Crafting Privilege

By Tracy Poindexter-Canton
It’s a Thursday lunch hour at NEWESD 101. Traveling from districts as near as Spokane to as far as Ferry County, nearly a dozen administrators and special education directors gather at the Talbott Event Center. 

Entering the Bi-County Room, they approach a buffet of string, scissors and a vibrant assortment of beads. To an outside observer, this may look like an afternoon jewelry-making class; in actuality, it’s an introductory exploration into the concept of privilege.

Prior to the monthly special education directors meetings, this smaller group – led by NEWESD 101’s Center for Special Education Services department – participates in a book study of “Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People.”  The book is a New York Times bestseller by Mahzarin R. Banjali and Anthony G. Greenwald examining the ways people consciously and more often subconsciously prejudge the character, abilities and potential of others. To compliment a chapter discussion on mindfulness, the group engages in a “Beads of Privilege” exercise. 

A list of five statements lay beside eight separate bowls of beads. Participants take a bead for every statement personally applicable to them and attach the beads to a string. Each statement represents a particular privilege symbolic of nationality, class, ability, gender, race, etc. 

Sample statements: If people typically assume that you can speak English proficiently, take a blue bead. If you’ve taken a vacation outside the country within the past few years, take a green bead. Take another green bead if you’ve never been evicted or homeless. 

At the end of the exercise, all participants hold a colorful bracelet unique to their personal experiences and privilege. The activity encourages educators to achieve a greater awareness of their own privileges and, at the same time, empathy for others – in many instances, students – who don’t share the same privileges.

Ultimately, says Dr. Brenda J. Allen, professor and author of the acclaimed book, “Difference Matters: Communicating Social  Identity,” the exercise helps educators recognize the way they can use their privileges individually and collectively to work for equity and social justice. For more information on the privilege bead activity, please visit the Teaching Materials section of Dr. Allen’s website, http://www.differencematters.info/.