Raising Awareness of Class Privilege Among Students

Class privilege is “the elephant in the room” when it comes to diversity education. Students who willingly wrestle with race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion often balk at exploring class privilege, which threatens the fundamental myth that all people in the United States enjoy equal access to opportunity. Yet unexplored beliefs about class impact the policies, practices, and relationships that shape our lives. Our students, the next generation of workers, community leaders, and global citizens, must recognize class privilege to break down systemic barriers to opportunity. How can educators successfully teach students about class identity?

Preparing to Introduce High-Level Concepts

Privilege and class are high-level concepts for students and teachers striving to discuss diversity in the classroom, and preparatory work is critical. As educators work to create an environment where students can safely explore challenging concepts, some fundamental rules apply:

  1. Students need to feel validated and respected. Guilt and blame are not effective tools in moving people forward in social justice work: they simply increase resistance.
  2. Students learn through their own processes of discovery. They need to experience principles in action, and they need to identify for themselves what changes are necessary in order to feel invested in change. Thus diversity education is developmental work: educators must meet people “where they are,” leading them on their own journeys of discovery by building their capacity for change.
  3. People need to feel connected to the subject at hand. Diversity work is ultimately about relationships, which is why experiential and synergistic learning is so important.

These fundamental rules provide the framework for a number of capacity-building guidelines. First, the instructor needs to help learners create a community that is safe and inclusive. Working as a community to develop standards of behavior can help. For example, the instructor should be cognizant of the balance of voices in the classroom based on privilege status and (without expressing judgment) invite the class to find solutions to disparities in who speaks up. 

Second, the instructor should help students understand that “diversity” is complex, includes everyone, and is not a code word for “some people.” Students should recognize that they have many interrelated identities and identify their connections with others. Unmasking dominant group invisibility is important: when discussing race, for instance, encourage white students to recognize that they have a race.

Third, the instructor should help students develop skills in intergroup communication, including empathy, perspective taking, and comfort with ambiguity. The instructor should provide opportunities to practice intergroup communication, make the process of intergroup dialogue overt by naming it, and help students process their experiences so they feel validated for their efforts.

Finally, instructors need to ensure that students understand key concepts including socialization, social construction, hierarchy, and systemic oppression (see Adams 2000 or Johnson 2001 for background information). Without these frameworks, students may personalize the concepts of privilege and class rather than understanding their systemic nature.

Example: Using Handedness to Introduce Privilege

Discussion of handedness (adapted from presentations by Steve Robbins) is one way to introduce the concept of privilege and minimize resistance before engaging in more specific discussions about class. Handedness does not carry the emotional charge attached to other differences in today’s society. Although left handedness is no longer associated with deviance, many people have learned to use their nondominant right hands to adapt. Left-handed people face numerous daily obstacles, including the risk of accidents caused by operating instruments designed for right-handed users. Yet right-handed people are often unaware of the privileges they enjoy.

Handedness demonstrates many concepts related to privilege:

a) Handedness is not chosen or bestowed.

b) Right handedness is considered normal, while left handedness has historically been perceived as deviant, dangerous, and sinister.

c) The society may view left-handed people as awkward or strange, and left-handed people often believe this about themselves (internalized oppression).

d) Left-handed people frequently change their behaviors to fit into a right-handed world (passing and code shifting).

e) Right-handed people are unconscious of the benefits they receive (the privilege of ignorance).

f) Right-handed people cannot avoid the benefits they receive, even when they are conscious of the benefits (institutionalized and systemic nature of privilege).

Students accept handedness privilege and recognize that they are not personally responsible for the oppression of left-handed people. They understand that they have inherited a system that benefits some and disadvantages others. Once students have accepted handedness, they are more open to learning about other privileged identities. I have found that many people who experience nonprivileged status in other parts of their lives appreciate this analogy.

The Challenge of Teaching about Social Class

Social class is a taboo subject in the United States. I have found that students prefer to stratify the middle class into a range of subclasses (lower-lower middle, lower middle, middle middle, upper middle, and upper-upper middle) rather than identify themselves or others in their peer group as either lower or upper class. This behavior is not specific to students, nor is it specific to those of a certain socioeconomic status: people with annual incomes from $20,000 to more than $100,000 tend to define themselves as “middle class” (Vigeland 2008; NOW: Politics and Economy 2004).

This reluctance may originate in the pervasive myths about opportunity in the United States. As Greg Mantsios (2003) has noted, Americans commonly believe that “success in the United States requires no more than hard work, sacrifice, and perseverance,” that “everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed,” that “most Americans have achieved…affluence,” and that “the United States is fundamentally a classless society.” Challenges to these deep-seated beliefs cause cognitive dissonance, a “discrepancy between what we currently believe to be true and other contradictory information” (Goodman 2001).

