Raising Awareness of Class Privilege
By Rory Gilbert, manager of Diversity Initiatives
for Maricopa County Community College District
University of Montana
Class privilege is “the elephant in the room”
when it comes to diversity education. Students who willingly
wrestle with race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion
often balk at exploring class privilege, which threatens
the fundamental myth that all people in the United States
enjoy equal access to opportunity. Yet unexplored beliefs
about class impact the policies, practices, and relationships
that shape our lives. Our students, the next generation
of workers, community leaders, and global citizens,
must recognize class privilege to break down systemic
barriers to opportunity. How can educators successfully
teach students about class identity?
Preparing to Introduce High-Level Concepts
Privilege and class are high-level concepts for students
and teachers striving to discuss diversity in the classroom,
and preparatory work is critical. As educators work
to create an environment where students can safely explore
challenging concepts, some fundamental rules apply:
- Students need to feel validated and respected. Guilt
and blame are not effective tools in moving people
forward in social justice work: they simply increase
- Students learn through their own processes of discovery.
They need to experience principles in action, and
they need to identify for themselves what changes
are necessary in order to feel invested in change.
Thus diversity education is developmental work: educators
must meet people “where they are,” leading
them on their own journeys of discovery by building
their capacity for change.
- People need to feel connected to the subject at
hand. Diversity work is ultimately about relationships,
which is why experiential and synergistic learning
is so important.
These fundamental rules provide the framework for a
number of capacity-building guidelines. First, the instructor
needs to help learners create a community that is
safe and inclusive. Working as a community to develop
standards of behavior can help. For example, the instructor
should be cognizant of the balance of voices in the
classroom based on privilege status and (without expressing
judgment) invite the class to find solutions to disparities
in who speaks up.
for Teaching about
Class and Classism
- A Framework for Understanding Poverty
by Ruby Payne (2005) provides insights on class
as culture and includes useful surveys to help
students understand class differences.
- Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice,
edited by Maurianne Adams, Lee Anne Bell, and
Pat Griffin (1997), includes a curriculum chapter
on classism with useful activities to illustrate
the extremes of wealth and poverty in the United
- “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”
by Peggy McIntosh (1988) prepares students to
explore their own points of privilege.
- “Star Power,” a challenging activity
sold by Simulations Training Systems, helps
demonstrate how privilege and class are interconnected,
but may result in resistance even with significant
- “Examining Class and Race,” an
activity by Paul Kivel, addresses the myth of
the level playing field through a sociogram-like
representation of class participants. The activity
may be adapted to include a range of target
identities (gender, sexual orientation, ability
status, etc.) (paulkivel.com/resources/
People Like Us
PBS video, examines through interviews and
commentary the role social class plays in
the United States. A supplemental Web site
provides games, statistics, and instructional
- Jane Elliott’s Blue-eyed/Brown-eyed
films, available at www.janeelliott.com, explore
how easily people are socialized and impacted
by hierarchical systems.
Second, the instructor should help students understand
that “diversity” is complex, includes everyone,
and is not a code word for “some people.”
Students should recognize that they have many interrelated
identities and identify their connections with others.
Unmasking dominant group invisibility is important:
when discussing race, for instance, encourage white
students to recognize that they have a race.
Third, the instructor should help students develop
skills in intergroup communication, including empathy,
perspective taking, and comfort with ambiguity. The
instructor should provide opportunities to practice
intergroup communication, make the process of intergroup
dialogue overt by naming it, and help students process
their experiences so they feel validated for their efforts.
Finally, instructors need to ensure that students
understand key concepts including socialization,
social construction, hierarchy, and systemic oppression
(see Adams 2000 or Johnson 2001 for background information).
Without these frameworks, students may personalize the
concepts of privilege and class rather than understanding
their systemic nature.
Example: Using Handedness to Introduce Privilege
Discussion of handedness (adapted from
presentations by Steve Robbins) is one way to introduce
the concept of privilege and minimize resistance before
engaging in more specific discussions about class. Handedness
does not carry the emotional charge attached to other
differences in today’s society. Although left
handedness is no longer associated with deviance, many
people have learned to use their nondominant right hands
to adapt. Left-handed people face numerous daily obstacles,
including the risk of accidents caused by operating
instruments designed for right-handed users. Yet right-handed
people are often unaware of the privileges they enjoy.
Handedness demonstrates many concepts related to privilege:
a) Handedness is not chosen or bestowed.
b) Right handedness is considered normal, while left
handedness has historically been perceived as deviant,
dangerous, and sinister.
c) The society may view left-handed people as awkward
or strange, and left-handed people often believe this
about themselves (internalized oppression).
d) Left-handed people frequently change their behaviors
to fit into a right-handed world (passing and code
e) Right-handed people are unconscious of the benefits
they receive (the privilege of ignorance).
f) Right-handed people cannot avoid the benefits
they receive, even when they are conscious of the
benefits (institutionalized and systemic nature of
Students accept handedness privilege and recognize
that they are not personally responsible for the oppression
of left-handed people. They understand that they have
inherited a system that benefits some and disadvantages
others. Once students have accepted handedness, they
are more open to learning about other privileged identities.
