This week’s topic is something that is near and dear to me, something that always gets me in trouble at family dinners, something that has forced me to enter into social media rants and arguments shedding years off of my life. Diversity! And the issue implicit within that topic–privilege.
Privilege can be difficult to talk about, whether it is in the company friends and family or strangers. I come from a largely homogeneous area of Appalachia. We are overwhelmingly white and Christian. There were only 10 people of color in my high school and the families of all but 3 of them owned and operated ethnic food restaurants (Because in my neighborhood, the balm of tolerance was dependent on the desire for authentic egg foo young and carnitas fajitas). My hometown and many of the surrounding communities are also overwhelmingly working-class, meaning that poverty and other socioeconomic struggles are not uncommon. How do you have a conversation with a poor white person about how the color of their skin, their very identity, provides them with unearned privileges, when all they know is living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to feed and support their families, and God forbid the car break down or someone need medical care? It’s not an easy conversation to have.
And yet, it is necessary in order for us to move forward as a society, to ensure that people of all walks of life, from every demographic be it race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic and ability status, etc. are treated as equals. We have to recognize our privileges in order to eliminate their existence in our culture, because denying privilege, ultimately perpetuates it.
Last semester I wrote a paper regarding the potential implementation of privilege pedagogy (i.e. the inclusion of instruction about privilege) in the composition classroom. I wanted to explore the idea that privilege pedagogy can be communicated both explicitly and implicitly through composition curriculum, which I chose for a few reasons: First, at most institutions, composition is a general studies requirement, therefore all students must take and pass at least one section of it. This would mean that, if successful, it would reach as many students in the institution as possible. Second, privilege pedagogy tends to lend itself to the humanities, though it should be ubiquitous to all disciplines (considering that privilege is). Thirdly, composition is a flexible enough discipline so as to allow such diversions with minimal distraction from the overall curriculum (focusing largely on texts and on the individual). And lastly…well quite frankly it’s the only course I’ve ever taught, so I figured it was my best and easiest entry point. What I found was that composition seems to be a great choice for implementing privilege pedagogy, because, in many cases, it’s already being implemented albeit implicitly, due to readings from diverse authors, from a variety of backgrounds. Students are often encouraged to talk about their own identities in writing, sometimes comparing their experiences to others’. Focusing on the individual throughout the writing process does more than improve a writer’s confidence; given the proper subject matter, it promotes empathy.
There are a couple of activities that can introduce the concept of privilege in the classroom that I’ve used to positive results. The first, called the paper toss, is illustrated in the following video:
The other activity is called Privilege Bingo. You provide each student with a copy of the game board below. Whoever has the most marks (or gets a Bingo) has the most privilege and “wins.”
I’ve found that in both cases, students seem to connect with what privilege is, as well as its effect in our culture, while alleviating the awkwardness of the conversation. This is key to a successful discussion about privilege. We want to be inclusive, not only because we want students to feel as safe and comfortable as possible, but also because the way to tackle privilege is through a collective effort.
Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments below. Do you have any privilege exercises that you’d like to share?