How Early Do Students Start to Recognize Privilege?

In another one of my education classes a topic we have been recently visiting is ‘privilege’- who has it, what defines it and how students and adolescents deal with or without it. There are different types of privilege from race to gender that can begin to show at extremely young ages. Two of the most well known privileges are ‘white privilege’ and ‘male privilege’.

Both white privilege and male privilege are quite prominent in today’s society. It is undeniable that people of color experience certain types of discrimination white people may not have to experience, along with women having discrimination men may not even understand. What I am curious about is how early do students start to recognize these inevitable occurrences in today’s society?

One thing about discrimination that a professor of mine pointed out is that if you don’t experience it, it’s likely that you don’t realize how often it can exist. In an article I will soon dig deeper into, the author explained that “Privilege works as a system, and that system shows up throughout our lives, including in childhood. People can participate without even meaning to”. For example we discussed how most women (including myself) that go on runs often feel unsafe as they get whistled, honked at or followed. After we brought this up a boy in the class mentioned how that has never even crossed his mind and didn’t realize how women experience that so often.

The article I read, “13 Ways White Privilege Starts to Show as Early as Elementary School” written by Maisha Johnson, explains Johnson’s experience in elementary school with white male privilege. The article was quite negative as she had a traumatizing experience in her fourth grade classroom. Johnson was assigned a project to complete a family tree, however struggled to complete the assignment as her ancestry records were erased as a result of slavery, and no white people in the class had this problem. Johnson described herself as a ‘nerd’ and had a love for school until the lack of privilege set her back, mentioning

“My teacher’s lack of racial justice, cultural awareness, and general forethought was absolutely a major failure” and that she has “had [her] heart broken by the reality that the US educational system doesn’t have love for me”.

Eventually, students will all learn find out about privilege- which ones they have and which ones they lack. It is important that students learn about privilege in such a way that does not lead to the torturous feeling that it did for fourth grader Maisha Johnson. Although it was simply a family tree assignment that opened up Johnson’s eyes and broke her heart, it is crucial that teachers keep in mind how certain assignments can affect children so deeply, and make sure that they don’t expose privilege in a negative way. The question is, how do they do so?

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