Why talk about Privilege and Identity?

Adolescents are immersed in questions about identity.  Their conversations brim with jokes and envelope-pushing statements about race, gender, sexual orientation, and class, as they try to figure out exactly how they fit into those larger social systems.  Teachers are often loath to engage their students in conversation around those questions, worried that they may offend, or overstep, or transgress against some notion of what is “politically correct.”  Given the swirl of information–ranging from valid, researched and supported to outright false–our students constantly find themselves navigating, though, we would ask teachers this: if it feels risky to have an academic conversation about Identity and Privilege in a classroom setting, consider the risk in not doing so.  Consider the likelihood that the only sources of information most people ever get about identity come from “out there,” and the potential outcomes of that.

Creating Safe Space

Probably the most critical element of facilitating successful conversations around privilege and identity is establishing a safe space where students feel that they can honestly express how they feel without fear of judgement or rejection.  Even though that can be challenging, and there are many aspects that are out of the teacher’s hands, there are a few steps that a facilitator can take that can make a big difference:

  1. Include a diversity statement in your course syllabus.  Stating clearly at the outset of the course that all opinions will be respected regardless of the identity of the person sharing them lets students know, in a formal way, that they are in a safe space.  Write your own statement, or feel free to adapt ours.
  2. Establish and post norms for conversation.  Creating “ground rules” is a crucial step to ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to how to have a discussion.  A simple way is to have students, as a group, brainstorm ways to complete the sentence “I feel safe to express my opinion when…” and then post all the answers.  The students can then use those answers to redirect each other when necessary.  The rules–not the kids or you–become the “bad guy.”
    • Although it can be difficult (if not impossible) to enforce, many groups often employ the “Vegas Rule” for conversations– what is said in the room, stays in the room.
    • Encourage students to speak “from the I.”  As long as they start their sentences with “I”, they are likely to be sharing their own experiences rather than generalizing or critiquing someone else’s.
  3. Remind students that being privileged isn’t their fault.  In most instances, privilege is a system we are born into– based on things like skin color or social class.  Feeling guilty about being white or male or straight would be like feeling guilty for being right-handed.  Consider using this analogy, from the American Association of Colleges and Universities:

Example: Using Handedness to Introduce Privilege 

Discussion of handedness (adapted from presentations by Steve Robbins) is one way to introduce the concept of privilege and minimize resistance before engaging in more specific discussions about class. Handedness does not carry the emotional charge attached to other differences in today’s society. Although left handedness is no longer associated with deviance, many people have learned to use their nondominant right hands to adapt. Left-handed people face numerous daily obstacles, including the risk of accidents caused by operating instruments designed for right-handed users. Yet right-handed people are often unaware of the privileges they enjoy.

Handedness demonstrates many concepts related to privilege:

Handedness is not chosen or bestowed.

Right handedness is considered normal, while left handedness has historically been perceived as deviant, dangerous, and sinister.

The society may view left-handed people as awkward or strange, and left-handed people often believe this about themselves (internalized oppression).

Left-handed people frequently change their behaviors to fit into a right-handed world (passing and code shifting).

Right-handed people are unconscious of the benefits they receive (the privilege of ignorance).

Right-handed people cannot avoid the benefits they receive, even when they are conscious of the benefits (institutionalized and systemic nature of privilege).

Students accept handedness privilege and recognize that they are not personally responsible for the oppression of left-handed people. They understand that they have inherited a system that benefits some and disadvantages others. Once students have accepted handedness, they are more open to learning about other privileged identities. I have found that many people who experience nonprivileged status in other parts of their lives appreciate this analogy.

4.  Don’t let students leave this conversation without a plan of action.  One of the worst possible outcomes of learning about privilege and identity would be to come away feeling powerless.  Having a conversation about what students can do will help them develop positive self-identities.

Disclaimers

One could–and many do–devote an entire career to studying the intersection of privilege and identity.  The information on this site is merely meant to be an introduction for high school aged students to the kinds of concepts that pervade the discourse at the university level.

The lesson plans and materials on this site have been successfully honed over the last 10 years or so at a school that is reasonably diverse (given its location and tuition) and academically strong.  We know they work well with a population that is predominantly (but not all) white, middle-to-upper class, coed, and academically inclined.  You know your own students best.  Use your judgement about what will work well with them.

Uncopyright

Following the lead of great resources like It’s Pronounced Metrosexual and The Safe Zone Project, and true to the guidelines of the grant that funded this project, all the information, resources, and intellectual property on this web site are part of the public domain.  Please use it!