6 tips for discussing privilege with elementary students

6 tips for discussing privilege with elementary students

How to start a conversation with your students about privilege

by Gabby Cushman

Privilege is always present in our society and lives. It is the basis of social justice work, as understanding privilege helps us recognize when specific communities are mistreated. If you want to encourage your learners to engage in social justice issues, they must be able to acknowledge their own identities and how those form their experiences with privilege. Addressing our biases and the advantages we receive is the first step we should take as allies before jumping into hands-on social justice work. Privilege works as a blinder to issues affecting communities that we’re not a part of. It takes a lot of work to remove those blinders and increase our awareness of social problems, so starting this process early on with children is beneficial. It will also help them better understand issues that involve discrimination based on someone’s identity. 

That said, privilege and identity can be complicated to explain to young learners. This blog will review starting points for you to start a lesson on privilege. We’ll define terminology, provide examples of privilege and identities, and discuss how you can be inclusive to all communities in this conversation. Let’s jump into these six tips for discussing privilege with your students!

Tip 1: Review vocabulary and use examples that make sense to kids

Privilege is a complicated topic that even adults struggle to understand sometimes. You may need help to break down the complex ideas of privilege, discrimination, and identity for your learners, especially if they are very young. The best way to do this is to break down their definitions into terms little ones will understand and provide examples they’re familiar with to help them realize how these concepts manifest in their lives. Here is one way to define these terms for your students:

Identity- our identity is everything that makes us who we are! Some aspects we share with lots of other people too. Some examples of identities include a person’s race or ethnicity, gender, religion, age, ability group, home country, and more.

  • Example: The best way to get your learners to understand their own identities is to share some of your identities. If you feel comfortable, share how you identify within the groups we listed above. Be sure to use examples they can relate to as well, such as being a sister, a friend, a student, an artist, and more. Discuss some of the communities you belong to and how you share similarities with others in those spaces!

Privilege- when a person or group receives special help or perks based on who they are. These same perks are often not given to people outside of these groups.

  • Example: Use this opportunity to talk about what specific groups may be privileged where you are. In the United States, white people receive many benefits that are unfortunately withheld from other racial and ethnic groups. What’s an example we can think of to help young learners conceptualize this? Maybe they are familiar with going to the store to get a doll and seeing that most dolls are white. Point out that white children benefit from the privilege of knowing there will always be a doll that looks like them, whereas other children may not see any doll with the same skin color as them. 

Discrimination- when a person or group is treated differently from others based on who they are. They may be left out or be the victim of bullying because they’re not part of a privileged group. 

  • Example: Ask your students if it would be fair if only boys got to go to recess or lunch today, and all other genders had to stay back and help clean the classroom. They would definitely say no! Try to get them to explain why this wouldn’t be fair to everyone and why people shouldn’t get left out of something based on identities like gender.

Tip 2: Help students see the connection between identity and privilege 

Now that we’ve defined these concepts for our students, it’s time to help them understand how privilege appears in their own lives. Our experiences with privilege are entirely based on our identities and life experiences. So, it’s essential to help students recognize how their identities have shaped their lives so far. For example, I am a white woman in her twenties. I’m from the United States and identify as queer and agnostic. I am able-bodied, but I do have a mental health condition. I have a mix of identities that benefit from privilege and some that don’t. When exploring their own identities, your students will likely discover where they experience benefits and where they don’t, which can connect to how privilege has shaped their life experiences. 

An important thing to remember is that some students may not be comfortable sharing certain aspects of their identity. Don’t force students to talk about their personal identities, but provide opportunities for your learners who do want to share. 

Tip 3: Emphasize that having a privileged or marginalized identity is NOT a bad thing

Privilege does, unfortunately, negatively impact marginalized identities. People that don’t belong to the privileged groups in their society often miss out on opportunities and things of value that are given to privileged groups instead. It can be tough to work through the hurt that privilege brings because kids with marginalized identities may feel like their identity is a bad thing. We want to emphasize to students that their identities are beautiful things that can often be superpowers! As I mentioned above, I live with a mental health condition that can make living in a neurotypical society difficult at times. However, I often talk with my therapist about how my anxiety can be like a superpower for me because it means my brain is always looking out for me to ensure I don’t get hurt. And as a queer person, the connections I’ve made with my friends in the LGBTQ+ community are some of the most wholesome and nonjudgmental relationships I’ve ever had in my life. Our identities make us unique and allow us to connect with people similar to ourselves. 

Your learners with privileged identities may also deal with negative feelings around privilege. They could experience guilt about the advantages they receive and feel bad about their identities. We want all of our little ones to love themselves and recognize there’s nothing wrong with having a particular identity. Talk with your students to show them how they can use their privilege for good by being an ally. 

Tip 4: Discuss intersectional identities and how they impact privilege

Intersectionality is how our multiple identities come together to form a different experience from others who share an identity with us. Because we all have so many different identities, they often overlap to influence how we experience privilege and discrimination. Continuing with the example of my personal identities, as a woman, I have experienced a lot of sexism throughout my life. However, the sexism I experience as a white woman is entirely different from the sexism a Black woman would experience due to her having to deal with misogyny as well as racism. And although I have a mental health condition, I do not have a visible disability, so I don’t experience the same discrimination those with visible disabilities do. How our identities interact with each other makes it so that two individuals belonging to one group may have completely different experiences with the privilege or discrimination the group is subjected to. That’s why it’s always crucial to discuss topics like privilege with intersectionality in mind!

Tip 5: Consider what groups may not be represented in your classroom

Not every identity that exists in the world will be represented in your classroom. However, that doesn’t mean those identities should be absent from your conversation on privilege. Perhaps you don’t have any gender-diverse students in your classroom. Or maybe your learners don’t have any peers who use mobility aids. This is all the more reason you should discuss as many identity groups as possible, so when your students meet people belonging to these groups, they better understand those identities. You can use books or videos from individuals in those communities as learning material, so you’re getting your information directly from people with those lived experiences. And since you can’t assume any of your students’ identities, you may actually have someone in your class belonging to that identity that now feels seen because you brought it up. 

Tip 6: Celebrate your identities together!

Although talking about privilege can be heavy and often very personal, you can teach your learners why we should be grateful for our identities and celebrate our similarities and differences with others. When they understand that, your young activists will see how their identities can help them make a difference in the world. You may have a similar realization after learning about your students' unique perspectives! 

To join our community of changemakers bringing social justice education to kids everywhere, sign up for the LJL newsletter here.

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