A Privilege to Teach About Privilege: a reflection and cry for help

by Christopher Bronke

How do you teach something that you yourself doesn’t fully understand?  In what ways can you attempt to enlighten your students to concepts that you yourself wrestle with daily?  How can you craft units of study that center on elements of our society that will always be foreign to you the teacher?

 

You dive in, head first, embracing the messiness, wrapping your arms around the unanswered and possibly unanswerable, and you tell your students that these units are as much for you as it is for them.

 

This is how I created a semester-long examination of the concepts of otherness and privilege for my freshmen students…and for ME.

 

I have always given lip service to the general idea that, as I tell my students, I hope I learn as much this year from you as you learn from me.  And while I truly have always believed that statement, never before had it felt so real and honest to be saying it as it did on Thursday, September 12, 2017 as I stood at the front of the class with Beverly Tatum’s Seven Categories of Otherness projected on the screen behind me.  Acutely aware that I am not an other in any of her seven categories, that I am, as I like to tell my students, the “unstereotypeable” — white, middle/upper class, educated, straight, Christian male.  And yet somehow I was now going to spend the next 15 weeks guiding my students through a study of otherness which would lead us into an examination of privilege.  

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Unit Design–using literature as a mirror and a window

I have always started my year using Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men as it is short and accessible, yet provides students with room for good thematic and stylistic conversations.  There have been years in which I have used this text to explore gender, others in which we study race, but this year would be different.  We would use this text to directly explore all elements of otherness, to determine who are the others in this text, why they are such, and how they react to being other.  

 

I firmly hoped that this would ground my students in a deeper understanding of, what is for me and for many of my students, a challenge to grasp.  How does one fully understand otherness when he is almost never an other?  And even for some of my students who trigger a few of Tatum’s categories, Downers Grove is, as a whole, a society of “the norm”, a town of the “what we are supposed to be”, and a school of “those that ‘fit in’”.  For me to help them get to a point where we could start to explore the privileges associated with growing up in such a town, we needed to start with an exploration of just how “not other” we, generally speaking, are.

 

From there, we moved into a text set that I hoped, both directly and indirectly, would guide my students through a practical exploration of their own and other’s privilege (or lack thereof).  I constructed our second reading experience around the following texts:

  • excerpts of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me
  • Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun
  • a Sandra Cisneros essay called “Notes of a Native Daughter” (taken from a collection of texts called Tales of Two Americas edited by John Freeman
  • This Buzzfeed privilege walk
  • two essays, both originally written by students for the Princeton school paper, that appeared on Time.com. (you can find a link to essay two at the bottom of this link I shared)

 

This text set did a few things for us.  First, it challenged students with a wide-range of reading levels and genres.  For me, this had to be at the core of what we did because I didn’t want to lose the skill-development part of my job in favor of the thematic nature of the unit; it needed to have both.  This text set allowed students to engage deeply in complex texts.  However, it also provided a wide-range of viewpoints, some directly and others indirectly, exploring the concept of privilege.  It allowed students to look inside of their own experiences and outwards at the experiences of others to, hopefully, better understand the concept of privilege.

 

The end goal, other than great conversation and individual growth, was a personal argument paper in which students, using their own experiences and evidence from the texts, had to write to the following prompt:

 

Agree, disagree, or qualify the following statement: privilege has played a role in who I am today.

 

The resulting student pieces were personal and raw, honest and reflective.  This style of writing forced them to navigate elements of narrative and storytelling with the deeply intellectual analysis of other’s writing.  And while there are many elements of these units that I will adjust and enhance for next year (I will discuss this later), I feel as if this unit really pushed students in ways that made them intellectually and personally uncomfortable yet supported emotionally and academically.  But don’t take my word for it…

What the STUDENTS had to say…

Upon the completion of these two units, I surveyed my students asking two essential questions:

  1. What were your takeaways from studying otherness and privilege?
  2. Did you see value in studying otherness and privilege this year?  Why or why not?

 

I am truly proud to report that to question number two, 27/28 students responded “yes”; while I would have loved to have seen 28/28, that number truly made me feel like the risks associated with units like these were well worth it.  But I will let the students’ words do the talking:

Responses to question one–What were your takeaways from studying otherness and privilege?

  • That I am more privileged than I had ever imagined.
  • I believe that everyone should learn about the concepts of otherness and privilege.  Even in a school like Downers North, where there are little cases of otherness, we should be more aware of it.
  • I didn’t know much about privilege and otherness and this unit really helped me understand that they are present in all we do and that both are interwoven into our lives.
  • Learning about privilege and otherness has been super cool as it is something everyone deals with.  I feel that learning these topics has helped me in my learning and overall as a person.
  • I think that the thing that left an imprint on me the most is how the people who are most oblivious to these concepts are usually the ones creating them.
  • It was hard to learn that some of my success is due to my privilege, but that pushed me to really understand how hard some people have to work.

 

Responses to question two–Did you see value in studying otherness and privilege this year?  Why or why not?

  • I absolutely see the value in studying privilege especially at such a critical age when we are starting to decide on our own beliefs.  It is important to be as educated as possible.
  • I definitely see a value in studying otherness and privilege because the only other place we discuss it is probably at the dinner table so we only see our families perspective.  
  • I think that there was a high value in studying these two topics because it made me more self aware of how lucky I am and how hard it can be for those who don’t fit “social norms” or have privilege.

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Where I Could Do Better (and would love your help…)

Despite wonderful feedback from my students, I know that there is a lot I could do better and should do differently.

  • The text set, while good, was too narrow.  There are elements of otherness and privilege that we just didn’t get to discussing much, and that was my fault because of the scope of the text set.  I know for a fact that I need to include a LGBTQ perspective to this text set as well as look to provide the perspective of a religion or two that is outside of Tatum’s “norm.”  This is non-negotiable for me, and someplace I would love your help.  I created this Padlet, and I hope that, after reading this piece, you might consider posting texts you have or do use to help teach either otherness or privilege.  
  • I would have liked to bring in more “real” voices to the conversation.  I know that the texts I used were good (and will be better next year), but I think that students would have loved to literally hear from (and maybe even get to do a Q&A with) people from all walks of life who have to navigate otherness and/or privilege in ways that maybe the majority of my students (and I) don’t. Please feel free to email me (cbronke@csd99.org) if you might be willing to Skype/GHO into class next year to share and engage with the class.
  • Next year I will have students do more consistent journaling along the way which will serve as consistent reflection and good prewriting for the paper at unit’s end.
  • I would like to find a safe way for students to share their papers, too.  This is tricky because of the personal nature of the assignment, but I think it would be great for students to read/hear from their peers about the impact of these concepts/constructs on their lives.

 

My ultimate reflection is this: teaching these concepts in a predominately white, upper-middle class community was risky, but at the end of the day, that is probably what drove my passion to do so, and it is why I am so glad that I did.

 

Chris Bronke Chris Bronke is English Department Chair in Downers Grove, Illinois. Follow him on Twitter: @MrBronke and check out his blog: http://www.medium.com/@mrbronke.

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