Privilege in the Classroom

I just finished teaching my intro anthropology course on Thursday afternoon. At the end, the students heartily applauded me.

Every year, between 30% and 100% of my students are indigenous women (I’m never totally sure, because I don’t take a survey, and random chromosomal sorting and centuries-long interbreeding mean that you can be half Ojibwa and look like Cameron Diaz): Cree, Ojibwa, Dakota, Metis — you name it.

My indigenous students are extremely diverse intellectually and culturally. Some of them grew up telling their friends they were Italian in the hopes of avoiding getting called a dirty Indian. Some of them grew up declaring, loud and proud, who they are. Some of them grew up thinking they were of pure French stock, and only later found out the dirty family secret that they were Metis.


Some of them are energetically engaged in shamanic rituals. Some of them are fiercely Christian. Some are quiet atheists.

What my students were applauding was that I’d kept a strict classroom environment (so the douchey cellphone-wielding students don’t interrupt us), provided a welcoming discussion environment (so the dedicated students can engage verbally in the class), provided clear evaluation criteria that incentivize learning, entertained them with jokes and anecdotes, and helped them understand interesting phenomena in human nature and their lives.

What I find is that my indigenous students (and everyone else) are fascinated and empowered by my course if I drop hints along the way explaining how their own experience and their family’s history of anarchic indigenous traditions, recent domination by the state, discrimination by everyday racists (and very often, internal cultural breakdown and internalized, self-hating racism) connects to broader phenomena of human nature and cultural diversity.

Throughout the course, I make sure to cover a few cultures that have similar experiences of anarchic tradition and colonial oppression. There are some striking similarities with the once-nomadic Ju/’hoan of southern Africa, for instance.

And when my students eventually start raising their hands to say “Hey, that’s just like on the Indian reserve I grew up on!” Or “Is that like what happened in Canada to the Aboriginal people?” I encourage them enthusiastically: “Yes, that’s exactly right!” By the end of the class, when we actually do talk a bit about North American indigenous cultures, these students are confident and curious enough to engage fully and bring their personal knowledge to bear.

I developed this technique based on the good things I learned from the privilege-oriented leftists I went to grad school with. Actual aggression (especially by states and state-backed corporations) against the indigenous people is one layer of the problem. Hostile racism and other douchey attitudes (especially by state officials and rightists) are another layer. But there’s a subtle, third layer, which is patronizing racism (especially by academics and leftists: “Oh your people are so in tune with nature! So egalitarian!”) and the assumption that only experts have the ability to explain “exotic” cultures. Layers 2 and 3 can be stupefying and degrading even when they aren’t violent.

So if the professor goes into the classroom and (as some of my colleagues do) starts talking right away about how evil Western cultures are and how dignified and beautiful indigenous cultures are, the students can fall prey to that third layer. They never develop their own voice and vision.

If you go in and lay down a bunch of conclusions and facts to memorize for the test, the students never get the incentive do their own intellectual work of asking how their own individual lives connect to the broader themes of academic study. Maybe they adopt the prevalent academic interpretation (capitalism BAD!). Maybe they just shut up and don’t share their vision with the class because they know it’s not “what the teacher wants to hear.” Or maybe they simply decide that they must not really know what their own life means.

So instead, I like to drop some breadcrumbs and let the students do the detective work.

Yes, yes, yes, “privilege” is all around us. And yes, yes, yes, I’m a white dude privileged to teach in this environment. But what makes my classes work, for me and my students, is not some guilt-ridden confession session about privilege, nor some moralizing lessons from me, lecturing them on how valid their life experience is, and lecturing the white students on how privileged they are. Instead, what works is to set up the incentives for my students to study hard and talk lots, and then to set up the clues so they can do the work of connecting the dots on their own.

Furthermore, “privilege” guilt sessions and “antiracist” moralizing have a very high rate of turning off the white folk in class, because they feel (somewhat rightly) that they’re being attacked. So, 9 times out of 10, they lash out or dumb down their own voices and visions. But when I drop the breadcrumbs, the white students can connect the dots too. And because I use fun, discussion-based classes, they can discuss the evidence and discover the truth step by step along with their indigenous peers. Fun is a better motivator of learning than guilt.

I do hope that my teaching leads in the long run to some liberation in the NAP sense. But I am certain it leads to some liberation in the psychological sense of shaking off the subtle, sneaky, racist, collectivist assumptions that tend to sneak into classrooms.


Originally published at

9 thoughts on “Privilege in the Classroom


    • Hahah! I’m glad I’m not the only one who suspected that Jacques was behind this.

  2. I’d be curious to hear some of the specifics on what Mike means by keeping a “strict classroom environment.” I’ve been teaching for 20 years, but I don’t think I’ve quite mastered the balance between strictness and cultivating positive rapport with my classes; I probably lean toward the overly lenient in the name of establishing positive rapport. So I’m curious to hear how other people do things. (I can’t remember the last time the end of the semester led to applause for me, either.) Do you let students text in class, for instance? Do you demand participation by everyone in the class, or do you tolerate people who’d rather just sit quietly through discussions? Do you ever have problems with murmuring or side discussions taking place while someone has the floor (and if so, how do you handle it)?

