Practical things to try
Privilege lists activity
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I want to share an activity that can be very useful for faculty members, colleagues, as well as students to help us become more aware of the many privileges we benefit from and often never think about. So in the privilege activity I’ve included in this course, it can be conducted in many ways. And depending upon whether you’re with a group in person or you’re speaking in front of a very large audience or you’re conducting a course virtually, this is the privilege activity. And you can find online many examples of privilege lists. You can adapt these as I have in this lesson.
But what I’ve done is provided a list of privilege prompts that are intersectional. So they include prompts about the privileges we gain from race, the privileges we gain from gender and so on. Many of those categories that I’ve already identified as inherent in systems of privilege and inequality. And when people read through that list of prompts I encourage them to circle the prompts that apply to them. So if you go into your workplace without people calling you a credit to your race or a credit to the world of disabled people, then you circle that prompt and so on and you go through the list. And for each prompt that you circle that’s an example of privilege you benefit from.
And then I ask people to tally up the number at the end. And everyone will have a different number ranging from perhaps just a couple to maybe the full number of privileges listed there. It’s important that people then share those anonymously because it can really create an emotional atmosphere for those who may feel some shame or guilt about how much privilege they experience or feel real pain and be retraumatised in recognising how little privilege they have in our society.
And then, for example, to share the number of privileges that people benefit from. If I’m working virtually, I might have people text in their number to a specific text address and then those numbers will all appear on the screen and we can see how many people checked off 15, how many checked off 10, how many experienced three. And we really see visually the range of privilege which exists in that room, and the range of privileges that people benefit from in their lives. Because while everyone benefits from privilege, we don’t all benefit from the same amount of privilege. And how we experience that privilege differentiates our own experiences in the world.
Another way in which students or colleagues can share their results. If you’re in person, people can pull out a piece of paper, do not put their names on them and simply write down the number of privilege prompts they were able to circle. And then I have people crumple up that piece of paper and maybe toss it into a trash bin or into the middle of the room. And then I go around and have each person come and pick up one of those crumpled pieces of paper, and hopefully people will not pick their own. Then I go around the room and have each person read the number on their piece of paper. And by going around, we again see the range of the number of privileges people experience. But people are not representing themselves and so they don’t see themselves individually under scrutiny and feel like the eyes of everyone else is looking at them and judging them based on how many privileges they’ve identified.
After completing this activity, it’s important to engage in some dialogue. How do students feel in conducting this activity? Obviously it can lead to a number of different kinds of feelings from shame, to anger, to surprise, et cetera. And then another topic for dialogue is how do these intersections of privilege impact your life? For example, if someone benefited from privileges as a result of their religious identity, and their socioeconomic class identity, and their race identity, ask students to talk about how those things intersect in shaping their lives and in shaping the privileges that they benefit from.
This is a highly flexible activity for any size or class modality. Faculty should conduct the activity themselves, and again whenever they have students participate. The more often one thinks about their privilege, the more adept they will become in recognising privilege.
- Download the prompts list. Then, distribute a list of 20 prompts to every individual participating.
- Ask the participants to read the list individually and mark statements that they feel apply to them.
- Ask the participants to count how many of these statements were true for them.
- Share the results anonymously via an online poll (for example, Mentimeter) or on paper. The facilitator can collect pieces of paper into a box and read them out. It is important that the sharing is done anonymously so that the participants are not made to feel uncomfortable.
- Invite the participants to discuss how they felt conducting this exercise.
Additional questions and topics for dialogue after completing the activity include:
- What other privileges can you identify that are not in the lists? (Students can be asked to think about this throughout the course and share each new discovery).
- When participating in this activity, what did you observe? How did it feel? Why?
- Which items have you thought about before, and which are new to you?
- How might small mundane privileges compound to shape an individual’s wellbeing?
Topic for dialogue
Providing a safe space for students to process privilege and oppression is important. One effective way to engage these complex concepts is through classroom dialogue; this dialogue can be effectively developed using guided, open-ended questions.
This activity can be a whole-group conversation, a classroom discussion post, or an individual (or even anonymous) reflective journal entry. Additionally, the questions can be adjusted to consider power and privilege in any discipline (such as considering representation in STEM fields, or gender and race in Art).
Whatever modality the activity occurs in, and regardless of discipline, it is important to establish community guidelines for conversing around complex and complicated topics. It can help to establish these guidelines together, in advance of the discussion. The benefit of being proactive is that educators can then encourage a classroom culture and climate that is conducive to community-building and authentic conversation.
Some questions for consideration are: How can we use our privilege to undermine inequity? For example, what can men do to help end violence against women? What can white people do to help eliminate racism? Consider specific examples, depending upon your own discipline. Ask students to identify a relevant form of inequity—why are there so few women scientists depicted in our biology textbook? Why is there such a large pay gap between white and black people in the same jobs? Then consider how those with privilege can contribute to ending these problems.
Tips: Two goals to guide your practice
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Some other things to keep in mind are to recognise that students and we ourselves are constantly experiencing privilege within the various institutions we live in and move through, and we need to allow students to see their own personal experiences within these larger social institutions. We may not have created the dynamics of inequality, but we still contribute to reproducing them by not challenging the status quo. And while we may just be individuals, and that often leads people to feeling somewhat helpless or hopeless, like they are incapable of creating change, if we see ourselves within institutions and the ways in which our own behaviours and actions can actually create change, that provides a sense of hope for students and for ourselves as well.
So thinking about specific examples of how we can create change within our institutions can be very beneficial, and, certainly, we can encourage our students to think about what they see as social problems existing on campus or in their workplace and to brainstorm together ways in which they can help to create change within the institutions rather than seeking simply to support fellow students.
It’s also important to keep in mind and to constantly remind ourselves and our students that we all benefit from forms of privilege. This is the basis for bringing people together. Rather than falling into the typical trap of thinking about inequality in terms of us versus them, we need to think about it as we, how can we work together, coming from the space of our own privileges that we experience in our lives, which are going to be different from the experiences of the others in our classrooms or other colleagues, but thinking about the ways in which a shared experience of privilege brings us together. Certainly, we don’t experience privilege to the same degree, it doesn’t have the same impacts on our lives, but if we all identify our sources of privilege, we can begin from there to think about how we can each work on using our privilege to create change.
In teaching about privilege, one goal is to allow students to see themselves within the larger dynamics of inequity. Moving between individual, personal stories and larger social phenomenon is important. This also prevents students from feeling helpless, because they see that problems are not “too big” for them to have any impact on. Make a point of discussing specific ways that privilege can be leveraged to make a difference.
A second goal is to emphasise multiple forms of privilege. Do not focus on just one form, such as white, economic, or gender privileges. Doing so, can reinforce an us vs. them dynamic. We are all complex human beings, with many social identities, interacting all the time. The purpose of this intersectional approach to privilege is that it is used to bring people/students together. Everyone benefits from some form of privilege; this is a shared characteristic. There are no binary divisions—no good vs. bad people. Try to unite students in focusing on their own privileges, what it feels like to have privilege, the dynamics of benefiting from privilege, and how that privilege can be used to create positive social change.