My "Social Structure" class again hosted the Privilege Exercise last night. Based on Peggy McIntosh's article "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," we formed the 100 students in a line, shoulder to shoulder, then asked them to respond to a seriess of questions. The questions were of the form "If you had more than 50 books in your house growing up, take a step forward" and "If you were ever stopped by the police because of your race, sex, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, take a step back." After 50 questions, the group was divided enough to see social stratification in a more literal sense than usual. We then broke up into four groups, based on our relative privilege, and talked about the experience. After about 20 minutes, we reconvened as a whole to talk about privilege, difference, and what to think about it.
One of the most interesting findings this year was that all students acknowledged that being a Centre College student itself is a privilege. They were there in part from their own hard work, and in part from the advantages that some -- but only some -- of the students started out with. The least-privilege group appreciated that they had to work harder to get to Centre than the most privileged group had (on the whole). They also knew, though, that compared to many people they grew up with, they were the very privileged. One of the students in the least-privileged group said that coming to Centre "wiped the slate clean"; thereafter, each of the students' position in the world would have more to do with their own achievement and less with their backgrounds.
Sometimes McIntosh's inventory is used to teach people that privilege creates an oppressive structure of domination that is very difficult to change. Centre students do come from quite a range of backgrounds, and they do see the differences in privilege and structural domination -- to a point. They focus more, though, on making the most of their opportunities, being grateful for whatever privileges they have, and looking to provide more for their own children and the society in general. This seems to me to be a healthy, realistic attitude toward privilege.