    I’ve found that the rise of social media has derailed my teaching somewhat. Things were fine before smartphones. I hate having to police the classroom, but it also irritates me that students will sit there and text right in front of you during class, and pretend that doing so is compatible with “multi-tasking.” (“Professor, I’m totally paying attention while I text.” –“OK, so what did I just say?” “That’s a totally unfair question!”) I don’t have a cellphone policy, but I tell my students that their cellphones ought to be off and stowed away during class. When I say that, I always get some student who, in all sincerity says, “What if there’s an emergency?” My response is, well, then you’ll hear about it after class. That always gets an amazed gasp, as though it was some kind of horrible politically incorrect gaffe, but I honestly don’t get it.

    A bit of a tangent from “privilege in the classroom,” I realize, but I’m at the end-of-the-semester time when I sit around and wonder, “How could I do this better?” Followed by: “Is this really what I bargained for when I went to grad school?”

  3. Hi, Irfan.

    I think classroom management is interesting and rewarding, even if it’s a somewhat different topic than “privilege.”

    Classroom discipline has been a balancing act for me. This was my first time getting applause.

    My overall system is to have simple, firm rules written into the syllabus or other handouts, and then to be as friendly and kind as possible with my voice and my words. That gets me the balance of discipline and engagement that I like. So I don’t harangue students about handing in assignments late. I just dock them 50% for being even 1 minute late. (And because I make all assignments due 5 minutes before class, students hardly ever show up late to class).

    Phones: Many of my students are parents, and so this is my cellphone policy: “If you are waiting on some serious, life or death emergency, like your spouse going into labor or some other big deal, please let me know at the beginning of class and then do keep your cell phone on (on vibrate). If the phone rings, get up and leave to answer it. Please sit near one of the exits if you’re waiting on an emergency. Otherwise, phones off.” And, especially near the start of term, I begin each class by asking if anyone has an emergency they’re waiting on (and then by turning my phone off in front of the class).
    They don’t have to say what the emergency is about, and I don’t make it my business to interrogate them. It seems to be enough for them to have to announce it.
    I once had a student ask about some relatively trivial matter, like a friend arriving in the airport that day, and if she could keep her phone on for that. I said “That’s up to you, but please move your seat over to one of the exits.” And then she decided that it wasn’t a big enough deal for her to want to move, so she turned the phone off.

    Participation: I don’t mandate participation in class discussions, and I don’t give participation marks. Instead, I try to tackle this issue indirectly. I give short writing assignments each week of class, and each assignment usually asks a somewhat open-ended or even silly question. (For instance, I ask them to imagine being the Aztec ruler of Technoctitlan, and ask what they would do with 5,000 immigrants from the Trobriand Islands. Hilarity and ritual cannibalism ensues.)
    Then I start discussions in class by asking about what they wrote on the assignments. So a large number of students come prepared and excited to talk about the subject, and different students can have different answers without necessarily being wrong.

    Nonetheless, some very good students prefer to remain quiet all term, and I don’t push it. (I might actually get more of that kind of student because of how the indigenous cultures in my area tend to think about what it means to be a good listener. Their version of good listener means quiet reflection leading to improved action. And their rules of conversation tend to involve longer pauses between turns in speech than in Western discussions.)

    Side Discussions: This is one that I don’t make a firm rule about, because I know that sometimes those side discussions serve a purpose, and they help build an authentic community among students, instead of just a panoptic prison where all interactions must be with the instructor. So I tend to allow short, quiet side discussions that seem to be about the subject matter.
    And when they go too far, I never shake my fist or shout at students who are talking out of turn. I just stop talking and look at them with a bemused smile until they realize their mistake.

    Does any of that look like what you do in your classes, Irfan?

    • My policies overlap with yours about 95%. I may change my cellphone policy to one like yours (I think it defaults to that anyway in practice). I wish I could give short writing assignments of the sort you describe, but my teaching load is too heavy for it (6 sections, 5 preps, 120 students). I used to do it when my load was lighter, with good results.

      For me, the biggest problems are side discussions and texting in class. I may well have a different view of the classroom than you, however. I’ve always felt that one person should have the floor in class, whether it’s me or someone else. (For that reason, I’ve always been resistant to “group work.”) When I see a student texting in class, I find myself in a trilemma: a) I find it unbelievably rude and disrespectful, b) but I don’t feel like policing it, and c) calling attention to it merely puts me out of step with the times. So I let it go. I’m told some students find it disruptive to them, but no one has ever said this to me. I feel uneasy about it. It irritates me.

      On side discussions, for the most part, I don’t see what point they serve. My way of handling it is somewhat like yours. I stop talking and look at them, except not with a bemused smile. If they’re interrupting someone else, though, I end up yelling.

      Ironically, exactly the same issues arise in faculty meetings.

      I like what you say about silences and listening, but that’s why I dislike side discussions so much. When side discussions are permitted, you never achieve perfect silence in the classroom.

      Having written this, I suspect what I’m saying is about as much about my own anger management as classroom management. There’s a fine line between the two things.

      I guess my parting thought here is: thank God the semester ends soon.

  4. Some NOL commenters’ obsession with me when I am thousands of miles away and incommunicado forces me to reconsider long discarded Freudism. It’s an awful experience.

    Mike: “pure French stock” ? What on Earth does this mean?

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