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Check Yourself: Why Self-Reflecting on Privilege Matters

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor
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A teacher is sitting by herself in her classroom by a window. At her desk, with a pencil in hand and paper in front of her, she's smiling at the camera.

As of 2014, the majority of students in K-12 public schools in the U.S. are children of color, while 80 percent of teachers are white. If you are a teacher who happens to be white, middle-class, and heterosexual, then there are privileges that you are afforded in this society, and even more so if you are also male, that your students may not experience.

If any of us are under the impression that we are living in a post-ism society, think again. Consider the underrepresentation in Congress: Thirteen percent of all Americans are African American, but only 43 African Americans hold seats in Congress, just eight percent. Latinos and those of Hispanic heritage make up nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population, but only seven percent of Congress. Only 19 percent of Congress is female when women are more than half the population (50.8 percent).

And what about the incarceration of people of color in the U.S.? For every 100,000 people, 380 white people are incarcerated, while the number of African Americans incarcerated is 2,207. And the school-to-prison pipeline is a serious and legitimate concern with a study this year indicating that southern states suspend and expel African-American students at a significantly higher rate than white students. In Boston and NYC schools, African-American children face school suspension up to six times more often than white children.

It's vital we have conversations with our students about the inequities in our society and empower students to take their voices beyond the classroom walls -- particularly for those of us who work in schools located in communities of color. (Check out this fifth-grade teacher, Emily E. Smith, who radically changed her curriculum so as to reflect the lives of her students and the issues that concern them most.)

Reflecting on Privilege

As educators, we need to also reflect on any privileges we may experience simply due to specific identity markers we hold (race, gender, class, sexual orientation, mental wellness, and physical ability). It's key we do this so as to check any biases we may bring to our instructional practices and curriculum.

White Privilege

In Peggy McIntosh's work titled, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," she presents a series of privileges to consider, that if you are white, perhaps you've never considered before. Here are some examples from the piece:

  • I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

  • I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

  • When I am told about our national heritage or about civilization, I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

Male Privilege

The following list on male privilege was inspired by McIntosh's seminal text:

  • I am far less likely to face sexual harassment at work than my female co-workers.

  • I can be confident that my co-workers won't think I got my job because of my gender -- even though that might be true.

  • As a child, I could choose from an almost infinite variety of children's media featuring positive, active, non-stereotyped heroes of my own gender. I never had to look for it; male protagonists were (and are) the default.

  • As a child, chances are I got more teacher attention than girls who raised their hands just as often.

  • The decision to hire me will not be based on assumptions about whether or not I might choose to have a family sometime soon.

Straight Privilege

If you are heterosexual, take a moment to reflect on these statements from "Heterosexual Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack:"

  • I am never asked or assumed to speak for all people of my sexual orientation.

  • I am certain that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence and validity of my sexual orientation and family structure.

  • I do not need to fight for legal and social recognition of myself or of my family.

  • I can walk down the street with my opposite-gender partner or spouse holding hands without fear of being bullied, harassed, or assaulted based solely on my sexual orientation.

  • As a parent, I don't worry if my child is being bullied or harassed due to my sexual orientation.

Checking one's privileges is not about taking on guilt in any way. It is about acknowledging and confronting systemic racism, and other isms, that hinder our nation from truly reflecting its citizenry -- and its Constitution.

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Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor

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Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Hi Rebeca, thanks for tackling this topic. Your last sentence is resonating, the idea that many people assume that confronting privilege is taking on guilt is probably the reason why many choose to not confront their privilege. Yet, as you mentioned it's an important process to dismantle the systemic power structures that often stand in the way of our students' learning and success. I am wondering what your perspective is on teacher training and how it can prepare teachers to understand and confront the concept of privilege & the isms in education. What if teachers/admins were trained and mentored to be culturally competent before they enter the classrooms?

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Editor

Hi Rusul,

To answer your question, I think it's vital that teachers and admin are trained in cultural competency. How we can do that is start having honest conversations about privilege and oppression, and the different types of both (i.e. institutional, personal, social). There's an important book called, Courageous Conversations about Race: A Field Guide to Achieving Equity in Schools. A collective reading in a teacher education program of this text or for teachers already in the field, a book club for faculty at your school, is a great entry point for this work.

Thank you for your comment!

Rebecca Alber

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

I completely agree that this work should start with having honest and open conversations about privilege, power and oppression. Thanks so much for the book recommendation Rebecca, I will definitely take a look and pass on the recommendation to other educators.

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