Social identity theory is specified by three thought processes that individuals go through to make in-group/out-group classifications: social categorization, social identification, and social comparison. It is, in part, a response to the paradigmatic structure problem of educational research. Acknowledging that becoming “somebody” is not only a matter of individual choice, nor is it solely determined by macro-level social structures such as class, race, and gender.
Studying identities in schools does not simply mean identifying “dominant ideological interests at work that serve to oppress teachers and students”. The better we understand how identities and power work together from one context to another, the less likely our movements for change are to fracture. By teaching children about social identity and varying experiences, we are able to make them aware of their own privilege and able to address their prejudices before they have solidified their adult views.
In 1989, black legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw introduced the term “intersectionality” in her essay, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” The concept of intersectionality is not new or abstract but a description of the experience of being oppressed for multiple facets of a person’s social identity. Crenshaw coined the term to help explain the oppression of African American women, but in more recent years has been in the forefront of national conversations about identity politics, racial justice, and policing. Intersectionality has been the banner under which many demands for inclusion have been made, and unsurprisingly, has generated a fair share of debate and controversy. Conservatives have gone so far as to paint those who practice intersectionality as obsessed with “identity politics.” In 1976, Emma DeGraffenreid and several other black women sued General Motors for discrimination. They argued that the company segregated its workforce by sex and race; while whites were given one set of jobs, blacks were given another. In the plaintiffs’ experiences, some jobs were open to women, while only men were welcome to apply for others. This left women at a disadvantage, but left black women with compounded issues. The jobs for blacks were men’s jobs, and for women were exclusively white. Therefore, black women could not work the black or women’s jobs since they were neither male nor white. As proven by this case, intersectionality is not only about identities, but also the institutions that use identity as a precedent for exclusion and privilege. In recent years, Diversity and Inclusion efforts in companies and organizations have increased. Intersectionality considers how different systems of oppression overlap and compound. This is becoming increasingly important as more companies give attention to D&I.
Similarly, school psychologists are becoming better educated in the concept of intersectionality. The concept of intersectionality is concerned with creating more equitable outcomes for those whose identities are minoritized. Thus, it is important that school psychologists understand not only the intersecting identities that put students at risk for discrimination, but it is also necessary to understand how these identities relate to a system of privilege.
Privilege is usually completely invisible to those who benefit from it, and often is difficult to acknowledge. In fact, class privilege is “the elephant in the room” when teaching and learning about diversity. The same students who willingly discuss race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion will resist exploring class privilege. This threatens the idea that everyone in the United States has access to equal opportunity. Class privilege is potent in students who are unconscious of their privileged status, leading them to believe that their success is based on their own merits and that the benefits they receive are normal and available to all. Often, the privileges that one group receives are directly linked to disadvantages or oppressions for other groups (NASP). Social class is a taboo subject in the United States. Students prefer to stratify the middle class into a range of subclasses rather than identify themselves or others in their peer group as either lower or upper class. This behavior is likely due to the myth of 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.”. When these beliefs are challenged, it causes cognitive dissonance, a “discrepancy between what we currently believe to be true and other contradictory information” (Goodman 2001). Questions such as “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?”, make students exceedingly uncomfortable and invoke negative emotions such as anxiety, fear, confusion, anger, guilt, and resentment. Those students with privilege tend to pretend that privilege does not exist, whereas students without privilege constantly face these issues on a daily basis.
In 1988, Peggy McIntosh published the white privilege checklist. Since then, it has exploded as a teaching tool in high schools, college classrooms, graduate-level programs and beyond. It is a critical document in teaching privilege studies, but is viewed by many as controversial. White students often perceive it as an attack on them, when in reality, they see it as controversial because they have not previously been introduced to the concept. When teaching privilege studies, it is important not to shy away from discomfort. Discomfort in a student is usually a sign that the student is about to make advancements in personal growth and learning. Exploring and reflecting on this discomfort can open ideas on what it can teach us.
In the US, we place importance on material wealth, and often confuse it with psychological well being, making it difficult for us to think about affluent people’s emotional and social vulnerability. Yet, the social ties that make for healthy development are isolated and distorted by wealth. Material wealth in an of itself can create a stressful background where the very affluence that evokes so much envy isolates children. It is becoming increasingly evident that children who struggle with high levels of social and emotional distress come from affluent backgrounds (Suniya S. Luthar). Two factors contribute to this: emotional and physical isolation from parents and extreme pressure to succeed. Emphasizing material success compromises other aspects that are necessary for psychologically healthy children, such as close interpersonal relationships and support networks, leading wealthy children to have very few adults to confide in (Sam Osherson).
Affluence creates a bubble that wealthy children live in. An upper school teacher observed and stated, “They take trips to Brazil, Hawaii, the Caribbean, but they don’t know what life in this country is really like. They go to Brazil but don’t know what it means to be an ordinary Brazilian. So, in English class, they’d don’t understand what is being talked about when we read a novel like How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent or The Namesake. They don’t understand what the world is like and how it works.” This ignorance is stunning to many people, but comes at a cost to those students. When these students are confronted with a personal problem, they are oblivious and unprepared to handle the situation. In many cases, the “wealth bubble” leaves students expecting to be able to handle every problem with their wealth or family influence (Osherson). They are left clueless in confronting inevitable issues of making a relationship work and are unable to handle the failures and challenges of life. Teachers in less privileged classroom are more likely to be upfront about life’s realities. When teaching in a community with direct threats to students, teachers have to teach them how to be resilient. While it is important to talk about class with all students, teaching affluent children about the bubble created by their wealth is necessary. These lessons could focus on that bubble and the how it creates social and emotional challenges for them, emphasizing the role of empathy and development of their resilience when facing self esteem issues.
We usually assume that children are “innocent” of racial biases, and we avoid talking to them about race in fear of inadvertently leading them to biased views. But research suggests children already notice race and express racial preferences as early as 15 months old. They have adopted the racial preferences of their parents by the time they enter kindergarten. An international team of researchers from various universities suggests that it by teaching young children to distinguish among faces of different races, it is possible to reduce their inherent racial biases (Kiderra). Infants have a tendency to prefer looking at faces from people of their own race, a pattern which arises from the basic psychological tendency to like things that are familiar, and dislike things that are unfamiliar (Heyman).
Many school districts face the issue of “school-to-prison pipeline,” an issue heavily impacted by implicit bias. When schools became desegregated after the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, there remained unexpected implications that have until today, been largely unexplored. In the process of staffing the schools, administrators largely preferred hiring white teachers over black teachers. Because of this, most of the workforce of of the black teachers who staffed the previously segregated black school lost their jobs. Black educators were discriminated against as a result of the concerns of white parents who worried about black teachers educating their white children. As a result, children of color did not have teachers to look up to that understood them. This has carried over to current trends we see today where children of color are negatively impacted in the education system (Allen). This ripple effect has also impacted other areas of education for children of color, such as receiving assistance for disabilities and getting screened for gifted programs.
Privilege and biases are part of our everyday lives, whether consciously or unconsciously. By questioning ourselves when one of our own stereotypes shows itself, we can replace it by looking at the circumstances of the situation that might’ve impacted a person’s behavior, rather than trusting the stereotype. The first step in overcoming biases and privilege is to identify and acknowledge that we have it. The next step is to stop it while it is occuring, and the third is taking action to change. Only then can we teach it.