Wednesday, November 14, 2007

An Exercise In Owning My Class Privilege

According to the creators, this is an activity "designed to help the participants gain awareness of the vast range of social class that exists within themselves and others". It was originally done with college students but I think it makes for a very interesting tool that helps me put my own experiences into perspective. I wish that there was a version for examining non-disabled privilege. Who knows? Maybe I'll create a version.

I go back and forth about whether I was really poor growing up. I knew lots of kids who were richer than my family was. Still, I've very aware that there are folks all around me who were a lot poorer than we ever were, even during our roughest periods. Our lights were never cut off. We always had a home phone. We always had food in the house. We always had clothes that fit and were at least fashionable enough for us to never have reason to feel embarrassed around our peers. My older brother and I had our own rooms but my younger brothers shared a room. We went on vacations but they were mostly to attend religious conventions or family reunions.

I think I'm going to have to consider this a bit more thoroughly later on today. In all I would have to take 21 steps forward (out of the total 37 possible) if I was in a room participating in this activity.

How many privilege-steps would you have to make?

Step into Social Class
A Social Class Awareness Experience
Will Barratt, Meagan Cahill, Angie Carlen, Minnette Huck, Drew Lurker, Stacy Ploskonka
Indiana State University
© 2007

A big room with space to move for all participants
Chairs to sit for discussion

Pay attention to how you feel. Angry, sad, happy, winner, loser . . .
No talking – we will talk about this a lot when it is over
Line up here and take a step forward of about 1 (one) foot or one foot length

When you were in college:
If your father went to college, take a step forward.
If your father finished college
If your mother went to college
If your mother finished college
If you have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor.
If you were the same or higher class than your high school teachers
If you had a computer at home
If you had your own computer at home
If you had more than 50 books at home
If you had more than 500 books at home
If were read children's books by a parent
If you ever had lessons of any kind
If you had more than two kinds of lessons
If the people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively
If you had a credit card with your name on it
If you have less than $5000 in student loans
If you have no student loans
If you went to a private high school
If you went to summer camp
If you had a private tutor
If you have been to Europe
If your family vacations involved staying at hotels
If all of your clothing has been new and bought at the mall
If your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them
If there was original art in your house
If you had a phone in your room
If you lived in a single family house
If your parent own their own house or apartment
If you had your own room
If you participated in an SAT/ACT prep course
If you had your own cell phone in High School
If you had your own TV in your room in High School
If you opened a mutual fund or IRA in High School or College
If you have ever flown anywhere on a commercial airline
If you ever went on a cruise with your family
If your parents took you to museums and art galleries
If you were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family.

Now everyone recognize that you are at the same place academically.
Everyone turn around.
Everyone has permission to talk.
No one has permission to accuse any one or any group of anything.
Everyone must use “I” statements.
Note that the people on one end of the room had to work harder to be here today than the people at the other end of the room. Some of you had lives of more privilege than others. There is no one to blame, it is just the way it is. Some have privilege and some don’t.
(this can be said now or later, I don’t know where it will be appropriate)

What were the feelings that you had during this experience? Who was angry?
(Anger will be a primary emotion at this point.)
What, specifically, makes you angry?
Who are you angry at?

Who was happy?

Summary Statement
This experience was about creating awareness of privilege. What it is, what it does, and what it means. Having privilege does not mean that you worked less hard. All it means is that you had a head start, so maybe it does mean you didn’t have to work as hard . . . .

During the next week notice how your high school years helped or didn’t help your experience in school/at work . . . .

Explanations and Notes:
All of the step taking was about things not requiring effort on the students’ part, that were things done by others.


Hahni said...

I find this exercise very confusing, to be honest. Some of the things that would indicate less privilege are balanced out by other things (like having books in the house, being read to by your parent). I'm unsure of how much of this is class/financial privilege and the privilege of having a parent who cared enough to do without so that you could have those lessons or those new clothes. So in some ways it would almost indicate the privilege of having a parent who sacrificed for you.

as for having original art in your home--well, I've been fortunate to live with a lot of artists, and they've given me gifts of their art, or left their pieces behind. But I've never bought an original piece in my life, and certainly nothing that is currently valued at anything

I have no student loans, but taht's just because I paid them off years ago, but for years they kicked my butt on a regular basis. My mom owned her own home, til the bank foreclosed.

You see how it's not always that easy to tell? I consider that I have relative privilege even to my class (working class/poor) that I try to translate to my own children, but I don't know how successful I've been.

I certainly have the current privilege of owning computers and having internet access, and the knowledge to use them. I have the privilege of being confident enough to homeschool my daughter. But I also have huge class markers, like missing teeth and no car and needing a good haircut. It goes on and on.

Penny L. Richards said...

Hm, 14 or 15--but that might be a generational thing, I was raised a little while before personal computers, SAT prep courses and cell phones, so those were never an option. (But I won a calculator with glowing red numbers from a radio station, and I had a clock radio, a cassette recorder, and an electric typewriter in high school; that was the height of hi-tech for me.)

Another Conflict Theorist said...


