if someone mentions something that relates to race, a student will invariably yell out “Racist!” We discuss how, if we don’t talk about race, that makes parts of people’s identities invisible and unvalued. We talk about how we can discuss race respectfully. Even so, when it comes time to raise one’s hand and suggest that all the underlined people are white, this can be a bit daunting, because of the position conversations about race have previously occupied. We discuss why so many white people were chosen. We talk about the stereotypes and portrayals in the media that might mean that we haven’t heard as much about racialized people who have the qualities we think the best person in the world should have.

Often, by this point, almost all the names on the board have been underlined. Very often, there are no names of racialized women.

This can be a very impactful moment for students. Sometimes they are disappointed in themselves and their classmates. Sometimes they are shocked, because there aren’t any white students in the class. In one class James raised his hand, and asked if we could add the names of racialized women to the board. The whole class enthusiastically added racialized women to the board. I got a little choked up. It was one of those moments in teaching when it really seemed to be working.

After this, students have a real interest in taking action, in doing something to change the world. This is good, because if we are to have any hope of achieving a fair and just society, we need young people to be on board. So, I assign them a task. I call it “Eclipsed by Privilege: Discovering the Best People in the World.” Their job is to find someone who fits our best person in the world criteria, who they have never heard of before and who has not experienced privilege in their lives in some way, usually relating to ability, age, class, faith, gender, race or sexual orientation. They create posters celebrating these individuals and share them with the class. Each year I learn about some amazing people I have never heard of either.

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