Unpacking Privilege with Teachers Entering the Profession

October 12, 2016

(Photo credit: Brittney Oswald, Center for Inspired Teaching)

This piece was written by Tess Gann, Teaching and Learning Intern at Center for Inspired Teaching. Tess has supported the Inspired Teacher Certification Program since Spring 2015.

When was the last time someone asked you how you are privileged?

Before this past summer, I had never confronted my own privilege. As a Teaching and Learning Intern at Inspired Teaching, my main role was to support the facilitation of the Summer Institute, when a new cohort of aspiring teachers began training with the Inspired Teacher Certification Program before entering the teaching profession. But, when we began to talk about equity, I was also an active participant. I knew sharing my own beliefs about equity with the cohort and program staff was a risk. I felt stiff in anticipation. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I’m misinterpreted? I felt equally vulnerable and secure knowing that we were all taking this risk together.

I was uncomfortable, but I knew the exercise was important. Research repeatedly shows that implicit bias shapes the way students of color are treated, with implications for the achievement gap and what has been called the “preschool-to-prison pipeline.” Teachers also face bias in their schools, and many suggest this is a root cause of the high burn-out rate of teachers of color. Since people rise to the expectations others set for them, interrogating implicit expectations is a vital part of working towards equity in education.

We began discussing equity by looking inward. Fellows and staff completed Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege Checklist, which lists specific examples of how racial privilege impacts our daily lives in myriad ways. Peggy McIntosh, a feminist, activist, and scholar, describes privilege as an invisible knapsack that affects the way we experience the world—we are rarely forced to take off our knapsacks and see what’s inside. The checklist helps people recognize concrete ways in which racism puts some at a disadvantage and others at an advantage. For instance, if you can go to the grocery store and find food you grew up with, you have that privilege and you write a checkmark. As we silently filled our sheets with checks and left blank spaces, the room was full of tension and intrigue.

Staring at the checks marking my privilege on the page in front of me, I was staring my privilege head-on. At the end of the survey we tallied our check marks, giving us each a number reflecting the privilege we experience. Silently, we all arranged ourselves in order from most privileged to least privileged. I scanned my eyes across the line of people spanning from white males in the front and ending with females of color in the back. The spectrum of privilege was stark. I was hyper aware of my breath, my posture, the way my hands were clenched and clammy. For the first time, I could see my privilege, my knapsack, and so could the people around me.

In groups of four or five people of varied backgrounds and ethnicities, we discussed our reactions to the survey. The room was full of chatter, questions, laughter. “Did anything surprise you?” a group member asked me. Immediately, I read from the sheet, “I can choose blemish cover or bandages in ‘flesh’ color and have them more or less match my skin.” I had never thought of how easy it is for me to wear a bandage on the back of my foot where my favorite pair of heels rub. The people of color in my small group laughed a familiar laugh as if to share that they all know what it is like to struggle to find a bandage. “Under-eye concealer,” one Fellow added, “is impossible for me to find.” I couldn’t help but think: If I’ve never noticed the color of bandages, what else am I missing?

The conversation wasn’t over, nor had we resolved anything by the end of the day. Still, we felt satisfied that we had started to talk about privilege, race, gender, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, and their implications for education. We had learned to talk about ourselves honestly and listen with openness and respect. As I watch the Inspired Teaching Fellows enter their classrooms as resident teachers, I’m glad they will feel more prepared to tackle these conversations with their students than they had been before.

My experience this summer taught me that being a changemaker means being willing to unpack your invisible knapsack – and understanding that everyone wears a knapsack of his or her own.

The Inspired Teacher Certification Program is now accepting applicants for its 2017 cohort of Inspired Teaching Fellows. Learn more at www.inspiredteaching.org/teacher-certification.

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