I have found that many people who experience nonprivileged
status in other parts of their lives appreciate this
The Challenge of Teaching about Social Class
Social class is a taboo subject in the United States.
I have found that students prefer to stratify the middle
class into a range of subclasses (lower-lower middle,
lower middle, middle middle, upper middle, and upper-upper
middle) rather than identify themselves or others in
their peer group as either lower or upper class. This
behavior is not specific to students, nor is it specific
to those of a certain socioeconomic status: people with
annual incomes from $20,000 to more than $100,000 tend
to define themselves as “middle class” (Vigeland
2008; NOW: Politics and Economy 2004).
This reluctance may originate in the pervasive myths
about opportunity in the United States. As Greg Mantsios
(2003) has noted, Americans commonly believe that “success
in the United States requires no more than hard work,
sacrifice, and perseverance,” that “everyone
has an equal opportunity to succeed,” that “most
Americans have achieved…affluence,” and
that “the United States is fundamentally a classless
society.” Challenges to these deep-seated beliefs
cause cognitive dissonance, a “discrepancy between
what we currently believe to be true and other contradictory
information” (Goodman 2001).
Cognitive dissonance can be particularly potent for
students of class privilege. They are often unconscious
of their privileged status, believe that their success
is based on their own merits, and think that the benefits
they receive are normal and available to all. What does
it mean to a person of class privilege to acknowledge
that health care, legal protection, and education services
are disparately rendered? How is one’s status
challenged if success depends on privilege rather than
on hard work? (Mantsios 2003) These questions can make
students exceedingly uncomfortable and invoke anxiety,
fear, confusion, anger, guilt, and resentment. People
of privilege may find it easier to deny that privilege
exists than to experience this discomfort (Goodman 2001).
Although students of privilege are often unconscious
of the benefits associated with status, students without
privilege have to confront their difference on a routine
basis. Yet even these students subscribe to the general
tendency “not to talk about [class] and [to] think
of [America] as a ‘classless’ society”
(Collins and Yeskel 2005). Many students who do not
have class privilege subscribe to the notion that their
class position is of their own making. These students
react to conversations about class in a variety of ways,
from caretaking privileged students who feel guilty,
showing pride in their own accomplishments, expressing
anger, embarrassment, or fear of being judged, or shock
at discovering their social class.
This range of reactions presents a great challenge
to instructors working to keep both privileged and nonprivileged
students from fleeing the discomfort of the subject.
But after the instructor has laid the groundwork for
general discussions of class, an exploration of class
privilege can be effective.
Example Exercise: Understanding Social Class
An introductory activity masked as a warm-up exercise
allows students to appreciate how quickly socialization
to the class hierarchy occurs:
- Give each student a token or strip of paper of one
of three random colors (e.g. orange, green, and blue)
not connected to their identities. Ask them to talk
to as many of their classmates as possible, exchanging
papers each time they talk to another student.
- Interrupt the activity after a minute or two and
explain that you have forgotten to tell them something:
Blue is best, green is “okay,” and orange
is not so good. Remind them about the purpose of the
activity—to talk to as many students as possible—and
ask them to proceed. Note the differences in behavior
now that you have assigned value to the strips (engaged
in social construction of difference).
- Interrupt a third time and call the blue group over
to you. In front of the other groups, talk about how
lucky they are to be blue. Do not attach any real
meaning to their good fortune (don’t associate
it with wealth, intelligence, ability, etc.). Then
call the green group over and tell them that they
are “okay.” Finally, call the orange group
over and tell them how sorry you are for their misfortune.
Ask the students to continue the activity, reminding
them to talk to as many students as possible. Once
again, observe the behaviors.
- After another two minutes, end the activity and
debrief by asking students to describe what happened,
identify their feelings, discuss the changes in behavior,
and relate the exercise to real-life experiences.
Students are usually quick to recognize the parallels
to class structure. Instructors can use this activity
to discuss how class privilege is initially an accident
of birth, but ultimately something that we work to maintain.
This article has provided some introductory resources
and context for developing lesson plans on a complex
topic. I believe that students who are aware of socioeconomic
privilege are more able to make decisions and implement
practices that benefit all members of society. If they
are able to recognize and address classism, students
can change the conversation about class. By providing
adequate contextualization and preparation and including
the voices of both privileged and non-privileged students,
instructors can facilitate students’ movement
to action. When we aid students in creating strong learning
communities, we help them navigate their own journeys
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sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and classism. New
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Excerpted from Working Paper 189, “White Privilege
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