Making Privilege Visible
October 15, 2017
At the Gilman Middle School, nearly every boy has an Under Armour quarter-zip jacket on. All the students carry personal iPads to class. Outside the large windows sit a vast array of brand-new turf fields. Walking in, one cannot mistake the shine of privilege. Although Shamus Khan’s (2011) Learning Privilege and Adam Howard’s (2008) Privilege focus on older students, their critical lens can apply to this middle school setting, where I have seen some ugly manifestations of the privileged environment that demand attention. In reflection on those incidents through the prism of the texts, I see where my teaching must begin to interrupt the production of privilege at Gilman by ensuring that the privilege cannot remain invisible.
In his work at St. Paul’s, Khan presents an environment where the students take advantage of their privileged position in the hierarchy there in relation to the support staff, asking of their interactions, “how do young members of the elite deal with persistent, visible reminders of hierarchy around them and of the obvious inequality that emerges from such hierarchy?” (2011, p. 40). At Gilman, students know the name of the security officer who enthusiastically greets them each morning, but show complete disregard for the custodial staff, who upon a quick survey, the boys do not know. Many have not even noticed the man who cleans the building every day. To combat the type of hierarchy that Khan (2011) documents at St. Paul’s, Gilman makes the students clean parts of the school, incentivizing the work by giving the boys merits, tokens boys use in the school auction. While I support the effort to make students responsible for cleaning up after themselves, I suggest this particular system eliminates the uncomfortable “reminders of hierarchy” for the students, who instead can develop a false sense of self-sufficiency, possibly becoming unaware of their privileged position above the staff (2011, p. 40).
Howard shows the dangers of this system when he references Peggy IcIntosh’s (1990) argument that “the more aware people are of their privilege, the more they can contribute to changing themselves and the privileged locations they occupy” (2008, p. 22). At Gilman, if the boys feel like they are doing the cleaning themselves, and do not recognize the work of the staff, they cannot recognize why they need to change. The students’ lack of awareness for their privilege emerged in September, when the school met to discuss why an unknown student purposely covered the entire bathroom in feces. The swift response to the incident above appropriately included making the students aware of the staff that had to clean up the mess, but the system that keeps students largely unaware of their privilege seems partly to blame.
Howard also uses Craig and Darren’s story of sexual abuse in the locker room at Bredvik to show how the defense of “just joking around” communicates and regenerates privilege (2008, p. 126). The middle school version of this story does not involve sexual abuse, but the boy committing the act behaves similarly as “the trickster” constructing “an inaccurate perception of the situation to an unsuspecting individual” (2008, p. 129). At football, I witness him tell another student, whose family has recently been unstable, “two wrongs don’t make a right, just like your parents.” Like Craig, his intentions probably were not to traumatize the victim, so much as to aid his status on the hierarchy by putting someone down who was not from a stable family. But the defense was similar from my student: “I was just joking around.” Where the issue at Bredvik blew up into a whole-school issue, the football incident that sent the other kid home in tears stayed under wraps. While Gilman dealt with the issue between the two boys, I believe administrators could have done more to confront the privilege the joke communicated. For in the supposed humor, as Howard showed with his example, the boy drew from the social hierarchy that places him above another because of his privileged family status. Though the administrators dealt with the comment, the crowd present in the moment never heard a response from the school, and the privilege remained invisible to them.
Despite the documented privilege at Gilman, there is one important difference from the schools Khan and Howard describe, one that I have noticed administrators and other faculty regularly emphasize. Howard writes, “As elsewhere in the country, individuals within these affluent schools are clustered in isolated, class-segregated communities. Isolation is fairly consistent in the various spheres of these students’ lives. They have little contact with the “ugly” school and life circumstances of Others” (2008, p. 199). Gilman’s position in Baltimore, however, does not provide that isolation. Although Roland Park, where the school is located, has many multi-million dollar homes, it is impossible to arrive at the school without passing homeless people each morning, walking by your car in search of money. Gilman students see firsthand the immense poverty around them. They cannot avoid the “ugly” (2008, p. 199).
Khan argues that “interrupting the cultural production of privilege requires intentional efforts on the part of educators to confront and transform lessons students learn about their place in the world and their relations with others” (2011, p. 228). At Gilman, students have incredible opportunity to see their place in the world given the location of the school within the city of Baltimore. The administrators strive to have students work with residents throughout the city regularly, in part to ensure students recognize their privilege. Yet the two episodes described in the middle school, and the context surrounding them, suggest that within the walls of the school, privilege remains dangerously invisible to the students.
My task, thus, as shown by the two authors, is to engage in conversations with students, faculty, and staff about the lessons that can be learned about privilege from such incidents as described above. At a critical juncture of life where obliviousness to privilege can soon turn to ease by high school, I want to help create an environment that interrupts the cultural production of privilege. I believe through my reading and observation that the interruption begins with dialogue to ensure privilege cannot remain invisible in high-stress moments.
Howard, A. (2008). Learning Privilege: Lessons of Power and Identity in Affluent Schooling. New York: Routledge.
Khan, S. (2011). Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School. Princeton: Princeton University Press.