How to Teach about Privilege in the American Classroom

Teaching about privilege can be a great challenge for secondary teaching in American classrooms. It is often seen as a divisive topic, and can be considered risky in terms of job security and parental approval. And when you put the adjective "white" in front of privilege, it truly becomes a contested topic with all sides enraged over the idea of when, how, or even why it should or shouldn't be taught.

Teaching about white privilege or any privilege can be challenging for teachers in the middle or high school classroom. Read these suggestions and the step-by-step guide for introducing the important controversial subject to your students. #teaching #iteachmiddleschool #iteachhighschool #iteach678 #socialstudies #history #historyteacher #controversy #teachingcontroversy #writeprivilege #teachingwhiteprivilege #itstimetotalkracism

In the Social Studies classroom, teachers have an added load of responsibility in teaching about current events and modern issues. It is not only part of our curriculum, but it is written in the ideals of our country, making it very much our content to teach. Taking that point a step further, our lessons should go beyond teaching the ugliness of America's past and then dismissing the current implications of those actions. We need to address the HERE. The NOW. The ALWAYS HAS BEEN. We need to address it for what it is and what it always will be if we don't bring attention to bring change.

Teaching about white (or any privilege) does not have to be a screaming, fist pumping debate in your classroom. It can be dissected into tiny lessons that will help students see and further identify their own privileges while working toward understanding the implications privileges have on those who do not have them. Simple, right? Not!

Making it Simple

  1. As with any other lesson, begin with setting up the basic understanding of the vocabulary. Teach the meaning of the word privilege. What does it mean? What is its context? How can that context change?
  2. Make connections that your students will understand. Do not attempt to introduce a global understanding of privilege and its impact before they understand the more immediate implications. 
  3. Build up to the larger concepts and implications. Think back to when Social Studies was taught in elementary schools. First grade was "All about me" followed by "My family and home" and then "My community" and so on. Teach this lesson in the same format.  
  4. Do not allow it to become an "us versus them" scenario in your classroom.  ALL of your students are your students. They are one. And privilege impacts us all. Teach those lessons.

Step by Step

  1. Teach the vocabulary. Define words you plan to include in your lesson. Break them down to the simplest terms and then build them back up in the lesson. Don't assume students have a thorough understanding of any of the vocabulary and start everyone at the same level. Think about this in Disney terms. Disney does not hire ready-trained professionals for many of their professional positions (eg. photographers). They hire candidates with basic skills so they can train them in picture-taking the Disney way.  Make sure everyone is on the same page at the start and go from there. 
  2. Allow students the opportunity to make it about them first. Help them to find ways they have privilege and how they have been impacted by others having privilege. Start small. Examine locations (small towns versus big cities) or transportation methods (walking to school versus access to bussing). Understanding that there is an impact is a major step that must be attained before students can step back to see how others are impacted by their own privilege.
  3. Identify types of privilege. There are many types of privilege. They range from very personal level privileges (tall versus short) to global level privileges (being born in first world versus third world countries). Create a listing of any and all , large or small, privileges students can identify.
  4. Examine the impacts of the privileges. Take each privilege and determine how it may affect each individual and others. Find both positive and negative impacts. Create a T-Chart or Venn Diagram to organize your information.  This step is vital. Take the time to truly examine the privileges your class deem the most impactful.
  5. Determine the impact of privileges on groups. This is where "white privilege" comes into your lesson. Examine how systemic privileges exist and can impact large groups at a time. Discuss how systemic privilege can last (and grow and develop) over long periods of time. And predict the impacts of privilege on various groups over time based on history. 
But your lesson doesn't end there...
The greatest step in this lesson is helping your students brainstorm ways to bring change. Introduce a call to action. Make it a lesson that has greater implications than a grade or a notebook page completion. Make it a lesson that lasts a lifetime for your students and all those they may encounter in their lives. 

Wrapping it Up

First of all, we must acknowledge that this is a lesson that can never be wrapped up. It is a lesson that must be taught on-going. It will come back into our lessons through teachable moments again and again, and should. We should encourage discussion and an open forum in our classrooms where all students feel they can address the privilege they see, in themselves and in others. Discussing the impact of privilege should not be an attack on anyone. It is simply the disclosure of fact that needs to be addressed so the danger of its impact does not spread.

Teaching about white privilege or any privilege can be challenging for teachers in the middle or high school classroom. Read these suggestions and the step-by-step guide for introducing the important controversial subject to your students. #teaching #iteachmiddleschool #iteachhighschool #iteach678 #socialstudies #history #historyteacher #controversy #teachingcontroversy #writeprivilege #teachingwhiteprivilege #itstimetotalkracism
Finally, think of privilege in the most simplistic terms... as a virus. If we see a virus spreading, do we ignore it? Do we allow it to spread? Do we not worry about its harm on the larger population? Even if that virus is in us, do we not want to get attention and help to bring an end to it so we do not infect others and spread the effects of the virus?

Treat privilege as a lesson, not as a platitude to get attention on bring out a rise of emotion. Teach it as an issue in American (and World) history that has continued to plague us into modern times. Teach it as what it is - our content. And our responsibility.

If you would like to teach more about white privileges and how immigrants coming to America are only seeking what we hold so precious (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), I'd suggest reading Enrique's Journey with your students. I read the Young Adult version with my students and it truly helped them to understand privilege and to take a step toward living with empathy and compassion.

Also take time to link to other great lesson suggestions for teaching about the current issues in our world that should not be controversial, but vital lessons for discussion in the secondary classroom.


And while I typically sign off my posts with "Happy Teaching", I wish to change that up for this post. I feel this one has a greater call to action! #itstimetotalkracism

Teach with purpose!

Michele Luck

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