walking the line of privilege

In Morning Pages today, we’re watching a YouTube video of the Privilege Walk exercise, a best practice used to help reveal the realities and effects of systemic inequality, then responding to it from 2 perspectives as a person in the video and then as a teacher. In the next section, I’m taking on the perspective of the African-American woman who’s still at the back of the room when the Privilege Walk ends. (I recognize that my capacity to do that is limited as a white woman, but I’ll do my best not to essentialize.)

This was rough. I know what the exercise was intended to do–to make the realities of the inequitable power structure in our society visibly evident. It some ways it did exactly that for me because it helped make sense of how I feel on an almost daily basis and to understand why it seems like I have to work so much harder to get the basic privileges that many other people I know and see just take for granted. There’s a phrase that’s been circulating called “you can’t be what you don’t see.” No shit. #OscarsSoWhite

But at the same time, it sucked in another way to be at the starting line. Every single person could look back at me and feel sympathetic, but it also made me think, What the hell am I supposed to do? Is this it for me? No hope no matter how hard I work? In the debriefing after the exercise, someone said something to the effect of, “Yeah, I see now that that’s just the way it is in society. It makes me feel bad, but I can see now that no matter how someone less privileged works, they can’t ever make it to the front of the room.” I know he meant well, but I thought, “Thanks for putting that out there, dude, just in case everyone in the room needed help reaching the same defeatist conclusion.”

The bottom line is that it hurt to be back there. It reinforced the stereotypes in broad daylight for everyone to see. In other words, at the end of the day, I felt exposed and vulnerable. The exercise did exactly the opposite, for me at least, of what it was supposed to do.

——

Switching gears to a teacher’s perspective, my thinking has shifted about this exercise, which I initially thought would be unquestionably powerful to use with students. A couple of years ago, I even saw it in action while observing another CSU professor’s class. Writing the above reflection, however, has further reinforced for me the problematic nature of considering any practice “best.” Two recent circumstances provoked the tension I was already feeling before writing this entry. One I heard by word of mouth and the other one actually happened in my class last semester:

CIRCUMSTANCE #1: For the past several years, I’ve had the good fortune of being constantly learning alongside Jenny Putnam,  fantastic, brilliant, thoughtful teacher at Fossil Ridge HS (who’s also the co-director of the CSU Writing Project). She used the Privilege Walk in her class last year for the best of reasons: to help her mostly white, mostly affluent students who struggle with the idea of privilege to be able to visualize it. That’s the purpose of the exercise, right? But at the end of it, there was only one student (a female student of color) who was standing at the back of the room. The student  was obviously distressed, so Jenny was, too. What did it feel like to be back there for everyone to see? Did that mean she had no way of moving forward? Jenny debriefed with her after class, and the girl said she was okay, but Jenny remains troubled by this incident because her instructional intentions and the impact on at least one learner in her class didn’t coincide. All teachers have been there.

CIRCUMSTANCE #2: Last semester in my graduate class on teaching and learning in the digital age, the topic of privilege came up on a regular basis as we discussed the principles of equity and access woven through the Connected Learning framework. Right at the end of class, one male student, pointed out that we were tossing the word “privilege” around on a regular basis, but what did it actually mean? For that matter, what did we actually mean when we used it? A couple of the female students in the class responded immediately. They weren’t disrespectful about it, but they were passionate. They pointed out that their definitions of privilege and inequity were rooted in their own lived experiences as women in our society. The gist was, that when you don’t have privilege, you know it. But when you enjoy privilege, as white men do by default, you often don’t. The first student’s response was that regardless of what we assume based on a person’s appearance, we don’t know their life experiences. We can make assumptions that they are privileged, but we could be dead wrong.

The mood of the class shifted as quickly as the weather does during tornado season in Oklahoma where I grew up. Daylight went dark, clouds churned, the air became heavy and unsettled. And…predictably, right at that moment, time was up for class, so I said something lame like, “The issues of privilege, race, gender, and class are profoundly difficult to discuss because they’re so complex. We’ll continue the conversation next time.” Pretty brilliant wrap-up, right? Or not.

I can’t recall what happened in the subsequent class exactly, but it obviously wasn’t groundbreaking enough to be memorable. What were memorable, however, were the follow-up conversations I had with the student who had raised the issue of privilege initially. Without revealing any confidential details of those conversations, I can share what he also revealed publicly on the blog he maintained for the course. A few years ago, he suffered a closed brain injury as a result of an accident that was completely debilitating. His recovery has been remarkable, hard-earned, and ongoing. He toppled from his road bike–and his position of privilege–in an instant. But today, you couldn’t tell it by looking at him.

Tying the reflection I wrote at the start of this entry and the circumstances I’ve related above is profoundly difficult because my lame comment at the end of my graduate class is nevertheless true: the prospect of understanding privilege is so complex. Bringing up the corequisite issues of race, class, gender, age, ability, and so on, can unintentionally marginalize students further. It can instantly charge the atmosphere, then suck the air right out of the room. The moment before I launch into these conversations in my classroom,  I take a mental deep breath, shore up my courage and think, “Man, am I gonna mess this up.” But I do so in the knowledge that it would be even more messed up not to try.

The only solution I know as a teacher is to be continually vigilant, intentional, and reflective in my practice. The classroom is such an unpredictable place, and the lived experiences of students aren’t readily apparent. What I can do is try my best to anticipate what could go wrong then own up to it when it does (and it just will sometimes). I can enlist my students as allies for my own learning and try to teach more thoughtfully and from a stronger position of empathy as a result. And I can remember the words of Audre Lorde:

When I dare to be powerful—to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.

 

 

 

 

 

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