Voices of #PhysEd: Let’s Talk About Privilege

I have been trying to refine my understanding of privilege lately.

Merriam-Webster’s first definition comes close:  “a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others.” Google’s first option : “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group” is also helpful.  The reason is this: when people of color speak of privilege, the first association is with white privilege: advantages which white members of society enjoy as a result of their being white. This in turn implies that people of color in the same society experience disadvantages as a result of being non-white. In the spirit of intersectionality (where the interplay of multiple social identities become the focus), I have been trying to understand circumstances and contexts in my personal experience which both include and extend beyond this fraught dichotomy.
As an African- American woman by birth I am aware of racism in American society even if I have never experienced an overtly aggressive or damaging event because of my race. My experiences with microaggressions are another story, however. At the same time I am increasingly aware of and disturbed by the realities which members of my particular group: African-Americans, male and female, must face in a society which perpetuates and continues to expand stark disparities in income, wealth, employment, housing, health care and education between blacks and whites. White privilege is real in so many ways, it’s astonishing.
What is perhaps equally surprising to me now is to recognize how privilege works in my own life: as an African-American woman who lives and works in Vienna, Austria. I have lived outside of the United States now for the majority of my adult years and Vienna has become my home. I teach elementary physical education at an international school here and have held this position for almost 20 years. My spouse is an Austrian national and my two sons have dual citizenship.  I derive higher social status mainly through two factors:
  • As a native speaker of English
  • As a US citizen/passport holder

Thanks to my education (bachelor’s & master’s), I have had access to

  • well-educated Austrian nationals and international residents
  • job opportunities in which my language and intellectual skills were challenged and valued
Then because of my work at an international school, I have access to
  • social circles which include members of both local and international elites,
  • infrastructure and services which cater to expats, who typically hold high status positions in the economy and society.
Because I am married to an Austrian, I have
  • an unlimited visa and right to work
  • access to some aspects of Austrian Social Security system which includes health care.
As an African-American woman,
  • I am frequently regarded and approached with friendly curiosity by Austrians and other Europeans.
Taken together, these benefits add up to make my life comfortable in many ways. There are several contrasts I could draw to other foreigners who may look very European or not at all but whose transitions into this society are far less welcoming or pleasant. That is the nature of my privilege. Here are some concrete examples of how I experience my privilege in Austrian society.
My younger son attends a public elementary school which hosts one bilingual (English-German) class out of 3-4 grade level sections per year. There are only 20 spots available and the demand among local families is high. Two teachers are assigned to each bilingual class. All other classes in the grade level average about 26 students to one teacher. Because my son is a native speaker of both languages, he was easily admitted to the program. That reflects a form of privilege.
When my oldest son attended a local public kindergarten (for children ages 3-6), the teachers there lauded the fact that he was so fortunate to be raised bilingually. Many of his peers in the same group were also bi-lingual. Not, however, in languages which held the same social currency as English. Rather they were speakers of Polish, Hungarian, Turkish, and Serbo-Croatian. Our command of English translated to a form of privilege.
When introduced to a new group and people asked what I do for a living, telling them that I work at one of the international schools typically meets with approval, increased interest and on occasion, deferential treatment. That is a form of privilege.
What is important here is that when I stop to examine the shape, texture and depth of the privileges from which I benefit, I am in a much better position to understand both how it can be applied to ignore and potentially erase the experience of those whom it excludes and also how it may also be used to open doors and create opportunities for those who do not share such privileges. How am I using my latitude of choices to benefit others who do not share some of the privileges from which I benefit? What steps am I taking to level the playing field in my own back yard or on my doorstep?
Privilege is something that happens to you. As social justice scholar, Diane Goodman points out

“It is critical to highlight that people from privileged groups receive advantages regardless of whether they are aware of them or want them. People from privileged groups often do not realize that they are benefiting at someone else’s expense.”  (From “Helping Students Explore Their Privileged Identities“)

Perhaps you are white, you have inherited wealth, you are male, heterosexual, you come from a family of successful physicians, lawyers and entrepreneurs – whatever the sources of your privilege – recognize them and examine how they function in your life. One way to do this is to pay attention to voices and stories which are different from your own. Consider what it may mean for someone to live undocumented in the US. Consider what it may mean for a family to have to send its children to school to receive free breakfast and/or lunch. Imagine the circumstances of someone who is illiterate and must find ways to survive in society. Acknowledging that differences matter can go a long way towards cultivating behaviors which at the very least do not worsen others’ disadvantages.

Working with and through our awareness of our unique forms of privilege and their systemic areas of impact, we put ourselves in a position to move in the direction of greater social justice. We can seek out conversation with our colleagues around these topics as this blog series is trying to do.   We can investigate educolor.org or tune into the monthly #educolor chat on Twitter. We can practice listening without rushing to judge or defend or debate. We can seek out role models who demonstrate the qualities we hope to demonstrate in building our own cultural competency. There are many avenues to broaden our understanding first of self, then of our contexts and the societies we inhabit. And doing so involves work. We need to be active in our engagement, willing to blunder and try again, and again. There’s no certification process. Living your learning becomes a necessary maxim in this field. We are never done. And that’s part of what makes it hard and daunting to begin, persist, and tolerate setbacks. But it’s worth it and it is what we must model for our students if we truly want to see them grow and thrive.
It seems strange to me that I had to spend most of my years outside of my country of origin in order to fully grasp the inner workings of systemic racism in particular and understand how white privilege reinforces and perpetuates so many societal disparities often reinforced by other “-isms”. One significant step in that process has certainly been investigating the nature of my privileged status here. I have no more excuses for not acting in the direction of equity. The idea of “Sweeping in front of my own doorstep” (Vor der eigenen Haustür kehren) takes on a whole new meaning.
Ms. Spelic in action. (Spelic)

Sherri  Spelic in action. (Spelic)

*For those interested in following up on this topic I highly recommend this article by social justice scholar, Diane Goodman,
“Helping Students Explore Their Privileged Identities” in Diversity & Democracy, volume 13, No. 2 (2010)
Sherri Spelic (@edifiedlistener)

4 Comments on “Voices of #PhysEd: Let’s Talk About Privilege

  1. Pingback: The PE Playbook – May 15 Edition | drowningintheshallow

  2. Pingback: 10 Things I Said In 2015 I’ll Say Again | edifiedlistener

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