Maybe you’ve seen the video circulating social media lately, highlighting “The Line” as an important teaching tool on privilege and social identity? Those of us who teach issues relating to social justice are likely familiar with it, and may have used an exercise similar to it in our classes. I’ve talked about this exercise quite a bit, with friends and colleagues who have done it, or have used it – and while we all have agreed that it is a valuable tool, I’ve been attentive to those voices that say things like:
- “When I was all by myself off that line it only highlighted how isolated I am, how unique my experiences are.”
- “It felt alienating to be all alone out there in the middle of the room, like: hey! I’m a queer black activist who’s parents didn’t make a lot of money.”
- “It made me wish I could be like everyone else.”
In other words, the exercise has the valuable impact of teaching privileged students about their privilege – but perhaps at the expense of those students in class who don’t hold much privilege themselves.
A few years ago, I had the chance to participate in a different form of this exercise – one I found nourishing - while also emotionally challenging. I was at a conference hosted by the Association for Contemplative Practice in Higher Education, in a session facilitated by Doreen Maller, a therapist, professor, and social justice activist. The exercise was fundamentally similar to The Line, with a key difference: we didn’t step behind or in front of a line – we all stood on a continuum of experience, and moved freely about the room, finding our space within community, not separate from it.
Since returning from the 2012 conference of the ACHE, I have used this exercise twice in my “Critical Race and Feminist Theory” classrooms – and have found it to be incredibly powerful for students, as well as useful to getting at some of the issues relating to standpoint epistemology, intersectionality, and anti-essentialism that I hope students will understand from their reading.
In my next blog post, I will describe the exercise, and student responses to it!