Addressing Privilege

There is much talk of privilege. Privilege can be seen as an advantage given only to members of a particular group, and if one is given this advantage long enough, it becomes assumed, part of the architecture, a piece of the furniture. A legacy of this advantage is systematized privilege, coded by race, religion, gender, socioeconomic status, age, by who you love, by any number of measures where some enjoy power, access or resources that, knowingly or unknowingly, others are denied.

Education functions either as an instrument to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes ‘the practice of freedom,’ the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world. (Para. Richard Shaull.)

The lived experience of our mothers, our sisters and daughters, the First Nations’ experience in Canada, the hyphenated-Canadian and the immigrant, the racialized-Canadian, the Aboriginal experience in Australia, the Uighurs, the Dalit, the Roma, the Afghan girl trying to go to school, the African-American experience in the US: none of these experiences can be fully understood if they haven’t been lived. This much is true.

For those of us enjoying privilege from systems that have kept others on the margins, it is not enough to just listen, nod agreement, write or talk about injustices, wear the T-shirt, watch inequities unfold like they’re in a movie and then change the channel. It is rather about ownership and responsibility, putting in the work, introspection and observation, unpacking the invisible, about recognizing and then strategizing and acting on erasing the systemic barriers prevalent in society and at our institutions. If the mountain won’t come to you, go to the mountain.

Privilege and Education. As educators, we play a crucial role in this algebra. We are mandated to encourage a deeper exposition and broader recognition of privilege, a refined definition, a greater realization of its reach. We should be engaging our colleagues and stakeholders in the endeavour to enlighten and empower youth and students to be part of the change. Once one sees so much of humanity struggling to breathe, silence is not an alternative.

Privilege and International Education. As international educators, our jobs and this enterprise are funded through the 500,000 international students coming to Canada for the immigration pipeline into our first world economy or to learn English as a ticket to economic success and status, should they return home. We recruit from the privileged and upper classes of global economies, the globally mobile, and the few that arrive from outside that demographic dig extra deep just to get in the door. We throw back the little ones, and of course we are culpable in the migration of talent to the global North. We attract the privileged into our classrooms just as we manufacture privilege in our classrooms.

On the other side of the coin, we send abroad those who can go, for the experience, for the grand tours and the finishing schools of exchange and study abroad. Despite the lofty narrative of global citizenry and internationalization, we even describe study abroad in terms of individual advantage: of getting a better job, enhancing the resume, sought-after skill sets. The narrative assumes that student mobility offers a pathway into unique experience, life and career advantage, and by extension it can increase the gap between those who participate and those who don’t or can’t. The study abroad experience is now about you, not about the foreign destination or even the students who study at the foreign destination.

Let us cut to the chase: if the international education we provide demands airplanes and passports, we can assume some level of privilege. Of the five percent of First Nations’ kids in Canada’s population, how many of those are in post-secondary education? Of the five percent of post-secondary students we send abroad from Canada, how many of those are First Nations students? Or racialized Canadians?

Let us not waste this pandemic. There will not soon be a better time to acknowledge the privilege we enjoy and to find solutions for betterment. We can reflect on our role as educators and international educators, relearn and re-examine what we thought we knew, ask the hard questions, embrace the answers with humility, build new relationships.

It is a time to envisage rewritten curricula, to interrogate which voices are missing and whose knowledge is being privileged, to articulate intentionally-stated learning outcomes for study at home or abroad, outcomes related to intercultural learning and development, to social and racial justice, and to create more holistic approaches to student support and partnership building. It is a time to reimagine and reinvent, to create space for other ways of knowing and being, to develop more just, equitable and inclusive policies, programs, and pathways.

We should not be bystanders. The time is nigh to recognize where and how we perpetuate power and privilege and become active towards lasting and positive change.