Learning our own lessons: One teacher's privilege diary

It's September. As I board the subway, I am not going to the university to begin a new semester teaching; instead, I am headed to see my doctor. Due to health issues, I have to take a semester off, and focus on learning to get well. At loose ends as school began without me, I decided to do something I had never done: engage in one of my own assignments -- the privilege diary. Just as I believe that students need to be listened to because they have lots to teach us, teachers also need to spend more time learning and taking on the challenges and risks that we ask of our students. What follows is my attempt to practice what I teach.

This assignment challenges learners to look at how race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, citizenship, etc., are always operating and interlocking on many levels in our lives. This includes instances where we are privileged, as well as instances where we see privilege operating, but are in a marginalized position. When it is challenging to see how, say, race is operating in a given situation, learners need to ask some critical questions. For instance, is it difficult to see race operating because we have been taught not to see our privileged position, as in white people not seeing themselves as 'ethnic' or racialized? Such 'blank spots' [Editor's note: a substitute phrase for the ableist term 'blind spots'] are gaps in knowledge resulting from our social location. Therefore, this assignment challenges us to think critically about our blank spots, or the things we have been conditioned not to understand.

We are all privileged and oppressed in various and opposing ways. I am a woman and have a disability (marginalized positions in society), but I am also white, middle class, and in a heterosexual relationship (all privileged positions). What this assignment does is ask us to critically examine our lives, how they are shaped by unearned privileges and multiple forms of power, and present the challenge to take action.

As I sit in another doctor's office and catch myself complaining about all the hours I have been spending in waiting rooms lately, I challenge myself to reflect on my privileges and the ways that race, class, gender, sexuality, status and ability interlock to privilege some of us at the expense of others.

Most patients in these waiting rooms are white and middle class; the doctors are white, rich and predominantly male. Being a doctor myself (PhD) contributes to my ability to have my concerns taken seriously and to access other 'experts'. However, my gender and age can be a disadvantage, exemplified by a male neurologist calling me 'sweetheart' during our first appointment. Yet the layers of privilege do not end there. The women working in these offices are often racialized, making much less money than doctors and most patients. My privileged position in society reinforces that women have as many 'uncommonalities' as commonalities.

As I go to fill my latest prescription, I am shocked at the price. I wonder how I -- with insecure teaching contracts and few health benefits -- would be able to afford this, if not for the financial assistance of my family. As a result, I have class privilege that provides me access to unorthodox healers when mainstream medicine fails to deliver its promised magic pill. While I am privileged to have access to this care, my inability to pay for medical expenses sets up gendered power dynamics between my partner and me.

As I walk to my naturopath, I pass women who can't afford legal drugs accessing the needle exchange. Many have turned to survival sex work to access drugs. Rich women in my gentrifying neighborhood hold 'safety' meetings to get rid of the 'prostitutes' in the name of protecting their children, and, let's be honest, their property values. Few discuss the issues around mental health, addiction, and trauma that they (we) and our families suffer from, or the privileges that allow us to hide it better.

As I continue walking, I realize the privilege of mobility I used to have. For instance, I never thought twice about walking across the street until I got off the streetcar and had a seizure in the middle of the road. This began a lesson in dis/ability from which I am still (reluctantly) learning. I see how class and ability interlock in the fact that I never worried about health benefits before, because I never needed them. This denial by the rich and healthy is magnified as conservative governments privatize health care to 'trim fat from the public system'. Is this because even if the rich get sick, they can afford to pay for it?

Many more questions need asking: How can we challenge unequal access to healthcare? How can we challenge the stigma and oppression related to disability and mental illness? What if we were honest about the fact that one of our commonalities -- as people -- is that being 'able-bodied' may only be a temporary privilege? What about the temporary foreign workers who pick our healthy, local, sustainable food, who pay taxes, but have no access to basic healthcare? What about communities here and in other countries that don't have access to family doctors or efficient emergency response, and have to travel long distances for even basic healthcare? How do we continue asking critical questions yet not get so discouraged that we stop?

Such questions create paralysis unless we explore ways we can make change. After grading my privilege diary, my former student Samantha Peters and I attended the first Occupy Toronto march. We started talking about the need to think critically about 'the 99 per cent', since many of us oppress each other. Since the goal is to build a new kind of community, we must address this if we want to radically change how the world operates.

We decided to facilitate a 'learn-in' called the 'Line of Privilege' at the occupation site. The activity gets participants to place themselves on a line between 'Yes' and 'No', in terms of their responses to the following statements:

• I live on first nations land;

• I have the right, mobility and time to protest;

• The language used here is accessible;

• The people who have the microphone look like me;

• I feel mobile and safe camping here.

Approximately 30 people participated. Samantha and other women started an indigenous and women of colour caucus. As an ally, I was encouraged to drop off articles written by women of colour and indigenous women about activism. More workshop ideas are being discussed in addition to the conversations it opened up with other occupiers.

What I have learned from my students is that we cannot look at the big problems in our lives, and the inequalities that lead to and structure these problems, without asking the following question: what power do I have to make change? I have also learned from reflecting on the politics of healthcare at this moment in my life that asking and answering critical questions about privilege and oppression is what is needed to heal us and address the inequalities that threaten everything and everyone. Imagine if we could open our minds to not just learning from 'experts', but from people all over the world who are making change for social justice in collective and creative ways. Then we would really start learning something, which is what ultimately threatens those in positions of privilege.

Krista Hunt teaches gender and international relations courses at the University of Toronto and York University, develops political curriculum, and is currently involved in activism around Occupy Education, which aims to radically change how we teach and learn within the Occupy movement and beyond. For more information about her work click here.

She would like to thank Farrah Chanda Aslam, Michelle Herbert, Safia Jaffer, Prabhjot Kaur, Nikohl Moncrieffe, Jennifer Nash, Samantha Peters, Amy Raposo, Genevieve Ritchie, Thijiba Sinnithamby, Karen Spring, and Karen Sue -- former students who challenged Hunt with their critical feedback when she carried out this exercise.

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