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On Privilege: Building Community Through Classroom Conversations

Mandi Hardy

What Is Privilege And Why Can It Be Hard To Recognize?

So, what is privilege anyway? It’s certainly a topic that can make people feel uncomfortable and sometimes even defensive. When we talk about privilege we are talking about a social and economic system where some people have advantages while others face barriers. The people experiencing these advantages and barriers usually have had no actual part in establishing the system that maintains them, so it can be really frustrating to talk about for people on both sides. Regardless of our individual actions, however, on a systemic level some people benefit while others suffer.

So many aspects of our identity can either afford us privilege or create barriers. Our age, faith, race, body shape and size, sex, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, ability, class, immigration status and level of education all impact how we experience the world. The point of talking about privilege is not to make people feel bad, or guilty; it is that recognizing privilege is the only hope we have of breaking down the system to make it fairer for everyone. It is the responsibility of those who experience privilege to recognize the injustices that are happening. This is at once incredibly easy and monumentally difficult. The challenge comes from the fact that privilege is something we take for granted, so it’s a constant process to notice how privilege is impacting our lives and how it may be putting up barriers for others.

Let’s look at an example of how privilege might manifest. This is an example I often use when discussing the concept of privilege with my students. I use my own identity to show how I might experience privilege in different situations. If I, a cisgender, white, middle-class woman were to spend all day sitting in a Starbucks, it would be unlikely anyone would ask me to leave. If I were or were perceived to occupy different social identity categories (lower class and/or racialized, for example) the likelihood of being asked to leave would be much greater. This is a privilege that I can take for granted. It is unlikely I will be asked to leave all but the most exclusive establishments.

The thing to understand about privilege is that no one is saying that white (or straight, or male, etc.) people don’t have problems; it’s just that their problems aren’t caused by being white (or straight, or male, etc.).

The idea of privilege is further complicated by intersectionality, different aspects of our identities working together to create a lived experience. Because of intersectionality, one person may experience privilege and advantages based on one aspect of their identity while facing barriers because of another aspect of their identity, or they might face compounded barriers because of multiple aspects of their identity intersecting. For example, a black man who is gay may experience more homophobia (from outside the queer community) as well as racism (from within the queer community) than someone who is white. This is not universally true, which is often one of the struggles when talking about privilege. We can always find an example to counter every argument.

My goal here, and in my classroom, is to listen to and hear the stories of struggles and barriers rather than think of examples to prove them wrong. It’s easy to feel as though we are being blamed if we experience privilege. We are not. We are being asked to hear a truth. Here is another example: A friend who uses a wheelchair doesn’t have a lot of money and lives in an apartment in Toronto. When the elevator in his building broke down, he was trapped in his apartment for several days until it was repaired. Contrast this with another family I know, with significantly more wealth. They have renovated their home so that the father of the family, who uses a wheelchair, has easy access to the entire house and its amenities. Class makes a big difference to how the challenges of living in an ableist society impact these two wheelchair users. Put differently, one family’s experience of class privilege made a difficult situation easier. Both families experienced a hardship; however, one family was able to use their privilege to lift some of the barriers.

Why Is It Important To Talk About This With Our Students ?

When I first started planning to discuss privilege with my students, I was worried that it would be particularly difficult for the racialized students in my class. I was worried that the message they would hear was that they were somehow less valuable. I did not want to inadvertently reinforce the oppression they might experience in broader society. I was terrified that this would be their takeaway. I was, therefore, very surprised when that was not the case. It was more as if I were telling them the name for something many already had a deep, personal understanding of. In fact, the conversations of privilege proved more challenging for my white students as most had no life experience that had even hinted at the existence of a system that afforded them privilege. It can be hard for privileged people to recognize their own privilege. This can be one of the most difficult aspects of this discussion. It is very important to be clear no one is being blamed, and everyone has problems and struggles, regardless of privilege.

How Can We Talk About It With Our Students?

As a part of introducing my students to how the system of privilege impacts us personally and socially, we do a full class activity called “Who is the Best Person in the World.” We begin by brainstorming all the qualities we think the best person in the world should have. Once we’ve got a list on the board, I ask students to independently write down the names of who they think are the three best people in the world. Then we write them on the board. Once we get going, students start suggesting all kinds of names, many beyond what they had initially written down. We keep going until there aren’t any more suggestions or there isn’t any more room on the board. Then, while they watch, I underline all the people on the board who are men/male/ male-identified, and I ask the students what they all have in common. They are usually pretty quick to figure it out, and it is usually a large percentage of the names we’ve written on the board. Then we refer back to the list of qualities that we think the best person in the world should have, and I ask, “Did we say that the best person in the world should be male? Then why did we choose so many men?” Students make suggestions and we discuss historical and current reasons why we think this might be. We talk about what women are valued for in society – usually how we look – and how those things are not on our list of qualities that the best person in the world should have. Maybe the women we hear about in the media aren’t being celebrated as often as men for what we consider to be valuable reasons.

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.

What Are The Outcomes?

As the year goes on, we continue talking about privilege and the role it plays in society. There is a natural tie-in to many of the conversations we have in class. Most discussions around “whose voice is missing” are really conversations about privilege, and it’s an important perspective to consider when talking about point of view and bias. Students even find that having learned about privilege actually comes in handy in their own lives. These are the real situations that our students face, and many of these situations are ones that we might not be aware of because we haven’t faced them ourselves. The work of recognizing our own privilege is constant and ongoing. We must look at daily situations from a different perspective; we must think critically to achieve awareness of what we have taken for granted; and we must speak out when we see injustices taking place. It’s the least we can do.

Author’s Note: All the names of the students quoted in this article were fl agged by Spellcheck, except for the name of the one white student. This is a simple, yet profound, example of the way Euro-Western privilege is reinforced.

Mandi Hardy is a member of the Peel Elementary Teacher Local.