Jill M. Coleman (Roosevelt University)
Please note: Instructors are welcome to use or adapt these teaching ideas for their own classes, provided the use is noncommercial and appropriate credit is given.
To: (1) increase students' awareness of the privilege that people in majority status groups experience in daily life, and (2) offer an engaging and non-threatening way for students to discuss the consequences of group-based differences in privilege
The Social Privilege Scavenger Hunt is an assignment designed to increase students' awareness of the privilege experienced by people in majority status groups (white, male, heterosexual, physically able, etc.). In the first part of the assignment, students are given a short list of items to find in a local superstore or shopping mall. This list includes products such as Barbie dolls of different races, greeting cards for various religious holidays, Valentine's Day cards for heterosexual and LGBT couples, and so forth. Students are also asked to observe certain features of the store they've chosen, such as whether it has a separate clothing section for women who are large. After this field experience, students submit a written report of their findings and hold a class discussion to talk about forms of privilege that are often unrecognized in everyday life.
The Social Privilege Scavenger Hunt is a student assignment given in my course on Stereotypes and Prejudice (for a copy of the assignment in Microsoft Word format, click here). The main purpose of the assignment is to increase students' awareness of the privilege experienced by people in majority status groups (white, male, heterosexual, physically able, etc.).
To accomplish this goal, I begin by providing students with a short list of items to find in either a superstore (e.g., Walmart, Target) or at a local shopping mall. Items on the list may include:
- White, Black, Latina, Asian, and Native American Barbie or Bratz dolls
- White, Black, Latino/a, Asian, and Native American GI Joe figures
- A greeting card congratulating an individual on a Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah, Confirmation, or First Communion
- Greeting cards for Christmas, Hanukkah, and other religious holidays
- Wedding cards for heterosexual and same-sex couples
- An item featuring a Native American sports mascot
- An item featuring a Native American who is not related to sports
- Picture frames that show "filler" pictures of White people and people of color
This list can be changed depending on the time of year and goals of the instructor. I also ask students to make some observations of the store or mall they have chosen for the assignment and to write about those as well. Questions about the store might include:
- Did you notice any areas in the store that would be difficult for someone in a wheelchair to navigate?
- If the store has a clothing section, how are the clothes organized? Are there separate sections for men and women? Does the store carry "Plus Size" men's and women's clothing? If so, are these sizes located in specific sections of their own?
- Who is shopping at the store? Who is working at the store? What do you know about the people who live in the surrounding community?
After their shopping experience, students write a brief reaction paper in which they report which items were easy to find, which were difficult to find, what surprised them as they looked around the store, and what interactions they had with employees and fellow shoppers.
Once students have completed their papers, I hold a class discussion about their experiences and observations. Although students often anticipate the purpose of the activity and expect certain things (e.g., that it will be more difficult to find a Latina Barbie doll than a White Barbie doll), many students express surprise at just how difficult it can be to find some of the items in a mainstream store.
Students are also frequently surprised by the store's layout. For example, whereas stores often locate large-sized women's clothing in a separate section, this practice is less common with men's clothing. Students who shop primarily for their own clothing may not be aware of this gender difference, and people who do not regularly shop for large sizes may not have considered the implicit messages involved in creating separate clothing sections based on size.
Students sometimes raise the possibility that stores don't carry certain items because there is no demand for them. This possibility provides an opportunity to discuss institutional and individual levels of discrimination. Is there really no demand for non-White Barbie dolls or Valentine's Day cards for gay couples, or do individuals looking for these items simply not expect to find such merchandise and therefore not look?
Advice on Implementation
This assignment is easy to implement and also quite easy for students to complete as long as they're given at least one week (many students simply carry out the assignment while running errands or shopping).
In terms of the shopping list, my advice would be to include items that relate to as many forms of privilege as possible. For example, I ask students to find items or answer questions related to race, religion, sexual orientation, weight, and physical ability. Exploring different forms of privilege increases the chances that students will be able to detect instances of privilege that had previously escaped their attention. For instance, a Black student may find it obvious that it is difficult to find a Black Barbie doll, but that student may not be aware of the difficulty finding a card for a non-Christian religious holiday.
Of course, some students will already have been well aware of social privilege before completing the assignment. It is critical that these students not feel condescension from the instructor, but rather be asked to consider why they found the activity's results obvious while other students found them surprising. This question may lead students to think about the communities they grew up in as well as their social circles, their educational experiences, and their own group memberships. As with any activity related to prejudice and social privilege, students should be encouraged to discuss their ideas in a thoughtful manner and to respect the opinions and experiences of students who disagree with them.
For instructors who want to raise student awareness concerning specific forms of privilege, I would suggest scouting local stores in advance, choosing particular stores for the assignment, and building the shopping list, written assignment, and class discussion around the forms of privilege that the field experience is designed to illustrate.
One last note on implementation is that the activity seems to work best when the class discussion is held soon after students have written their paper, while the experience is fresh.
Evidence of Effectiveness
I conducted an optional post-activity survey to formally assess what students thought of the assignment. The survey was anonymous and contained a short list of statements (e.g., "I learned a lot from this activity") with which students reported their agreement on a 1 (strongly disagree) to 6 (strongly agree) scale. The survey also included a section for students to provide their thoughts about the assignment using an open-ended format.
In general, students found the activity interesting (M = 5.5, SD = 1.3) and said they would recommend it for future classes (M = 5.5, SD = 1.34). In the open-ended response section, a few students commented that the activity gave them a perspective on discrimination and privilege that they may not have had otherwise. One student commented later in the semester that he would like to do more activities like this one, since it was fun and educational.
Reading the students' papers also provided some insights into what they had learned. Several students wrote and spoke in class about interactions they had with store employees and fellow shoppers. While looking for a non-White Barbie doll, one student asked a fellow shopper whether she thought a particular doll was meant to be Latina or simply to have a suntan. The shopper replied that she thought the doll just had a tan, but that it "was nice that they make dolls for those people too."
During the class discussion, some students expressed surprise that many stores had no Valentine's Day cards for gay couples but several cards for dogs and cats to give their "owners." Observing this difference, or hearing about it in the class discussion, led students to consider whether the absence of gay cards might be a subtle form of discrimination.
I have found this activity to be an effective way to highlight everyday forms of social privilege. Although the exercise may be used in introductory classes, I believe it is ideally suited for students in upper level classes, particularly those that focus on diversity or discrimination. Not only do students report learning a great deal about the psychology of prejudice and privilege, but they report learning valuable information about themselves and their community.