Earlier this week I said I would share my favorite lesson to teach students the concept of privilege. Understanding privilege is essential for understanding, well, pretty much anything else. However, a lot of students are initially resistant to the concept of privilege and the idea that they have it.
I was one of these students. When I was a junior in college and first learning about the concept of privilege through my work with the Bonner Leader’s program I was deeply uncomfortable with the concept. It felt as if someone was trying to tell me I had not earned my place at the institution. It felt like my hard work was being invalidated. I really, really, really could have used this article.
There are two fundamental truths of teaching (which no one ever tells you, for some reason). The first is that all of us teach first to who we were as students. The second is that the best teaching is a balance between earning your students’ trust enough to fuck up their day a little bit.
I’ve designed this lesson on privilege to do both of those things, reaching through the resistance students like me had to the concept of privilege and destabilizing their day the more they think about.
This lesson is adaptable to most humanities classes, is a stand alone, and can be adjusted to fit the length of your class period. The lesson as described below is designed to take up one full 50 minute class period.
First, have your students watch this video of Kacy Catanzaro, or #MightyKacy, at the 2014 Dallas Qualifiers. This is the first time that a woman completed the American Ninja Warrior qualifying course. The video is fun to watch and exciting whether you’ve seen it 50 times or it’s brand new. Have students watch it twice. The first time just to watch it and feel the excitement. The second time students watch it, when they know what to expect, ask them to listen to the commentary and watch the audience. You know your class best so if you think they need to then have them watch it a third time, possibly taking notes on the phrases that stick out to them.
After you’ve had them watch the qualifiers hit them with the 2014 Dallas Finals.
Have them repeat the same process they went through for the qualifying video with the finals.
After watching the videos guide students through discussing what they heard from the commenters and the fans.
They may notice a lot of different things from the fact that Kacy picked up some fans and a hashtag between the qualifiers and the finals to the fact that her BF and training partner calls her “one of the most talented athletes I’ve ever worked with.”
Guide them towards the observations the commenters made about her body–particularly about her “wingspan,” places her weight or height is a disadvantage, and so on.
These comments hint at the fact that the course was not built for Kacy’s body. It was built for a taller, heavier body.
This is privilege.
Privilege doesn’t mean that you hate individuals who are not like you. In fact, you can enthusiastically support them as individuals just as the commenters and fans enthusiastically support Kacy’s progress through the courses.
What privilege means is that the structure (in this example, the obstacle course) is built for certain types of bodies rather than others.
This doesn’t mean those other bodies can’t make it through the course–only that it is more difficult for them to do so.
Similarly, this doesn’t mean people who have the bodies the course is made for will automatically make it through the course, but it does mean they won’t face extra obstacles just by being who they are.
If you like, you can take this lesson even further.
The American Ninja Warrior obstacle course is made for certain types of bodies–but whose?
If you ask students who the course is made for they will tentatively answer, “Men.”
If you have any Ninja Warrior enthusiasts in your class they will likely know that American Ninja Warrior is a popular spinoff of the original Japanese game show. That does not explain, however, why ANW became an American sensation when other Japanese game shows, like the brilliant Hole In The Wall, did not.
The answer can be found in, of all places, WWII. After WWII Japan dissolved it’s Army and the US established a strong military presence in bases all over Japan. Competing in the original Ninja Warrior became a popular pastime for American soldiers on leave in Japan.
American soldiers who liked competing in the show, and their families who wanted to watch them, created a market for an American version of the show.
Thus, the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course isn’t built for every male body. It is built explicitly for the bodies of American soldiers.
In essence, we have the glory that is American Ninja Warrior because of the United States’ military and cultural imperialism.
This is the other lesson of privilege: being a member of the American armed-forces doesn’t guarantee you will make it through the ANW obstacle course but it does increase your odds because the structure was, literally, built for you.