Diversity and Democracy

Helping Students Explore Their Privileged Identities

Self-exploration is central to our growth as individuals, our relationships with others, and our ability to promote equity. Our various social identities--sex, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, age, socioeconomic class, religion, and ability, among others--are important aspects of our selves that shape our attitudes, behaviors, worldviews, and experiences. As we work to create and participate in diverse and democratic environments, we need to understand how our own and others' identities and related social locations affect our lives and our interactions with each other.

Diane Goodman teaches a course on social justice.
Diane Goodman teaches a course on social justice.

Most of us have identities that are part of both privileged groups (for example, male, white, heterosexual, middle or upper class) and oppressed groups (female, person of color, gay, poor or working class). Current theory and research focuses particularly on the intersectionality of our multiple social identities, which simultaneously interact within different contexts of societal inequality (see, for example, Dill and Zambrana 2009). While it is critical to understand the complexity of our whole selves, it can be useful to focus on individual aspects of identity as we develop greater awareness of our social positions.

While self-exploration can be difficult, exploring a privileged identity can be particularly hard for many people. Educators are likely to encounter resistance when asking students to undertake this kind of self-examination. But faculty can find ways to help students move beyond fear and defensiveness. The approaches described below can apply in a wide range of contexts, from diversity workshops to classes in different disciplines.

Challenges to Exploring One's Privileged Identities

In general, educating about issues of diversity and social justice can be challenging. Students are often resistant to reevaluating their beliefs about themselves, others, and the world. Questioning one's assumptions can feel emotionally and intellectually threatening, and students can struggle with many barriers to examining their privileged identities.

Belief that "I'm just normal." When I ask students to name the social identity with which they most identify, they rarely choose a dominant identity (sometimes with the exception of identifying as male). This may be because people who are part of privileged groups seldom have to think about their privileged identities: they are usually surrounded by people like themselves and therefore see themselves as "just normal." Because dominant cultural and societal norms are based on values and characteristics that they hold, they (and the dominant society) often construe people from oppressed or underrepresented groups as the ones who are "different."

Denial that differences make a difference. When people are part of the norm, they find it easier to believe that social identities do not really matter. Therefore, they feel little need to examine how social identities impact their own and others' lives. Students may maintain that they treat everyone equally and that they do not see differences. While often made with good intentions, this claim denies aspects of who others are and the realities of others' lived experience. Students may also believe that systemic inequality is essentially a thing of the past, and that with today's "level playing field," there is no need to focus on identities and their significance.

Guilt, shame, and discomfort about privilege. An exploration of one's privileged identities can engender discomfort. Students may equate being part of the dominant group with being an oppressor--that is, a "bad person"--and they may find it unsettling to acknowledge how they might be participating in and benefiting from systems that unfairly disadvantage others. Guilt and shame often arise as people explore their biases and their privileged group's role in historical and contemporary oppression. Students may fear they will get stuck in these feelings or be subject to blame if they explore the privileged aspects of their identities.

Focus on one's oppressed group identities. People are often much more inclined to reflect on their marginalized identities than they are to think about how they are privileged. Dominant society often makes people cognizant of their subordinated group identities, because they face obstacles and mistreatment that arise from these differences. In part to avoid feeling guilt and shame, many people prefer to focus on how they are oppressed rather than on how they are privileged. Sometimes students ultimately feel that being part of an oppressed group is preferable to being part of a dominant group and thus attempt to shift the spotlight from how they are advantaged in one area to how they are disadvantaged in another.

Resources for Teaching about Privileged Identities

The following publications are useful resources for those seeking to teach students about privileged identity:

Adams, M., L. A. Bell, and P. Griffin, eds. 2007.Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Goodman, D. 2001. Promoting diversity and social justice: Educating people from privileged groups. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Johnson, A. 2006. Privilege, power and difference, 2nd ed. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.

Kimmel, M., and A. Ferber. 2010. Privilege: A reader, 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Westview Press.

Kivel, P. 2002. Uprooting racism: How white people can work for racial justice. Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada: New Society Press.

—Diane J. Goodman

Strategies for Helping Students Explore Privileged Identities

As a foundation for helping students examine their dominant identities, faculty can follow some general principles for establishing effective contexts for learning. In order to create spaces that are respectful, supportive, and allow students to take emotional and intellectual risks, faculty can establish guidelines, conduct warm-up activities, and encourage gradual amounts of personal sharing. In this environment, faculty can address students' defensive feelings and help them develop their understanding of self and others.

Affirm all identities. As noted above, students are particularly apt to ignore aspects of their dominant group identities. Faculty should help students see that they are a mix of social identities, that all identities and cultures have positive qualities, and that no person is good or bad because of his or her social identities. One approach is to have students conduct a social identity inventory, noting aspects such as their race, sex, and ethnicity in writing, by drawing, or by sculpting with different materials. After creating their inventories, students can answer questions like, "Which identities are most central to who you are, and why? What do you like about or gain from particular identities? What do you wish people understood about a particular identity?" The primary purpose of these questions is to reinforce that all social groups have valuable qualities and that social group membership does not determine one's inherent goodness or worth.