Wow. Thank you, Tulip. This is a fascinating exercise. I can actually think of quite a few more questions that aren't as clearly linked to generation (cell phones, etc.) I almost wish I were still teaching so I could perform this exercise with a few of my former high school students.

Anonymous said...


I rated a 21, but I, too was pre-cell phones and personal computers were very rare.

Thanks for posting this.


Amber Rhea said...

16 steps for me based on these questions, but I think a lot of it is lost without context. For example, I was an only child, and we lived in a 3-bedroom house, so of course I had my own room. If I'd had two siblings, that would have been different. And, I went to a private school for the last two years of high school, but not for the rest of the time I was in high school - so how does this questionnaire account for variations such as that?

I know that a yes/no questionnaire like this can never really capture all the nuance involved in people's experiences, and since it's intended as a jumping-off point for discussion I suppose it is still useful. But... I don't know, I just worry that some people might see it as too much of a straight-and-narrow "yardstick." I don't know.

Nullifidian said...

I have to say, although it's a fascinating exercise, I too have quibbles with the way things are worded, and the unconscious privilege inherent in the test. Needlework samplers are considered "original art" and my family had some that were passed down, they had whittled figurines, etc. but we also didn't have indoor plumbing until we moved when I was six, which isn't even an issue on this test. Nor is not having heating bills because you have a wood-burning stove. It's based around the conceptual framework of urban instead or rural poverty.

The test also doesn't recognize homelessness explicitly. Naturally someone who doesn't have a home can't have the privileges associated with the concept of "home", but not acknowledging homelessness openly is another blindspot. I fortunately wasn't ever homeless, but have a good friend who was throughout much of her childhood.

The rest of my privileges in that list all seem to stem from my parents wanting to give me something better than what they had, except for the media one (why only one touching on white, het male privilege?). And they succeeded—I have a range of privileges which have come to me, including being the first in my family to graduate with a Ph.D., but (possibly a delusional level of subjectivity alert) I think I'm less blinded about my class privileges than many of my fellow white grad students, having grown up without them long enough to remember it.

belledame222 said...

...anyway, yeah, it's interesting how this one's more focused on education. Agree with kactus that at least part of that is about parents' values. I don't think reading to your kid is necessarily a sign of privilege, unless of course you're talking literacy being privilege in the first place, or i guess the time to spend...

but i mean, per books: yeah, we had probably over five hundred, but I'm pretty certain that even among similarly privileged kids/families in the suburb where i grew up, that just made us weird. Reading too much was -weird.-

otoh i didn't have a TV in the bedroom, but i don't really see that as a privilege thing so much as i just didn't want or need one.

belledame222 said...

...but i mean, like, i remember kids in my class making fun of my non-designer jeans, or talking about K-Mart in disparaging tones (where my mom did shop). but again, of itself i don't think that meant much about current privilege so much as relative values. my mom just didn't hold with fancy designer shit or being a snob about K-mart, and likes a bargain.

i wonder if some of it isn't more about what your assumptions are about what you're entitled to in life, how you move, what you worry about, what causes you shame...

belledame222 said...

oolon: good points. yeah, at best this covers relative levels of affluence within a certain, i'd probably call it suburban framework. whether you have a private tutor for the SAT's or not is sort of in a different realm from do you have a roof over your head, or heating, or electricity, or enough to eat.

belledame222 said...

(sorry, i'm being classic again, i know, but)--yeah, and dentistry, and how you react when you're sick (i.e. do you assume you can just take the time and be able to afford to go to the doctor, never mind more expensive procedures or medicines should they be necessary)

Chaser said...

This was really interesting. As somebody pointed out on Professor Zero's blog: Reading books to your children when one is poor may seem like a value more than a privilege, but to me, it has very little to do with values and all to do with privilege. The sweet parents who make time for their children after working hard all day (or worrying hard all day) happens mostly in fairy tale type movies. The truth of the matter is (at least in my family and other people I knew) adults needed time to unwind after a day of work or worry and the sooner the children were out of their face the better (its sounds cruel but there it is).

I think that's very true. I have five out your list, but only three if we discount things I did (going to Europe, flying on a commercial airline) when I became a consultant as an adult.

I also agree that dental care and medical care are MAJOR indicators of class. I think dental in particular, because dental care is often falsely seen as merely cosmetic. So one thing you might add is a) about dentistry and b) about braces.

There is an interesting essay I vaguely remember called "They shall know us by our teeth." For Americans, it is VERY unusual to have bad teeth, but among the deeply impoverished, teeth are a pretty proxy for understanding how a kid grows ups. For example, I have spots all over my teeth from mineral deficiencies I had as a child (from poor diet and nutrition).

Thank you for a thought-provoking exercise.

(I, too, was homeless for part of my childhood. Other things to include are whether you had running water (yes) and inside toilets (no)).

Will Barratt said...

Our whole point is awareness. While you may quibble with the fine points, this is not a fine point exercise - it is about recognizing the many reflections of class that you may or may not have. It is designed for a college age population, or recent grads, so I don't get the cell phone points.

Keep on discussing this -

Will Barratt

KMyles said...

I rated a 6. And while effort and sacrifice would now raise my children's rating far higher than my own, I do find it fasinating that so many seem to discount the reality of priveledge.