“But we have a Black President!” An exercise in teaching structural inequality and issues of stratification

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In tackling the subject of social stratification, I am sure I am not alone in having to field some student questions that betray their inherent struggle to think beyond their own experiences, and embrace larger structural patterns of inequality based on race, class, gender, age, disability, and sexual orientation. Although these types of student questions vary, they share commonalities that express disbelief, frustration, and even anger at the idea that large groups of people are differentially treated based solely on one or more of their social identities. In their arguments students draw from examples of exceptionalism such as “racism doesn’t exist, don’t you know we have a Black president.” They also regurgitate the trope of the American Dream ideology “My Dad was poor, and he worked hard, and now he has his own business.” Some even advance anti-feminist rhetoric by boldly arguing that “there is no need for feminism, I make my own decisions” which communicates anti-feminist backlash without fully comprehending the irony of such statements (i.e. the very same female student would not be sitting in the classroom communicating to a female professor, but for the structural changes brought about by the feminist movement of the 1970s).

Many of these exchanges lead to productive learning experiences for both the student and for myself however, I have found that there are certain activities that lend themselves to aiding students in their conceptualization of stratification and structural inequality. The following focus of this short entry is a description of an exercise that I have found helpful in communicating these concepts. It also provides a classroom experience that serves as a reference point for students when answering and discussing issues that are embedded in questions like those listed above. Before I provide the details of the exercise, I would like to disclaim that I have seen, read, and heard there are several similar exercises that tackle similar concepts, and although I am sharing my particular version of this exercise, it is in no way an original thought.

Preparation

To prepare for this exercise you will need a container and a number of small pieces of paper (enough so that each student has one) for the purposes of creating a selection box. Before class equally divide the small pieces of paper into six piles. For each pile, write a number from one through six on the pieces of paper, so you end up with a pile of number ones, a pile of number twos, and so on. Fold all the papers in half, and place them into the box and shake ensuring they are mixed together.

You also need to prepare a ten question pop-quiz and on a separate sheet of paper write out the corresponding answers to the quiz questions – I title mine “cheat sheet”. You will need to make several copies of the cheat sheet, enough for one sixth of the class.

In-class

I like to do this exercise before I start teaching about stratification. At the beginning of class I tell the students that they will be taking a pop quiz today and they need to take out a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. I also tell them to remove all their books, notes, and phones from their desks. When the students have done this, I then take the selection box I prepared, and ask each student to draw a number.

I then ask all students who selected a number one to identify themselves. I then tell them that they can use their textbooks, notes, and their phones for the exam and they should take them out of their bags and put them back on their desks. I then give these students the cheat sheet, explaining to the whole class exactly what the cheat sheet is. I then ask those who took a number two from the selection box to identify themselves. I tell them that they too can use their textbooks, notes, and phones, but they are not going to get a cheat sheet. Those with number threes are told that they will not be able to use their textbooks, notes, or phones for the pop quiz, and there is no cheat sheet available to them. At this point in the class I usually get a few rumblings of discontent, but surprisingly no one challenges the fairness of what is happening.

Those who have selected a number four are told that they cannot use their books, notes, phones, or a cheat sheet, but they will also have to give me their pens or pencils. I then go around the class and collect them from the students. The same predicament befalls number fives yet they have to hand over their pens and the pieces of paper they were preparing to write their quiz answers on. Those with a number six do not have access to any of the resources the others have, but they also cannot use the desk to take their pop quiz. I tell these students that they will have to sit on the floor at the front of the classroom (you can have them stand at the back of the room if you are uncomfortable telling people to sit on the floor).

Feigning seriousness, I then proceed with the quiz. I usually get to question four or five before someone vocalizes their discontent with the exercise, or challenges me directly. We then discuss what has just happened – i.e. that the classroom has been divided into groups and allocated resources based on their group assignment. I ask them the following questions: Why it wasn’t fair? How it made them feel? Why they didn’t say anything? During the exercise, those who selected either a number one or two, often giggle and sometimes even point at those who are less fortunate, so I also ask them why they behaved that way and how it made those who were laughed at feel?

This serves as a spring board to a more in-depth conversation about stratification, where we can relate what happened in the classroom to stratification by race, gender, class, disability, age, and sexual orientation. I ask them who their group in the class exercise represents in the larger society – i.e. which racial groups, class statuses, gender identities etc. We also discuss the complexity of occupying more than one of these social groups – intersectionality. This can lead to further discussion about oppression, inequality, and opportunity hoarding.

It is also interesting to note, that nearer the end of the class period, I ask if anyone said they had a number that was higher than the one they selected. There is almost always one student that represented themselves as having a higher number than they were assigned. As I teach in a justice studies department, this also sparks further conversation about the role of stratification when it comes to crime and deviance.

 

This has been a very useful exercise for me, and I hope by sharing it here others will try and tweak it to fit their needs, or perhaps offer other helpful suggestions on how to teach stratification, including different versions of this exercise.

Victoria E. Collins, PhD
Assistant Professor, School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University

2 Comments

  1. Victoria,

    This is awesome and I will absolutely be incorporating it into my Ethics class when we talk about distributive justice! Thanks for sharing!

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