Cognitive dissonance can be particularly potent for students of class privilege. They are often unconscious of their privileged status, believe that their success is based on their own merits, and think that the benefits they receive are normal and available to all. What does it mean to a person of class privilege to acknowledge that health care, legal protection, and education services are disparately rendered? How is one’s status challenged if success depends on privilege rather than on hard work? (Mantsios 2003) These questions can make students exceedingly uncomfortable and invoke anxiety, fear, confusion, anger, guilt, and resentment. People of privilege may find it easier to deny that privilege exists than to experience this discomfort (Goodman 2001).

Although students of privilege are often unconscious of the benefits associated with status, students without privilege have to confront their difference on a routine basis. Yet even these students subscribe to the general tendency “not to talk about [class] and [to] think of [America] as a ‘classless’ society” (Collins and Yeskel 2005). Many students who do not have class privilege subscribe to the notion that their class position is of their own making. These students react to conversations about class in a variety of ways, from caretaking privileged students who feel guilty, showing pride in their own accomplishments, expressing anger, embarrassment, or fear of being judged, or shock at discovering their social class.

This range of reactions presents a great challenge to instructors working to keep both privileged and nonprivileged students from fleeing the discomfort of the subject. But after the instructor has laid the groundwork for general discussions of class, an exploration of class privilege can be effective.

Example Exercise: Understanding Social Class Hierarchy

An introductory activity masked as a warm-up exercise allows students to appreciate how quickly socialization to the class hierarchy occurs:

  • Give each student a token or strip of paper of one of three random colors (e.g. orange, green, and blue) not connected to their identities. Ask them to talk to as many of their classmates as possible, exchanging papers each time they talk to another student.
  • Interrupt the activity after a minute or two and explain that you have forgotten to tell them something: Blue is best, green is “okay,” and orange is not so good. Remind them about the purpose of the activity—to talk to as many students as possible—and ask them to proceed. Note the differences in behavior now that you have assigned value to the strips (engaged in social construction of difference).
  • Interrupt a third time and call the blue group over to you. In front of the other groups, talk about how lucky they are to be blue. Do not attach any real meaning to their good fortune (don’t associate it with wealth, intelligence, ability, etc.). Then call the green group over and tell them that they are “okay.” Finally, call the orange group over and tell them how sorry you are for their misfortune. Ask the students to continue the activity, reminding them to talk to as many students as possible. Once again, observe the behaviors.
  • After another two minutes, end the activity and debrief by asking students to describe what happened, identify their feelings, discuss the changes in behavior, and relate the exercise to real-life experiences.

Students are usually quick to recognize the parallels to class structure. Instructors can use this activity to discuss how class privilege is initially an accident of birth, but ultimately something that we work to maintain.


This article has provided some introductory resources and context for developing lesson plans on a complex topic. I believe that students who are aware of socioeconomic privilege are more able to make decisions and implement practices that benefit all members of society. If they are able to recognize and address classism, students can change the conversation about class. By providing adequate contextualization and preparation and including the voices of both privileged and non-privileged students, instructors can facilitate students’ movement to action. When we aid students in creating strong learning communities, we help them navigate their own journeys of discovery.


Adams, M. et al. 2000. Readings for diversity and social justice: An anthology on racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and classism. New York: Routledge.

Adams, M. et al. 1997. Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook. New York: Routledge.

Collins, C. and F. Yeskel. 2005. Economic apartheid in America: A primer on economic inequality and insecurity. New York: The New Press.

Elliott, J. 2006. www.janeelliott.com

Goodman, D. 1997. Promoting diversity and social justice: Educating people from privileged groups. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Johnson, A. 2001. Power, privilege and difference. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Co.

Kivel, P. 2002. Examining class and race: An exercise. paulkivel.com/resources/

Kolker, A. and L. ALVAREZ. 2001. People like us. New York: Center for New American Media.

Mantsios, G. 2003. Class in America–2003. In Race, class, and gender in the United States, ed. Paula Rothenberg, 193 – 207. New York: Worth Publishers.

McIntosh, P. 1988. Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Excerpted from Working Paper 189, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies.”

Payne, R. 2005. A framework for understanding poverty. Highlands, TX: aha! Process Inc.

Robbins, S. 2007. www.slrobbins.com

Shirts, R. 1969. StarPower. California: Simulation Training Systems. www.stsintl.com/

Vigeland, T. January 11, 2008. What is the middle class? Marketplace.publicradio.org/

Who is the Middle Class? June 25, 2004. NOW: Politics and the Economy. www.pbs.org/now/politics/middleclassoverview.html

Rory Gilbert is the manager of Diversity Initiatives for Maricopa County Community College District

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