As I noted last month, students who hold marginalized social identities may find the social justice teaching tool, “The Line,” to be alienating and isolating. But the impulse behind the activity is good – and it is important that we help our students see and understand privilege – whether or not they hold it. I was fortunate to participate in a version of this exercise, which I will call a “Continuum of Identities and Experiences,” and brought the exercise back to two of my classrooms. In all three of my experiences with it – as a participant, and as a facilitator – I found it to be incredibly powerful.
I have taught this exercise as part of my Critical Race and Feminist Theory course, and I alert students the week before the exercise that we will be exploring privilege, power, and personal experiences on a particular class session. I do the exercise after at least six weeks of course work, and in the context of a caring and compassionate community of learners. It is also done in the context of a class, and a set of relationships, where students have ready access to information they might need, in order to support their emotional engagement with the material (phone numbers for campus counseling, peer mentors, rape crisis lines, AA and NA meetings, etc.).
We began by reading a poem, “Please Call Me By My True Names,” by Buddhist monk and poet Thich Nhat Hahn. Each of us read a line or two, then passed to another. After the poem, we sat in silence for just a few moments – then I reminded students that our class conversations are confidential, and asked students to come and join me at the center of the room. I told them that at any time that they don’t want to place themselves on the continuum, they can come back to the center, and that I will join them there.
I then explained: “We will be arranging ourselves on a continuum of experience – lets start with an easy one: Will the oldest person in the room, go stand at the chalkboard end of the room, and the youngest stand at the far wall? Everyone else, just arrange yourself in order, along the continuum.” I then walk to the chalkboard end of the room – in my forties, I’m usually (but not always) the oldest. I also tell students that they are free to talk during this exercise if they want to arrange themselves according to month of birth within a given year, for instance.
What tends to happen, right away, is that a whole clump of students who are 19 and 20 stand near the far wall, and I am lonely near the chalk board. I say that anyone who wants to talk about where they are on the continuum is welcome to – perhaps there is a returning/non-traditional student in the room, who offers a few words about what it is like to be ten years older than most of the students – or a 17 year old who has brought so many credits from high school that she has junior standing already. Someone almost always mentions how they never noticed that they were all the same age … it was something they took for granted until the exercise pointed it out. Anyone who wants to briefly speak, can.
I then ask them a series of questions that will enable them to place themselves on a continuum of experience, and offer the same opportunity to reflect. The questions can be done in any order, can be omitted or tailored to suit your group, and ask students to place themselves on a continuum of –
- How literate were your grandparents (Very to Not at all)?
- Where were you in terms of birth order in your family (oldest to youngest)?
- How much money did you have, growing up (lots and lots to none at all)?
- How far from your home did you travel to be at this university?
- How comfortable do you feel at this university, in terms of your social identities?
- How conventional is your sex life?
- How much violence have you experienced in your life?
- How many animals did you have as pets growing up?
- How close are you to “white” in terms of your racial identity?
- How many ethnicities contribute to your identity?
- How many hours a week do you work, for pay, while going to school?
- How many dependents do you have responsibility for, while going to school?
- How far from the United States were you born?
- How many languages were spoken in your home?
- How often are you the only person of your own race, in a given situation (work, school, church)?
- How close to bullying have you been (as a bully, or as someone who has been bullied)?
- How closely do you identify with conventional gender norms?
You can see that some of these questions will elicit stronger responses than others - but you may be surprised at which ones bring up the most for your students. When I did the activity, the “birth order” question hit me really hard: I am an only child of my mom and dad, the middle child of 6 step-siblings in two different families, and the oldest of the diad of my younger step-sister and me, in the home I grew up in. I couldn’t figure out where to stand – so I sat in the middle. I cried. I was happy to be joined by the wonderful Rhonda Magee, who was also a participant in the workshop.
When I took students through the exercise, they had a lot of fun with sexual identity questions, and we found the responses to “how often are you the only person of your own race…” interesting. Certainly, the African American students in the room had this feeling often; they were surprised to hear from one or two white students who attended majority-minority high schools, who spent much of their younger years feeling isolated. The question about family finances also hit home for many students, in ways that disrupted racial stereotypes as well as geographic stereotypes – our rural students come from small towns, but might be well-off farm kids, for instance.
The question about proximity to violence was, honestly, horrible. On the one hand, it was beautiful to see so many students recognize in each other the common bond they shared at having been subject to intimate partner violence, parental violence, gun violence … on the other, it was disheartening and, frankly, terrifying, to have at least half of the room identify themselves as having been “very close” to violence in their short lives.
We spent an hour with the exercise (not doing every question, certainly!), and I ended with the one about pets as a way to help students wrap up their feelings and have a lighter conversation. We then just sat for a few minutes in a circle, and I thanked them for their good will and participation. I reminded them that we weren’t sharing what we heard outside of this room, I invited them to use the resources we have on campus and in our city if the exercise had brought up any difficult-to-process emotions, and I asked them to reflect on what the exercise showed them about privilege. I then gave them two to three minutes to write their responses to that last prompt down, and we used those notes during the next class period, as well as specific readings on privilege and being an ally, to jumpstart our conversation.
In all, students responded extremely well to the exercise – though I have to stress that several of them had intense emotional reactions that required care during facilitation and in our subsequent relationship. I believe that we need to educate “the whole student,” and that helping students see where they hold privilege, where they have trauma in common with others, where they might find solidarity, and where they might be allies and advocates is an important task - not only of emancipatory education in general, but of interdisciplinary legal studies, in particular.