Examine how differences matter. Once students acknowledge their various identities, faculty can help them see how different identities can lead to different perspectives, experiences, values, worldviews, and access to power and privilege. Faculty can ask students questions to help them think about their social identities' impact: "Which identities are you most or least aware of, and why? How do you think your different identities affect who you are, your experiences, and how you see the world?" Through discussion, students can begin to see how people are systematically advantaged or disadvantaged based on group membership. Experiential activities like the popular Privilege Walk and guided imageries where students imagine a reversal of roles can help expose norms and privileges. Being "discrimination testers" (observing who gets followed in stores or waited on more quickly in restaurants, for example) helps reveal how differently people are often treated. Research studies, media reports, films, interview exercises, and speaker panels can also help students learn about others' experiences. I find that personal stories tend to have the most effect on students, although a factual foundation is important to differentiate individual anecdote from systemic patterns. Students who are ready for more complex analysis can consider how one of their privileged identities (for example, their race) is affected by their other identities (such as sex, class, or religion), while being careful not to focus simply on how their subordinated identities diminish their privilege.

Show that people receive privileges whether or not they recognize or want them. When examining power and privilege, it is critical to highlight that people from privileged groups receive advantages regardless of whether they are aware of them or want them. People from privileged groups often do not realize that they are benefiting at someone else's expense. Students need to realize that privilege is not about intent or about "being a good person," but arises from a larger system where social identity affects access to resources and opportunities. Films and research studies that show how people from dominant groups have greater access to jobs, housing, and medical treatment can demonstrate these dynamics.

Emphasize the systemic nature of oppression. By focusing on the systemic nature of oppression, faculty can avoid suggesting individual blame. This approach reduces defensiveness and resistance. Although each person plays a role in systems of inequality, all systems are larger than any one individual. Students may feel freer to examine their attitudes, behaviors, prejudices, and stereotypes if they understand how everyone has been socialized to develop distorted views and fill narrow roles. Activities that ask students to recount messages they heard while growing up (about gender-appropriate behavior, for example) can assist with this process. Students will find that their recollections are remarkably similar, which speaks to the pervasive nature of these messages and the power of the dominant ideology. These discussions can give students the opportunity to reevaluate the biased messages they have internalized.

Heighten investment. Faculty need to help students realize the value of exploring their privileged identities. Since different motivations may resonate with different students, it's helpful to suggest a variety of benefits: development of self-knowledge and authenticity; increased comfort in dealing with diverse people and situations; avoidance of engaging in unintentionally hurtful actions; improved ability to work through feelings of anger, guilt, and shame; increased capacity to act in ways that are more consistent with one's morals; and the skills to better address inequities. Faculty can remind students that discomfort is part of the growing process and that by becoming more aware, they can increase their effectiveness at working in and contributing to a diverse world. Moreover, faculty can reassure students that the goal of democracy and social justice is not to simply change who benefits from unequal systems, but to ensure that all people are treated with respect and have equal access to power and resources. Systems of oppression ultimately hurt everyone (though in different ways), and all individuals have something to gain from greater social justice (see Goodman 2001).

Provide positive role models and options for action. Students need ways to channel their reactions to exploring their privileged identities so they do not become overwhelmed with feelings of guilt or powerlessness. They can gain inspiration for constructive action by reading about or hearing from people with privileged identities who have worked for social justice. These role models (past and present) offer examples of how people from dominant groups can act as allies and show students that they can be part of a larger history and community of change agents. Students can additionally benefit from reading about theories of social and racial identity development (for example, Hardiman and Jackson 1997; Helms 2008). These readings identify paths toward positive privileged identities. By emphasizing accountability and responsibility and developing options for action, faculty can help students feel empowered to create personal and social change.

Final Thoughts

The process of examining ourselves, and particularly our privileged identities, is rarely simple. But its rewards are often great. By exploring their privileged identities, students can enhance their personal development, improve their relations with others, and become better citizens of the world. This exploration is easier when faculty refuse to simply cast individuals from privileged groups in a negative light, instead seeking to foster awareness and action that supports diversity and equity.

For more on understanding and addressing resistance to social justice issues, see Goodman 2001, 2007. To contact Diane Goodman, e-mail dianejgood@aol.com.


Dill, B. T., and R. E. Zambrana. 2009. Emerging intersections: Race, class and gender in theory, policy and practice. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Goodman, D. 2001. Promoting diversity and social justice: Educating people from privileged groups. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Press.

------. 2007. Dealing with student resistance: Sources and strategies. Diversity Digest 10(2): 19-20. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Hardiman, R., and B. Jackson. 1997. Conceptual foundations for social justice courses. InTeaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook, ed. M. Adams, L. Bell, and P. Griffin, 16-29. New York: Routledge.

Helms, J. 2008. A race is a nice thing to have, 2nd ed. Hanover, MA: Microtraining Associates.

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