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We need to be aware of our own multiple forms of privilege and the way in which these shape our classroom environments and shape the way in which we see our students and students share each other. And we don’t always know what these privileges are, and we don’t know what kinds of privilege or disadvantaged identities our students bring with them to the classroom. It’s often invisible. We often don’t know what students’ class background is or what invisible disabilities they may experience, for example.

The key here, then, is to be open, be willing to listen to our students, to cultivate empathy and humility. We need to let our students know that we want to hear from them. We have an open door, and we want students to feel comfortable coming to talk to us about any difficulties, challenges, negative experiences they may be having in the classroom that we don’t know about.

For example, in a large class I was teaching, there were a group of students in the very back of the classroom, and a group of young men had their laptops open to take notes, and they were actually looking at pornography on their computer screen. Well, I never would’ve known this until a female class member came and talked to me after the class to let me know. I was thankful that she did so that I could do something about it, and I believe she was able to come and talk to me because I emphasised, throughout the class, I care about the students’ experiences, I wanna hear from you, what’s working, and what isn’t. I believe that every student should be able to perform to their fullest potential, and I am here to support that and facilitate that.

Humility also means we need to be willing to make mistakes. We need to give up this idea of ourselves as the only expert. I prefer to think of myself as a lead learner, and to recognise that my students may have something to teach me, and that I need to be able to listen to my students to understand the ways in which my language, the way in which I structure the class, may be impacting them in ways that I have no idea. So it’s important for me to keep in mind, and for all educators to keep in mind, we don’t know what we don’t know, and we’ll never know everything there is to know, and so it’s a constant process of figuring out new ways in which we can present ourselves as open to hearing from students.

One way that I try and do this is by administering mid-semester or mid-course evaluations, and these are anonymous, and I ask students to answer a variety of questions, and the questions may be different depending upon my experience of the course up until that point, but I ask students to share with me anything they may not feel comfortable talking to me about in person, or that they may not feel comfortable sharing with the class, so that I can have a greater sense of how students are feeling and what’s actually going on in the classroom among students that I may not know about, and also so that I can learn if I am using offensive terminology or out of date terminology, or if I’m doing something inadvertently that is shaping students’ experiences so they’re not comfortable in the classroom.

When we talk about privilege and inequity, it’s really important for us to think about how to prevent people from feeling shame and guilt, or to be able to move on from those feelings. Of course, it’s natural, when I first learned about the many privileges that I benefited from, I felt guilty, but then realising that most of them are not of my choosing and I can’t opt out, I realised then that there was no point in staying and wallowing in guilt. That did nothing, it doesn’t help us. Instead, recognising that guilt and moving on meant I was able to become active and become a part of the solution.

One example of the ways in which we can’t opt out of our privilege is thinking about when we’re driving down the street. For me, as a white person, I never have to worry that if I’m being pulled over for driving over the speed limit, it’s because of the colour of my skin. Or another example we can think about are the signs of our religion in minoritised religious groups. For example, when I’m driving, when I’m entering into the classroom, I gain privileges because I’m not seen as a member of a minoritised religious group. If I was wearing a veil or a hijab or a yarmulke, students would probably respond to me very differently; police officers would respond to me differently; employers might respond to me differently.

So it’s very important to think about all the different ways in which our privilege shows up and protects us from these fears and threats of danger. This would be an excellent topic to bring up with students. Have them brainstorm what are ways in which our privilege is visible or not visible, and how that shapes our daily experiences.

Many people prefer to steer clear from any discussion of “privilege,” however it shapes our lives and our classrooms and should not be avoided. Beginning with a recognition of one’s own privilege can improve teaching and student learning.

First, when we become aware of our privilege, we can recognise that “we don’t know what we don’t know.” Our privileges often blind us to the perspectives, experiences, and lives of our students outside of the classroom, which impact their learning and sense of belonging in our courses and on campus.

Second, when we teach our students to become aware of their own privileges, it increases empathy, humility, and open mindedness.

Third, when privilege has been addressed within a classroom, dialogues about potentially emotional or political subject matter become more respectful and less polarising.

Recognising our own privileges helps us to become more self-reflexive and provides us with greater insight into our own personal lives. For many, this can be deeply transformative.

Discussions

What benefits do you see to discussing privilege in your teaching/learning spaces? Do you have any specific strategies for how to navigate these potentially uncomfortable, yet powerful, discussions?

Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.

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