The Gentle Catalyst

Afraid to teach about privilege? Three teachers show how it’s done.

When activist writer Peggy McIntosh published “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” in 1990, she made privilege visible. The piece outlined advantages consistently given to white people based on their skin color. Other writers soon followed with examinations of other forms of privilege.

Every society privileges certain people; often, people are not even aware of the ways in which they benefit from these advantages. Students are no exception, and discussing these privileges allows students and teachers to learn about these differences—something that is especially important in diverse classrooms.

There are many ways to go about this, but one is to be what Ron Wiginton, a literature of diversity professor at Elmhurst College, calls a “gentle catalyst.” A gentle catalyst is someone who gently asks you to examine your own privilege.  McIntosh’s article served as a gentle catalyst for many readers by asking them to recognize their white privilege. In the classroom, teachers can serve as gentle catalysts for their students to help them examine privileges they may not even know they have. Here are three teachers who are doing just that in their classrooms.


1.  Literature and the American Dream

Samantha Schaller is an English teacher at a racially and socio-economically diverse school in the suburbs south of Chicago, Ill. In her American literature class, she discusses the impact of social constructs on achieving the “American Dream.” She uses white privilege to talk to her students about economic privilege and how the two intertwine.

She begins the lesson with a presentation that lays out why the American Dream is not equally attainable by all. Anecdotes and statistics help her show how people of color and people from a lower socio-economic status are at an immediate disadvantage. A student from a family with financial resources, for example, has a much higher chance of knowing how to apply to college since it’s more likely that other family members have gone through the process—which creates educational advantage.

“While the presentation does break down the disparity of races economically,” she says, “the fact that a large portion of capital is held by 1 percent of the population is … unifying to my students.” Schaller says these discussions engage her students and are easier because of the recent economic turmoil in the United States. Students—especially those in school districts with a high percentage of low-income families—understand the difficulty of getting a job and paying for college. The statistics presented at the beginning of the lesson have real-world implications for them.

From racial and socio-economic privilege, Schaller moves on to explore other forms of privilege in writing. She begins with a prompt that explores male privilege: True or false: A woman’s first priority is her children.

She says the response is the same every year: true. She pushes students by asking if a man’s first priority is his children as well. Schaller admits that, with this question, a “wonderful chaos breaks loose.” Once students engage in discussions about the typical roles of men and women in society, they see very quickly that male privilege exists.


2. Privilege and Power

After finishing his first year of teaching English in one of Chicago Public Schools’ most racially diverse schools, Sean Madigan was ready to test new methods of discussing privilege. To ease into the discussion, Madigan asks students about their personal experiences with racism and white privilege and then expands the discussion to include many forms of privilege.

Madigan’s students read Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust by Art Spiegelman, and they study Nazi propaganda. Students see how a group that attains power might justify its horrific actions by creating the narrative of other groups. Madigan’s class also discusses the religious privilege present during the Holocaust. By connecting these other types of privileges to students’ experiences with white privilege, Madigan begins to illustrate the web of privilege that exists in societies.

He completes the picture by examining male privilege and rape culture in Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Speak is the fictional story of a girl who was raped during the summer before high school. Like Schaller, Madigan uses examples and statistics to make his point. “[Facts] such as the number of women in places of political power, the number of women running major companies, [and] the number of women represented in media … show that sexism and male privilege [are] very much alive and well.”

Using concrete examples helps Madigan respond to students who resist seeing male privilege in society. He says that by asking students to understand gender, sexism, misogyny and male privilege and how each contributes to rape culture, he leads students to examine the social expectations of each gender—and privileges and power in their own relationships. “Students oftentimes feel like their voices are missing from these types of discussions and thus feel powerless in addressing them.” That’s not how it should be, says Madigan. Discussions of privilege should “empower students and give them impetus to question their surroundings and challenge the dominant paradigm.” 

3. Herstory, The Silent Conversation

Emily Heroy Fillingham used her world history classes to explore gender and socio-economic privilege while teaching in an all-girls charter school in Philadelphia, Pa. Like Schaller and Madigan, she wanted her students to reach their own conclusions by showing them instead of telling them.

She used two texts—a piece by Jean-Jacques Rousseau that discusses the role of women in society and a response written 30 years later by Mary Wollstonecraft. The students read the texts and then participated in a silent conversation activity. Fillingham placed several posters around the room, each with a different question, such as, “Based on this graph from 2008, the percentage of African-American and Hispanic women who are in poverty is significantly higher than white women. What does this mean to you and why?” and “True or false: My race, gender, sexuality and class impact my experiences in the world. Explain.” Students walked around the room in silence, responding to the questions or to one another’s answers by writing on the posters. When this was finished, Fillingham led a whole-group discussion, asking students to discuss the questions on the posters.

“Doing this activity in a single-sex classroom with students of several races yielded interesting discussions about privilege,” Fillingham says. “[Most students] saw socio-economic factors as the primary factors of oppression over gender and race.” But both activities helped them start to see that male privilege has made many important women throughout history invisible—since most history books were written by men.

When students noted that the exclusion of women and people of color from most history lessons gave them the impression that white men were the most important figures in history, Fillingham used it as an opportunity to counteract racial and gender privilege. She introduced examples of women and people of color in history who had played equally important roles.


Creating More Catalysts

When students learn to examine their own privilege, they can go on to be gentle catalysts outside the classroom. Rebecca Bernickus, a student at Schaller’s school, says she used to be oblivious to privilege and how powerful it is. Now that she’s aware, she says she feels more capable of fighting back against these privileges by helping to make others aware of them, too.

Become a Gentle Catalyst

Discuss privilege in terms of power.
Who has it, and how do they keep it?

Avoid guilt.
Students who experience varying forms of privilege shouldn’t be made to feel guilty; rather, they should be encouraged to do something to help fix the problem.

Acknowledge your own privilege.
Find your own gentle catalyst to help you think about your privileges and how they affect your actions in and out of the classroom.

Examine the role adult privilege plays in your classroom with this self-assessment tool.