Check Your Privilege

I was teaching a short and easy lesson on science lab safety that naturally led into a small activity I wanted my students to complete on the WHMIS symbols. I like to introduce science topics by relating them to a real-world context, something relatable to my students’ lives. As I was asking my students questions about “those signs you see on the back of hairspray or laundry detergents”, I made a quick jab at my group of 7th graders about them probably not noticing the symbols on the back because they don’t know how to do their own laundry. Of course, most of them retorted by describing some of the symbols they’ve noticed. I knew that the actual work we had to complete in the period wouldn’t take too long so I took the opportunity to contextualize the discussion… or jab some more, whatever you prefer. I asked my students to raise their hands if they did their own laundry. About twenty kids put their hands up. I picked one student and asked, “So, explain to me how to do laundry, start from the top.”


I was hoping to catch him on some technicality, make a joke, and get the class on task with their activity for the day. As he started he said, “First you put the card in the machine.” I thought I had him. Without thinking, I laughingly said, “What? What card are you even talking about?”


His response: “Welll at least that’s what we do in my building”.


My building.


I let him continue, and even though he forgot the part about adding the actual detergent to the machine. I let it slide and continued on with explaining the activity.


I had forgotten about my privilege. I had been so used to living from condo to house, either on my own or with my parents who had their own washing machine for as long as I can remember. Only in my college dorms did I ever have to use a card to wash clothes. That memory being distant, I completely disconnected from one of my student’s life experiences and called him out in front of the class. I forced him to briefly explain his life to me in a way that seemed to create a gap between culture, curriculum, and my teaching.


I am not sure anyone even noticed. But the brief moment stuck with me for the rest of the day. How many times are we incorrect about our students’ ability to demonstrate their knowledge because we do not check our own understandings, privilege, and power?


This moment made me realize that as educators we must constantly and consciously check our privilege. This was a minuscule instance that most likely won’t harm the student or anyone else in the class for that matter. But these small things, when many of them combine, lead to larger issues regarding student engagement, responsive pedagogy and creating a culturally relevant and accepting space for our children. It can be as small as a teacher not understanding that some washing machines take cards before they start. The point is, we must always be willing to check our own privilege, regardless of how “relatable” we think we are.


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Matthew R. Morris

Educator, Speaker, Writer

Matthew R. Morris is a writer, speaker, and elementary educator in Toronto. He has an M.A. in Social Justice Education from OISE at the University of Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming book, Black Boys Like Me. 

Matthew R. Morris

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