Classroom Privilege Exercise

There’s quite a bit of talk on Facebook right now about this Buzzfeed “What is Privilege” video that features a privilege walk.

Some folks and I were discussing it so I thought I’d do a quick writeup of how I adapt it for the classroom. The walk was first suggested as a classroom activity by one of my former students, Sydnie Montgomery.

I think the privilege walk can be done without modification in certain classrooms. However, because few of my classes are directly about feminism or privilege or systemic lack of privilege, I’ve adapted it to work in a general media studies classroom where the students may or may not be willing to share. I also tend to do it pretty early in the semester, while the classroom community is still forming. With those issues in mind, I have made some changes.

Supplies Needed:

  • Cupcake liners (one for each student and yourself)
  • M&Ms. Lots of them.
  • 3×5 notecards
  • A list of questions. Here is the original link that Sydnie sent me (PrivilegeLine-Exercise), though I always add a few extras. I’ll probably borrow a few from the Buzzfeed video the next time I do it.

Steps for the exercise. Allow 30 minutes or longer.

  1. Fill each cupcake liner with M&Ms and distribute to students and keep one for yourself.
  2. Ask students not to eat the candy yet. Have them empty the cupcake liners of all but 5 (or 10, but keep the number low) pieces of candy.
  3. Instruct students that in as much as possible, they should focus only on their own pile and not on those of their peers.
  4. Begin asking the questions. Instead of take a step forward or take a step backward, instruct them to add or subtract M&Ms. Some may run out of candy. Instruct them to use tick marks to continue to keep track of the negative number.
  5. After you have asked all of the questions, have students count the number of M&Ms in their cup. Tell them to subtract the number you started with.
  6. Ask them to take note of their number and also write it on the 3X5 card. Now they can eat the candy.
  7. Collect the 3X5 cards. Shuffle them and ask another student to read the numbers aloud.
  8. Mark the numbers on the board in a range, including tick marks for duplicates.
  9. Ask students to reflect on their number within the range they see on the board.

Possible discussion questions:

1. Ask students which questions surprised them. The reading question and the golf question often come up from the list I provided above.

3. Talk about the difference between indicators of privilege that change and those that don’t, between those that are visible and those that are not.

4. Ask what kinds of questions could be added to the list.

5. Sometimes to get the discussion going, I point out that by virtue of being in the classroom and having this discussion, we all share some privilege. Often I will share my number. Mine generally falls somewhere in the middle of the range, which I think can be surprising to students since I am a white woman with a clearly middle class job.

I’m often surprised by where the discussion goes and by who decides to share their number. I never ask them to do that, but there are generally a few who do so.

There are a few drawbacks of doing it this way. You lose that very powerful “look around” moment at the end that can help correlate race and gender to degrees of privilege. Students who you hope might really recognize their own privilege don’t necessarily have to talk about it in a way that accepts responsibility for recognizing it.

There are some benefits of this method too. I have never encountered resistance to this format. This is especially important because most of my classes are such that the students have not enrolled in a class with a description that explicitly addresses social justice or privilege. This allows me to incorporate discussion of privilege into a wide range of courses. We can talk about guilt and the benefits of privilege without the discussion ending up centered on one person’s “yes, but I actually had it much harder than you think” response. Neither do the students with numbers on the lower end of the range become the focus of discussion. It allows them to choose whether or not to talk about their own number and their experience.

And everyone is pretty happy because they get to eat the candy. In student evaluations this discussion is often cited as very powerful or even a favorite moment in class.

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