Tonight I am compelled to write simply because it was such an awesome, wonderful evening of class with my students. Just to re-cap: I am teaching undergraduate (BSW Junior) students this year after having spent the past 14 years immersed in graduate teaching in our MSW and PhD programs. I sincerely enjoy teaching students at all levels, but every week I am reminded of how wonderfully gratifying it is to teach these amazing people who are just beginning their journey into our profession. That, and their total honest and “out there” style just cracks me up and makes my day.
Tonight, we had class by immersion. We didn’t have lectures or notes or anything traditional for that matter. We engaged in two activities, each of which put to practice the information we have been learning about difference, diversity, institutionalized oppression, individual experience, social justice, human rights and perhaps most importantly: what it means to be actively engaged as a social worker in the midst of it all. First up: Beads of Privilege.
The Beads of Privilege exercise is from the Difference Matters teaching resources. It’s an exercise I’ve used in community groups and other forums over the years. Basically, a series of questions are presented in the key areas of Race, Religion, Sexual Orientation, Gender, Nationality, Ability, and Socioeconomic Status. The questions illustrate privilege that we may take for granted and which may be invisible in our everyday lives, but all oppression…and all privilege…impacts someone. Reading the questions in each category, participants take a bead (one color for each category) every time they can answer “yes” to a question. If they would answer “no” to a question, no bead is taken. The “yes” responses are colorful examples of areas of privilege of which we may or may not even be aware. At the end of the exercise, participants make their beads into “bling” as we discuss the ways in which each person has to become aware of and honor the privileges that are offered to each one of us in our lives. No one is without privilege, and no one is without an intersecting series of differences both seen and unseen that can oppressive some and privilege others.
While we were making our “privilege bling” tonight, several students began an impromptu conversation about the (un)availability of hair products in major retail chains that reflect anything other than a dominant Caucasian hair type. The conversation shifted to reflect that the shops that did sell the right kind of product for their hair types all tended to mis-spell one or more words in their brand name. I stood there, stunned, having never taken that in. We were roaring with laughter at the colorful examples of daily privilege being shared, and crying with realization of some truths about daily life that hadn’t become part of the conversation before.
As we finished out the activity, several students shared spontaneously about their own recognition of areas privilege and questions they had never even thought to ask that were being asked of them. They shared a sense of feeling their hearts broken at some bead stations when none of the questions could be answered with a “yes” (this was particularly true with the Gender questions for the female students in the class). When someone shouted out, “we need a picture of all of us with our privilege bling!” I was very quick to oblige and whipped out my smartphone camera just like they all did. I got home tonight, looked at the picture, and realized it’s one of the most beautiful images I’ve seen in a long time.
Sharing our Beads of Privilege group photo tonight…a small point of light in a wonderfully diverse world.