How to unpack the “Invisible Knapsack” in high school.

How do you talk about privilege in the classroom?

In a lot of schools, the unfortunate answer is: you don’t. But if you’re reading this, you likely have some interest in the topic. You want to expose your students to the concepts and practices of a culture of power, systemic racism, and unacknowledged privilege.

Of course, you also know the potential range of reactions that it will elicit in your students, depending on their viewpoint: anger, despair, denial, frustration, shock, guilt. These are not the kinds of emotions that are typically lauded as the signs of “successful classroom management.”

And yet. Here’s a series of activities to get the (hard) conversation started. We did them in two days, but they can be managed in one.

We started simply enough: “Time to play a game!” Students were already familiar with “where do you stand?” — A statement is presented, and students must move to one side of the room according to whether they agree or disagree.

These were adapted from and inspired by Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack,” but we didn’t tell them that. We just told them they were personal statements that would make them think.

We spent nearly a full class period sharing responses. This activity relied on students being comfortable with sharing their viewpoints, and seeing each other as individuals, not tokens representative of their racial and ethnic background. As a result, they were willing to share unique cultural knowledge, whether it’s eating halal, living on “colored people time,” or being mistaken for any number of identities due to your skin color. [1]

The next day, we moved on to reading McIntosh’s essay. We started by reading the first page as a class, and gave students time to summarize that intro in one sentence. I then invited them to read the rest of the piece on their own, and then respond to the following prompts:

1. Choose two items off of her list, copy and paste them, and explain you agree or disagree with those statements (as they relate to white people) and why. (It would be most interesting to hear one you agree with and one you disagree with.) 

2. Ask a meaningful question based on the last few pages of her essay. If you finish this before the time is up, refresh the forum in your browser and you can begin to comment on what other people have written.

Before they dive in, I point out that this essay was written in 1988. Do they think that some of these statements might have changed since then? I emphasize that they have the right to disagree with Peggy McIntosh, but that they should be reading to understand, not simply to accept or reject her theory.

Here are some questions that were generated this year:

  • Why does society avoid the subject of race?
  • If privilege is to be fully realized, should it be eradicated completely? Are their instances in which privilege isn’t harmful?
  • Has she gone out and tested these theories in places where there are less white people and more minorities?
  • Do you think it is truly possible to distress about and admonish a privilege if you fit into the category of people that has that privilege?

Did we answer all these questions? Of course not. We barely scratched the surface in the follow-up discussion. But, we got to a place where we could at least start the conversation.

The “Where do you stand” activity was essential to setting the stage for this, because it simply illustrates that everyone is a participant in this complicated system of privilege–but also that your role goes beyond the simple binary of being a victim or a beneficiary, the oppressor or the oppressed.

Another key is to give students adequate space to approach the essay on their own terms. Personally, I’m 100% aligned with McIntosh, even if I think some her items on the list are a bit outdated. However, I avoided trumpeting this viewpoint in class, for fear of cultivating that accept/reject mindset among students who would possibly be facing a major paradigm shift as a result of the reading. The downside: I had to trust that students who needed reassurance that I actually believe this stuff would intuit that from the fact that I chose to teach the essay in the fist place. You may want to choose differently.

So, there you have it. We read this in conjunction with the student book clubs for “Passing” and “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” You probably already have an idea of what text or theme you could connect it to.

Give it a try.

This seems as good as any to mention that I’ll be co-moderating the #wellrED book club with Zac Chase and Jose Vilson. We’re (re)reading Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children – join us on Gooreads!

1. Working at a diverse public school in Philadelphia, my students come from a wide range of backgrounds, which naturally leads to a multitude of responses to the prompts. In a more homogenous setting, student responses to these slides might not make as much room for student sharing, but would still serve as conversation starters: Why is there nobody on that side of the room? Who do we know that does belong there? Why aren’t they represented in our classroom?

4 thoughts on “How to unpack the “Invisible Knapsack” in high school.

  1. Eileen Duffey

    Love this post Larissa. Am sharing it with my education professor husband.
    I am not in the classroom, but I am wondering how if/how classroom teachers can fit these excellent/necessary lessons in with the amount of time required to devote to test prep for standardized tests. Can these practices be incorporated into classrooms that do not have project-based learning like Science Leadership Academy?

  2. lpahomov Post author

    Ah, the “there isn’t time for anything but test prep” conundrum. I think that this lesson can effectively be implemented in one day. If you think addressing this issue is worth one day of your time, then you’ll make time for it. If your administration refuses to give you that time, it could be done during advisory, over a series of short homerooms, or SEL time (which many charter schools have).

    I’m not going to try create some justification that this particular lesson will directly help students do better on standardized exams. But no, I don’t think you have to be in a project-based setting for this lesson to be easy to implement. Our students live this every day. They want to talk about it.

    1. Eileen Duffey

      Nice reply Larissa. It is a bit discouraging that the most valuable learning needs to by cleverly squeezed in around the drilling for tests that has come to make up more of the day than departments of education care to admit. Thanks for offering our students this rich lesson.
      When will policy makers recognize the vital role public schools have in supporting citizenship and sending decent people out into the world?
      Sounds like you “get it”.

  3. Jenny Goldszmidt

    Hi, Larissa! Thanks for this lesson. I am going to use an adaptation of it with my National Honor Society students.


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