Unpacking Teachers' Invisible Knapsacks: Social Identity and Privilege in Higher Education

By Barnett, Pamela E. | Liberal Education, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Unpacking Teachers' Invisible Knapsacks: Social Identity and Privilege in Higher Education


Barnett, Pamela E., Liberal Education


A FEMALE GRADUATE STUDENT I know was harassed by a male student-who may have been mentally ill-during one of her first semesters a teaching assistant (TA). The student dominated class time with manic talking and borderline inappropriate comments, and he challenged her in class using a hostile, derisive tone. She communicated clear boundaries and expectations, but the disruptive and inappropriate behavior culminated one day when he came in late (again), scanned the room briefly, and then sat in her lap, rather than in the one available chair in the back row. Certain that this problem demanded more than classroom management skills, she reached out to a teaching mentor who intoned, "The camel does not stick his nose into the tent if the flap is not open."

Being both new to the profession and selfreflective, the TA asked herself whether her behavior had contributed to her problem. Was she communicating accessibility inappropriately? Was she failing to exercise her authority? Was she vulnerable to this situation because she lacked some crucial set of teaching tools? She also started to wonder whether the student's behavior, as well as the mentor's response, was affected by her social identity as a young woman. Would the student have crossed the line so dramatically with a male TA? Would the mentor have suspected a male TA of inviting a male student to breach his boundaries? As I have reflected over the years, I've concluded that not only was she at a disadvantage as a woman, but male TAs have an automatic, often unacknowledged, advantage.

Peggy McIntosh (1988) famously unpacked what she called an "invisible knapsack" of privileges socially conferred upon whites, men, and heterosexuals (1988). She argued that not only are women and minorities at a disadvantage, but those with social power enjoy benefits that are both unearned and unjustified. We often accept those privileges unconsciously, viewing our own experience as the norm or solely the result of our hard work. This denial, as McIntosh pointed out, keeps privilege "from being fully recognized, acknowledged, lessened, or ended" (1).

To counteract this unconsciousness, McIntosh made a thorough list of the privileges she enjoys as a white and heterosexual person, "conditions of daily experience which I once took for granted, as neutral, normal, and universally available to everybody" (10). For example, she can arrange to be in the company of people of her race most of the time. She can pay with checks, credit cards, or cash, never considering that her skin color will work against the appearance of financial reliability. When she is successful, she is not called a "credit to her race," and when she swears or dresses shabbily, no one attributes her choices to the bad morals or poverty of her race. As a heterosexual, she can talk about her life partner in any social context without fearing rebuff. Her children are given texts that implicitly support her kind of family unit. McIntosh's list of privileges demonstrates the way some can "count on" social reactions and cultural systems that meet our needs or confirm our legitimacy or existence, while others cannot.

Social privilege and higher education

For the past few years, within the context of higher education, I've been leading dialogues about McIntosh's foundational work. What socially determined privileges and disadvantages have an impact on faculty as teachers and colleagues? Not all our social identities are obvious, but students and colleagues attribute various identities to us-including identities based on gender, race, class, nationality, ability, and sexual orientation. How they perceive us shapes their expectations of us, their interactions with us, and our experience of academic community. I routinely mentor faculty of color, women in STEM fields, those who speak English as a second language, and physically disabled educators who must make sense of, and respond to, aspects of the professorial role that do not come automatically-classroom authority and legitimacy, supportive academic community, mentoring. …

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