Privilege Lecture

I did a variation of this activity on privilege in my language and society college-level class a few days ago. The final chapter in our textbook, Living Language, talks about hegemony, doxa, habitus, and power, so the lesson fit in with their reading. It’s important that we talk about privilege in a language and society class because privilege and language are connected. Yes, I get privilege from being white, heterosexual, cisgender, and over-educated, etc. But I also get privilege from being a native speaker of English, having a northern accent, and being able to mostly pass as a speaker of the imaginary “Standard American English” dialect.

In the class activity, I told the students that they had a chance to earn extra credit toward their journal grades. I told them I didn’t want to do any extra grading, so I was trying an extra credit activity that I had read about on a teaching blog. I gave them a piece of paper (a quarter sheet of used paper that had print on one side–I didn’t want to be wasteful of resources), and asked them to write their names on the piece of paper. Then I asked them to wad the paper into a ball. I told them that if they could hit the seat of a chair in the front of the room with their paper, they would get extra credit.

I got reactions that you’d expect. Students in the back of the room mumbled about how unfair, ridiculous, or stupid the task was. Students in the front shrugged their shoulders at their good luck and tossed their paper at the chair. One student tried to stand up to toss her wad of paper. Only two students successfully hit the seat of the chair.

I asked the students if they had any reason to think that I shouldn’t use this method to dole out extra credit. Of course, they said that it wasn’t fair. I said, “But I gave you all the same task? You all had to do the same thing.” And they said it was not the same task to hit a target from different positions in the room.

Then, we talked about privilege in general. On the surface, it looks like we all have to do the same task to get a job, to go to college, to feel safe, etc. But in reality, it’s a different task depending on your circumstances. (The article in this link wasn’t written specifically about white privilege, but the idea of white privilege comes up in the reporting.)

We talked about how having privilege doesn’t mean that you don’t work for what you have. And it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person for having benefited from who you are. We talked about how everyone in the room has some privilege – enough to be able to be a student at a four-year university. We talked about how different things get us privilege: ethnicity/race, gender, sexuality, social status, region of origin, and ability all factor into privilege.

Luckily, happily, I got some pushback. If I hadn’t gotten some pushback, I would have worried that students were just letting my words wash over them without reflection. One woman asked, “But didn’t we all ultimately choose where we sit in this class? Aren’t I, in the end, responsible for my distance from the front of the room?” I said, “Sure, you chose where to sit. But I chose where to put the target. I could have put the target in the back of the room. I could have put the target in the back corner. I could have changed who had the advantage.”

Since this is a linguistics class, we moved the focus of our discussion on privilege from ethnicity/gender/sexuality to language privilege (Here’s a (long) blog post by linguistic PhD student Nic Subtirelu about English privilege – it’s very good). As a native speaker of English, I have privileges, in the US and outside the US, that non-native English speakers do not have. For example:

  1. I can be confident that I’ll be able to order food and read signs in the US and abroad.
  2. I know that the reason I didn’t get a job wasn’t because I don’t speak English with a foreign accent.
  3. If I should need to move, I know that my language won’t prevent me from renting or purchasing housing in an area where I want to live. (YouTube link).
  4. I can get news in my native language from a variety of sources.

Furthermore, as a speaker of a somewhat prestigious English (it’s not “good” English – but it’s not African American English, Southern English, Hispanic English, Appalachian English, etc), I have privileges that speakers of stigmatized dialects do not have. For example:

  1. People are less likely to notice my typos because I’m white
  2. I know the reason I didn’t get a job wasn’t because I don’t speak English “in standard way.”
  3. I can take standardized tests in my preferred language and dialect.
  4. People don’t assume that I’m stupid because of my dialect.

When my class turned to examining language privilege, a woman (my class is female-heavy) said, “I don’t think my southern accent helps or hurts me.” Then she told a story about how nice people are to her when they identify her as a “sweet southern girl.” Another student commented that maybe people wouldn’t be as nice to her if she didn’t sound like a “sweet southern girl.”

Then we turned our conversation toward non-native English speakers in the US. A woman noted that bilingual Hispanic workers at her job were needed, but were rarely promoted.

I’ve never had a planned classroom discussion about language privilege before, and I was nervous about how it would go. I was surprised that so many people were able to point to their own experiences when reflecting on language privilege, even though many of the students had never talked about these ideas before.

I don’t see these claims about privilege as a radical view of the world. I see these claims as an uncomfortable truth. I think it’s hard to think about having privilege – especially if one has a narrow view of what privilege is. The first time I thought about privilege – and the privilege I have in particular – was a very difficult exercise. How could I have privilege when I felt poor? How could I have privilege when I felt like I worked so hard for what I had? How could I have privilege when I grew up in a smallish mining town?

This is a hard topic. If you are being told that you have privilege, you may understandably feel guilty or as if your hard work is being questioned or as if someone is blaming you personally for their problems. Contrary to these feelings, your privilege is not your fault. You still had to work hard for what you got. No one is blaming you personally. But, at least acknowledge that we have a system that benefits you. And think about what this means for people who aren’t like you. It’s important to think about how who you are fits, or does not fit, into a system of privilege that exists in our world.

Further Reading:

  1. Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person | Huff Po
  2. What riding my bike has taught me about white privilege | Quartz
  3. White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack | Chapter by P. McIntosh in Academic Book
  4. White Privilege, Explained in One Simple Comic | Everyday Feminism

Thanks to Di Fischer and Scott Loss for commenting on an earlier draft of this post.

Update: a Facebook friend posted a link of a critical review of the “trash can” activity that I incorporated in my class. The main point is that [White] privilege isn’t so simple because of unequal of distribution of resources and punishments, among other things. It is completely true: this is a simplistic model that can be used as an introduction to these ideas. Especially in a college-level class, I wanted an activity where students who are generally (not all) privileged would feel *not* privileged. For me, this was a way to start a conversation. Not an end in itself.


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