Lessons from COVID-19: The Privilege to Harm Us All

This series will encompass lessons drawn from current events and circumstances which teachers can incorporate in their writing and reading curriculum. These lessons are tested in my own classroom and will sometimes include some stories from my own teaching adventures.

Privilege is not an easy topic to teach. First, as a teacher, you must come to terms with your own ideas of privilege, trying them out to be sure they are accurate. I say this because so many people have the wrong idea of what privilege truly is. Others have a tough time conceiving of it outside of a racial context. The thing is, privilege is not entirely a race thing.

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Photo by Obi Onyeador on Unsplash

Part I: What is Privilege?

Everyday Feminism” offers a very clear definition of what privilege is.

The thing that catches us all up when it comes to privilege is that the unearned advantages come from more than the racial group one belongs to. There is a privilege in social status, wealth, in having parents who graduated high school and then college, in being born here vs. being an immigrant, in being a born a heterosexual man versus being born a heterosexual woman vs. being transgender.

We can have an advantage in one area and no advantage in others. The privileges we have are not anything we can control. In fact, having privilege is not good or bad, but the way we use that privilege is. You can be a cis (heterosexual, born man) white man and use your privilege to help others who have been historically disadvantaged because their privileges don’t add up to enough for success.

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Photo by Mélissa Jeanty on Unsplash

Reading Break

To better understand privilege in a context that breaks from the racial misreading we are used to, I introduce the idea to my class with “Peculiar Benefits” an essay published in The Rumpus by Roxane Gay. Take a read before entering the classroom with the lesson.

The Lesson: Redefining Privilege

In class, have your students define privilege. You can start with Exercise 1 below. Once you discuss their answers, then read “Peculiar Benefits” together. Or, you can assign it as homework for the next class period. I usually assign it for the next class period along with Exercise 2 below to ensure that they understood what they read. The reading is not difficult, in fact, high school students could easily discuss and analyze the piece.

The next class period is all about redefining our collective misunderstanding of privilege, using Gay’s essay. So, bring in questions to get the discussion started. They may include:

· Why does Gay think she is privileged over her Haitian relatives?

· What are all the ways that Gay says she is privileged over her Haitian relatives?

· Gay says we have to “surrender” to our privilege. What does that mean to you?

· What are some of Gay’s difficulties in accepting her own privilege?

· Contrast your definition of privilege from the last class to the one you now have from reading “Peculiar Benefits”. What are some things you learned?

Try to have a robust discussion about this work and privilege and make sure that the class has a good understanding of it. Before moving on.

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Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

Part II: Privilege and the Pandemic

This pandemic has been difficult for everyone around the world. Federal, state, and local governments are forcing people to stay home, some under threat of fines or arrest. The virus is spread by human contact and has a long incubation period. Social distancing and even self-quarantine are the only ways to really safeguard against infection. That and washing yours, not touching your face, and getting a flu shot.

However, it’s the “staying at home” part that most are having trouble with. I presented my class with the following stories and asked them if the privilege is a problem here and how.

These stories will get them going. Try Exercise 3 or let the class discuss after reading. Be sure to have them look at the fact that privilege blinds people from certain groups from harm. They don’t even see that they are harming others until the damage is done.

You could go further by having the students practice explain this concept in the face of common comments from people who do not believe in privilege. (Just type “privilege” into any social media platform if you need help is playing the “Devil’s Advocate” here.) Also, explore other ways that privilege is presenting in this pandemic. The testing procedures, medical equipment distribution, job cuts, and so many other areas are wrought with examples.

Exercises:

Exercise 1: Defining Privilege

Tell the students that they need a writing utensil and paper or a computer. Ask “How do you define privilege? Write/type your answer,” and give the students two to three minutes to answer. Many of then will take just a few seconds to scribble down and answer. Next, have the students write/type about a time when they saw privilege at work. If they do not have the experience, tell them to make up one.

Their answers will clarify how much your students know about privilege and lost a bit about their ideas/beliefs and on the topic. This will help determine how much of the “defining” part of the lesson you may have to cover.

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Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash

Exercise 2: The Summary/Strong Response (SSR)

Summarize the reading text in one or two short paragraphs. Ask students how would they describe the essay to their friends or parents? That’s the amount of summary needed here. Then, make a judgment about the text and find material from the text to support that judgment. This is the strong response part of the essay. Encourage the student to come up with at least three supports for their judgment.

For example, a student could say that “Peculiar Benefits” does not go far enough to talk about race and privilege. Then the student points to the part where Gay discusses white men and privilege, with the student saying that in this place, Gay lets the white male off the hook by minimizing the damage that the white patriarchy has done. This is valid strong response support by a point in the text that the student found to be weak.

Put these two parts together with a conclusion paragraph to wrap up and restate the student’s viewpoint. Be sure to proofread and revise accordingly.

Exercise 3: The Pandemic Privilege Essay

Use the articles provided for discussion in order to write this essay. The students can search for any other sources that they may find to support their stance. Tell each student that they must include a link to a source for accurate COVID-19 data and also only credible sources for their essay.

Proofread and revise accordingly.

Teaching students about privilege in this pandemic is a good way to help channel some of their frustrations about the pandemic. It’s also a distraction turned into a perfect opportunity to learn more about writing solid arguments and reading responsibly.

Written by

Jonita Davis is a writer, film critic, and professor. She’s a member of NABJ, AAFCA, a Rotten Tomatoes critic, and an adjunct professor.

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