Most of the courses I teach center on contemporary issues and inequality. It’s common practice now, I think, to talk about issues of privilege and advantage in courses on inequality. I know when I ask undergraduate to raise their hands to see who has ever been assigned Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege Checklist,” a portion of the class always seems to have come across it in one class or another. There are a variety of strategies for leading classroom discussions about privilege–some more successful than others.
I’ve seen a strategy put into use, however, that I think deserves more attention. It’s not something I’ve ever done in a class; but I understand the idea behind it.* Some teachers ask students to raise their hands to a series of questions about their social backgrounds and identity categories to get them to think about issues of privilege and inequality. In a more extreme example, students are asked to stand against a wall and to take steps away from the wall based on their answers to a series of questions about various advantages and disadvantages associated with their identities. So, depending on how you run this activity, the end result is either a group of young, able-bodied, heterosexual, white men standing against a wall watching other non-young, non-able-bodied, non-heterosexual, non-white, non-men walk away from them or vice versa.
While this seems like it might (and I stress might here) be a really powerful experience for the young, able-bodied, heterosexual, white men, I’ve always wondered what it might be like for everyone else in class.
It’s an important lesson as privilege is as much a part of inequality as is disadvantage. But, does this classroom activity accomplish what it’s designed to do—or might it play a role in exacerbating the very inequalities these classes are designed to help students learn to question and critique?
We talk about privilege differently from disadvantage. I cited Michael Kimmel in a recent talk I gave about men and privilege. Kimmel writes: “Marginality is visible, and painfully visceral. Privilege is invisible, and painlessly pleasant” (1990: 94). It is precisely this invisible quality that makes privilege a bit more challenging to write and talk about. McIntosh’s checklist and others like it (here, here, here, here, etc.) help to bring some of the potentially taken-for-granted realities of privilege into relief.
But I can’t help thinking that asking students to acknowledge their own privileges by raising their hands or remaining parked against a wall while their non-white, non-heterosexual, non-wealthy, non-, non-, non- peers take a series of steps away from them is harmful. What are the costs to the students who are not the primary beneficiaries of social privileges of this classroom exercise? I have a feeling they could be greater than we might initially think.
I just finished reading Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do for a faculty brown bag discussion later this semester at The College at Brockport’s Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. Steele was one the pioneers in social psychological research on “stereotype threat.” I’m not a big “laboratory experiment guy,” but Steele’s research is important. He uncovered—along with others—the ways that negative stereotypes have measureable effects on performance. Among other findings, the field has found that identifying one’s race or gender at the outset of an exam (on a topic about which stereotypes exist concerning the abilities of different races or genders) has a measurable effect on some groups of students’ performance on exams. So, what could being asked to publicly proclaim one’s racial, gender, sexual, etc. disadvantages in front of the entire class to illustrate disadvantage to the class do?
The classroom is not a gender-neutral, racially-neutral, sexually-neutral site. It is a gendered, racialized, sexualized space into which identities are brought and in which they are weighed. Students assess their professors’ teaching and scholarship against a backdrop of racial, gender, and sexual inequality (just to name a few). Michael Messner wrote a wonderful article examining how beliefs about different groups of people teaching college courses might structure the ways in which students evaluate their teachers or think about the objectivity (if there is such a thing) of the material being presented (here).
But students’ gender, sexuality, race, and more also affects how they might perceive their chances of being successful in a course and their belief of what their successes of failures in a given course might say about them (or people “like them”) more generally. Shelley Correll, among others, found that young men and women self-select into majors and careers in part because curricular gender segregation appears to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Correll puts it, “Cultural beliefs about gender… bias individuals’ perceptions of their competence at various career-relevant tasks, controlling for actual ability” (here). For example, women getting decent (but not stellar) grades in engineering classes are more likely to evaluate themselves as “unfit” for engineering than are men with those same grades.
So my question is: what are the potential consequences of a class activity asking students to recognize (publicly) their membership in socially disadvantaged or advantaged groups? And are those consequences serious enough to merit the possibility of getting the young, able-bodied, heterosexual, white men to think about privilege?
While I think discussions of privilege are integral to a complete understanding of social inequality, I also think that, as teachers, we need to be careful how we present this material in our classrooms. Just as we are careful to discuss social disadvantage respectfully and carefully, we must be careful to address privilege. There could be a danger of exacerbating the very systems of inequality our courses are designed to help students question and challenge.
*It’s important for me to note that I’m not necessarily faulting anyone for relying on this practice.