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Telling the Story of Privilege

The new issue of Teaching Tolerance is packed with advice for teaching this tough subject.

A few years ago, I decided to teach Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth, Richard Wright's autobiography about growing up African American in the Deep South of the early 1900s. As they were reading, my racially diverse students were appalled by the injustices Wright faced because of the color of his skin. When I reminded them that he probably represented their great-grandparents' generation, they were even more shocked: This wasn't that long ago in our nation's history. 

They were also quick to point out that people still face injustice because of the color of their skin—observations that allowed our discussion to become a teachable moment. Realizing they needed the language to express what they were trying to say about privilege, I handed them a copy of Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," and we read it together. They were familiar with some of the statements in the article because they had experienced them, but some, like "flesh-colored bandages" being made for white people, got them thinking about other examples they had never noticed before.

Once they had the language to talk about privilege, I decided to take it a step further. I asked them what other kinds of privilege exist. They were able to quickly name the big ones: gender, religion and sexual orientation. But after some thought, they started coming up with other really interesting ways privilege manifested itself in the school. Kids in honors classes got special treatment in the hallways; they were trusted kids, so they were never asked for their hall passes. Thin girls were cited for dress code violations less often than curvier girls. Kids with good grades were given extensions on papers more often than kids with lower grades. The list went on and on.

Teaching about privilege is about more than helping white students become aware of their social benefits—but it is hard to know where to begin. The most recent issue of Teaching Tolerance includes two stories about how to effectively talk and teach about privilege with your own students. The first, “Beyond the Knapsack,” tells the story of Peggy McIntosh’s career and explains how she did much more than teach about race privilege; she expanded the conversation to include many forms of privilege and teaches others how to do the same. The second, “The Gentle Catalyst,” profiles three groundbreaking educators I have worked with who teach creatively about many different types of privilege in diverse schools and classrooms.

The more we share our stories, the more relevant and lasting these conversations with our students will be. This was true when I shared Richard Wright’s story, and it is true for educators when we share our successes teaching difficult subject matter like privilege.

So share your story with us. How do you teach about privilege?

Samsa is a freelance writer and teaches high school English in the south suburbs of Chicago.