Introducing Students to White Privilege

I have been working in a very racially diverse area for the past few years, and, while we do talk about race and what it means to be white, Black, or Latino/a (the three races most represented at our school), we rarely unpack privilege and what it means to experience privilege based on your race, gender, size, sexuality, or any other factor.

This year, however, I decided to teach Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy, to my students. From the first chapter, they were hooked. The descriptions of the racism Wright experienced while growing up in the South caught their attention right away, and sparked a sense of injustice in them. When I reminded them that this was not so long ago in our country’s history – Wright would probably represent their great grandparents’ generation – they were even more angered. When we came to Wright’s realization that Black boys were brutally beaten in the street by white men, one student inevitably brought up Trayvon Martin, and how his murder was a racially motivated crime. Since it was almost the 20th anniversary of the riots in LA surrounding Rodney King’s brutal beating, I brought up that, as well. Students began to discuss the injustices they face because of their race, and the resounding conclusion was a simple one: This is not fair; this is not right.

A real “teachable moment”

In a true teachable moment, I realized my students needed to have access to the language used to express the unfairness they see in the world, and at that point, I brought in Peggy McIntosh’s famous 1988 article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” and had the students read from it. Some of the ideas, like being targeted by police or being called “a credit to their race,” they were familiar with. Some of the ideas, like not being able to find a bandaid that was the color of their flesh, got them thinking about how deep white privilege truly goes. The scariest realization for them was that this is not a thing of the past, but very much something we deal with in the present.

As a white woman, I examine my privilege right along with them. I think it is important for them to know that, as their teacher, I am not above this, teaching it down to them. I have enormous privilege based on my race, and it is important that they know that I am aware of that.

It breaks my heart to know that my students will have to deal with these injustices and hear about the Rodney King’s and the Trayvon Martin’s in the news for quite some time. However, I do have faith that our hope as a nation rests on the shoulders of this generation. Just the fact that I am able to “unpack the knapsack” with my students is a testament to that hope. Identifying white privilege – or any other privilege for that matter – is the first step to a more tolerant society. From building awareness, we will move to what they can do to make our small corner of the world a better place. Hopefully, I have some future activists in my midst, but only time will tell.


Related Stories:

Trayvon Martin’s Death: This White Woman’s Reality Check

It Is Not What We Say to Black Men, It Is What We Do to Them

Rodney King on Trayvon Martin

Photo Credit: rosmary


Abbe A.
Azaima A4 years ago

excellent idea

Tatyana Ivanova
Tatyana Ivanova5 years ago

Everything has already been said, nevertheless, I want to thank you very much for you to make the world better. You really do. These children now know what is going on on this planet and probably they will stand for theirs and other people's rights.

Debbie L.
Debbie Lim5 years ago

This is a stimulating teaching method. :) Thanks for sharing. I hope these kids learn from past mistakes and make the future a better and fair world.

Julia W.
Julia W5 years ago

Now , this is teaching!! Wouldn't it be wonderful if this could happen all over this country(or the world) every day. Thank you Peggy McIntosh.

Callie J.
Callie Johnson5 years ago

I wish Peggy McIntosh had chosen another word than 'privilege' - many people are not going to understand her intended meaning and assume it refers solely to monetary privilege.

Heather G.
Heather G5 years ago

Being white IS a priviledge and part of the priviledge is not having to acknowledge it. Race is not biological, it's strictly political. Racism is institutionalized in our justice system. If black people are perceived to be criminals, then who will be arrested first? Which drivers will be pulled over? What neighborhoods will be policed more often? Who will get the longer and harsher sentances? This is why "Blacks account for less than 15% of our population, yet, commit ~70% of the violent crime."

Robby C.
Past Member 5 years ago

...percent of their victims are white, 43 percent are black, and 10 percent are Hispanic. When whites commit violent crime, only three percent of their victims are black.
• Blacks are an estimated 39 times more likely to commit a violent crime against a white than vice versa, and 136 times more likely to commit robbery.
• Blacks are 2.25 times more likely to commit officially-designated hate crimes against whites than vice versa.

Here's another one using "justice dept statistics"

I could probably find some KKK sites that show even worse stats, to help my point, but I'm really not looking for biased info. Regardless, the fact is, blacks commit more violent crime w/fewer people. My point here, is not to demonize a race. I agree w/much of what Will said, but at the same time, I disagree that saying "black on black crime" or "black on white crime," etc, is racist. Racism exists on both sides. In the end, unfortunately, there will never be a world w/out racism. But, this is not to take away from the point of the original article. In the US, whites often do have priviledge, but there are many times when it works the other way.

Robby C.
Past Member 5 years ago

Lynne- I included multiple links in an attempt to be fair. I don't want to just pick only the articles that support my point & leave out possible counters when statistics CAN be manipulated & depend on many variables. But what I said was "Blacks account for less than 15% of our population, yet, commit ~70% of the violent crime." The "~" means "about." I try not to post exact #s b.c every site shows at least slightly dif stats. Anyway, violent crime means more than just murder, but in the box graph titled "Homicide Offending By Race 1976-2005" it says "As of 2005, statistics show that offending rates for blacks were more than 7 times higher than the rates for whites." And yes, I know what "rate" means. But arrest rates are different from conviction rates.

Try this one:

In first 2 paragraphs:

• Blacks are seven times more likely than people of other races to commit murder,
and eight times more likely to commit robbery.
• When blacks commit crimes of violence, they are nearly three times more likely
than non-blacks to use a gun, and more than twice as likely to use a knife.

• Of the nearly 770,000 violent interracial crimes committed every year involving
blacks and whites, blacks commit 85 percent and whites commit 15 percent.
• Blacks commit more violent crime against whites than against blacks. Fortyfive
percent of their victims are white, 43 percent are black, and 10 percent are

Janice M.
Janice Ma5 years ago

The guys on Wall Street are committing far greater crimes than any of the petty drug criminals being sent to prison in such large and unjust numbers! Their economic policies are destroying lives. They prevent people from obtaining good jobs. One good example: my son has 3 degrees, one of them a MA in Elem Ed and he can't find a job. He's searched in three different areas of the country, one of which is one of the best economic areas around. If this country were being run properly he'd be able to find a job. He'd be a great teacher.

Janice M.
Janice Ma5 years ago

Even though I'm white I learned very early to appreciate what black people go through. The small town we moved to when I was 9 years old in rural southern Illinois quickly decided that I was weird which changed quickly to retard then to whore (which I never was-when you're that unpopular-who wants to date you?). All of this started because I read sci-fi and was interested in astronomy and because one girl disliked me and started the whole thing for some unknown reason. Being treated like this destroys your confidence in everything you do. You become afraid to open your mouth to say anything because you know you'll be made fun of, sometimes even by teachers. It's impossible to describe the totality of the experience but it took me until my 50s to become comfortable being around white people. Needless to say I did not marry one of them. My husband is Chinese. Every time I hear or read about the black experience in this country described (except for the threats of violence) it sounds completely like my life. I got my revenge though. My husband was the son of a Taiwan multi-millionaire senator and we have a daughter who was a child prodigy and makes $500,000 a year and every darn achievement she achieves I have printed in their stupid farthing little newspaper! HA! So much for THOSE idiots!!!