This Analogy for Privilege Is One Way To Start Addressing Injustices Like Michael Brown's

This morning my brother posted a message in the group chat I have with my siblings, asking us about our feelings over the decision to clear Officer Darren Wilson of criminal charges for Michael Brown's death. He asked, “How do you all think we can strategically start to address the issue of racism?” I didn’t have the answer or the emotional energy to spare to think about how to fix racism on this day, but one high school teacher's lesson on privilege, as reported by Buzzfeed, might be a good start to addressing America's many issues.

The word “privilege” is pretty ubiquitous, but I don’t think people really know what it means. I’ve seen people grow extremely defensive once the word is mentioned, automatically thinking it means that they’re being accused of receiving unfair rewards and benefits. That’s not exactly what privilege means, and BuzzFeed writer Nathan W. Pyle’s story and illustrations help to break that down.

The high school teacher gave each student a piece of scrap paper to crumble up into a ball. He then placed a recycling bin at the front of the classroom and explained the game to the students:

“The game is simple. You all represent the country’s population. And everyone in the country has a chance to become wealthy and move into the upper class. To move into the upper class you, all you must do is throw your wadded-up paper into the bin while sitting in your seat.”

The students seated in the back rows immediately noted their disadvantage and complained about it, while the students in the first rows were silent — which is usually the case with privilege. All of the students took their shots and, as expected, most of the students in the front made it, while not many students in the back made it.

This teacher then challenged his students, who were privileged to be receiving an education, to do their best to “achieve great things, while advocating for those in the rows behind you.”

That’s how you acknowledge privilege. Privilege doesn't necessarily mean that you're being rewarded for something, but it does mean that you don't have the same disadvantages that others have. And privilege can be in reference to race, gender, ability, age, education, etc.

Even though I didn’t want to discuss racists with my brother today, it’s clearly necessary after yesterday’s devastating news. As people express their anger and frustration over the injustice that Michael Brown’s family is currently experiencing, there are still people somehow, maddeningly, trying to justify Mike Brown’s death. I don’t know how we can address those people, but if we have any hope for future generations, I can only hope that more teachers like the one in Pyle’s story who will continue to bring today’s social issues into the classroom.

So here’s my answer to my brother’s questions: start in the schools. Teach students the real history of this nation built on the slaughter of Native Americans and on the backs on African slaves. Teach them the reality of the social and economic systems that continue to keep disadvantaged people disadvantaged. Teach them what privilege is and how it harms others. Educate the children, so they don’t grow up to be the next Darren Wilson.