Confronting My Privilege to Teach About Privilege

Many of the controversial topics that grow out of confronting social unrest, such as that surrounding Ferguson, Missouri, or the shooting of Tamir Rice, include acknowledging and confronting privilege. For teachers, a first and difficult step in bringing these controversies to the classroom is exploring our own privilege

In “Peculiar Benefits,” writer Roxane Gay, a Haitian black woman, defines privilege as

. . . a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor. There is racial privilege, gender (and identity) privilege, heterosexual privilege, economic privilege, able-bodied privilege, educational privilege, religious privilege and the list goes on and on. At some point, you have to surrender to the kinds of privilege you hold because everyone has something someone else doesn’t.

Gay continues, “One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do is accept and acknowledge my privilege,” and maintains that acknowledging privilege shouldn’t be divisive, because “few people in this world, and particularly in the United States, have no privilege at all.”

Gay’s approach to privilege speaks to being a witness. In a 1984 interview with Julius Lester (James Baldwin: The Last Interview, 2014), James Baldwin explains:

I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness. In the church in which I was raised you were supposed to bear witness to the truth. Now, later on, you wonder what in the world the truth is, but you do know what a lie is. . . .
A spokesman assumes that he is speaking for others. I never assumed that — I never assumed that I could.

Teachers must address their own and others’ privilege, not by speaking for those who don’t have the same privilege, but as witnesses to their truth. This is especially true during social unrest and when wrestling with difficult topics in the classroom.

Navigating Privilege in Order to Teach

For teachers, bearing witness to our own personal privilege is a key first step to helping students examine their beliefs, prejudices, disadvantages, and advantages. Such self-reflection may be aided by listening to others — insights from Brittney Cooper or Toni Morrison (see resources below), for example.

First, since addressing privilege can be accusatory, we must avoid the urge to deny our privilege. K–12 teaching includes a majority population of white females, highlighting the tension inherent in confronting privilege as a teacher. The social privilege of being white in the U.S. contrasts with the lingering sexism women face. Acknowledging our privilege as a witness to it supports Gay’s claim that privilege unites us instead of divides us.

Next, how we choose to use our privileges is crucial. Many of us with privilege have been quite successful and have even worked very hard, so we are apt to emphasize that success comes from effort, especially as a way to motivate students in formal school settings. Instead, we must recognize that many of our accomplishments have their roots in huge advantages not of our making; thus, it is important to address our accomplishments with humility in order to honor the value of effort in context. We should guard against implications that people (and students) who are not successful lack effort and drive — an implication that disregards the power of advantage and disadvantage to overshadow effort.

For example, when we acknowledge accomplishment and effort with humility we allow examinations of inequity like these: (1) since educational attainment appears to create advantages within race but not among races, effort can be muted by racism; (2) black adults with some college (thus effort) have the same employment potential as white high school dropouts (see also Mullainathan below). That humility seeks answers to how do we build a world in which everyone begins as I did?

As a white, male, privileged teacher and writer, I am prone to offer my views — to explain and to teach — even in social situations. I am extremely verbal, and I often struggle to keep my good intentions and passion from coming off as arrogance. Committing to being a witness to privilege must be grounded in reading and listening to those who suffer the burden of bias, prejudice, and oppression. Listening requires silence, which returns space to those who experience inequity and bias and develops compassion and empathy for those who have not had the benefits many of us have experienced.

Especially when we are working in the classroom with children and teenagers, privilege can drive our urge to be paternalistic, doing education to them for their own good. Instead, we must ask, “What do you want, need, from me?” This element of confronting privilege is particularly hard in the current high-stakes environment when even privileged teachers have had much of their autonomy denied.

Just as being quiet in order to listen returns space to the common good, an important act among the privileged is to step aside so that others may occupy those spaces automatically denied by the consequences of privilege. Again in my rush to do good, I not only clung to the spaces afforded me because of my privilege but also sought all that I could in addition.

Although acknowledging our privilege is best when we avoid blame, the privileged must be willing to call out the arrogance of privilege, and this is likely the most valid way to use privilege in the service of others. Reaching out instead of attacking — but being firm and consistent in bearing witness to the folly and harm done by paternalism, whitesplaining, mansplaining, and the many microaggressions of privilege.

This witnessing is essential for building an empathetic environment in which privilege is no longer allowed to impose itself (idea X or comment Y is not valid until privileged A says so) and in which oversimplification is replaced by nuance (no more monolithic “black culture,” “homosexuality,” “women,” etc., against the privileged norm).

Toward the end of his last interview, James Baldwin explains: “Because you can’t be taught anything if you think you know everything already, that something else — greed, materialism, and consuming — is more important to your life.”

As teachers seeking ways in which to help our students confront privilege and inequity, we must ourselves be students first so that we may create spaces in which our students can feel safe and free to think beyond the limits of bias.

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P. L. Thomas, Associate Professor of Education and Faculty Director/First Year Seminars (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He is currently a column editor for English Journal (National Council of Teachers of English) and series editor for Critical Literacy Teaching Series: Challenging Authors and Genres (Sense Publishers). NCTE named Thomas the 2013 George Orwell Award winner. Recent edited volumes include James Baldwin: Challenging Authors (Sense 2014) and Becoming and Being a Teacher (Peter Lang USA 2013). His teaching and scholarship focus on literacy and the impact of poverty on education, as well as confronting the political dynamics influencing public education in the U.S. Follow his work @plthomasEdD and on the blog the becoming radical.