When was the last time you contemplated how good you have it? And I’m not talking about gratitude. Gratitude is a powerful tool (here’s a great activity we made for families called The Gratitude Experiment). But what about privilege? When is the last time you thought about your place of privilege in the world? With the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as our backdrop, teachers in my district have been asked to contemplate our level of privilege in the world, and it was very eye-opening. A failure to see clearly the different levels of privilege in our society could be part of the reason why Martin Luther King’s dream is still a long way off for many of our young people.
It’s not that hard to be thankful for all the good things in our lives. But to see our level of privilege is. Of course, I known this about my own kids. Yes, they’re great at saying thanks when they get a nice gift, but they probably won’t understand until they’re much older how good they have it in the world, to be living in the wealth of the U.S. with two healthy parents in a safe neighborhood in a house with a full fridge.
But it turns out, I can be just as blind to my own privileges.
In the school district where I work, we’ve been challenged to face the issue of racial inequality in our classrooms. What role does race and privilege play in the disparities we see in our classes, our school districts, our test scores, and, finally, in our society. Why are certain classrooms all one color? Why, in the same building in one urban high school does the AP English class and the special education class look like two different worlds? What systems are at play that led to this disparity? As teachers, we were asked to complete a very powerful contemplation activity: a survey of our privilege. It was mind-opening in many ways. Starkly named “White Privilege Survey” and based on the ground-breaking work of Peggy McIntosh, this series of simple statements guided us all toward a better understanding of the more subtle ways race can work for or against us.
The activity consisted of a series of statements which we had to rate: 5 if the statement was often true about us; 3 if it was sometimes true; and 0 if it was never true. Here are a few examples:
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
- I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the newspaper and see people of my race widely and positively represented.
- I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied-in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, feared, or hated.
- I can conveniently buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
- When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my race made it what it is.
- I can swear, dress in secondhand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
- I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
- I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a racial outsider.
- I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.
- I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
- I can speak in public to a powerful group without putting my race on trial.
- I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match the color of my skin.
What was probably most startling was that we did the survey as a school team; and then we lined up based on our scores. I landed on one end of the line with all the white men, and way down the line, on the other end, stood all the black men. Women and other minority groups filled in the middle. Those guys on the other side were my friends, my colleagues, all professionals, yet suddenly there was a huge chasm between us. There it was for us all to see, a glimpse of how different our experiences are living in the same world.
Peggy McIntosh calls white privilege “an invisible package of unearned assets” and “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks.” Like a fish who asks directions to the water, it can be hard, especially for white men, to see the level of privilege we are surrounded by. From media to business to the justice system, the whiteness is so pervasive that it is truly invisible.
Here’s a copy of the complete survey (Privilege Contemplation Survey), adapted from Peggy McIntosh’s powerful essay, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” It’s worth contemplating. We want our kids to know how good they have it, but first we need to see it for ourselves. Martin Luther King understood very well how racial inequality was built into the very structure of our systems. That’s why he did much more than just make amazing speeches: he ran boycotts and sit-ins. In many ways, we have forgotten this lesson. We prefer to look at racism as individual cases of one person doing something awful to another, whether it is Paula Dean or George Zimmerman. It can be much harder to untangle the web of privilege that weaves much of our world together. The same web that keeps many apart.
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