When I teach about the psychology of women, a core question that the class examines is "what women are we talking about?" Through readings, lectures, discussions, and presentations, students learn about the diversity of women and the ways that gender intersects with other identities. Grounded in this emphasis on the diversity of women's experiences, the shadow/role-play exercise serves as a capstone project that offers experiential understanding of the scholarly material discussed in class.
The Shadow/Role-Play Exercise
In this exercise, students spend a day shadowing or role-playing a woman who is different from them in age, ability status, religion, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, pregnancy, or motherhood. Students who conduct a shadow spend a full day with the woman they select, and students who conduct a role-play transform themselves into the woman they select (e.g., wear padded clothing to role-play a pregnant woman). Men are limited to conducting shadows, given the course's focus on women and the danger of physical harm for a man dressed as a woman. Students are also told that they may opt out of the assignment or end the exercise at any time, and that they can receive full credit by submitting a paper analyzing the psychological factors that prevented them from participating.
During the fifth week of class students submit a detailed description of how they plan to carry out their shadow/role-play. Students who shadow also submit an informed consent form that describes the project and is signed by the person being shadowed. These steps allow the instructor to provide feedback about how to improve the plans. Consultation occurs on an individual basis so that students feel safe to discuss potential stereotypes or other concerns that might arise during exercise. Students then submit a revised plan for approval, and about 12 weeks into the semester students submit either a photograph taken of them during their role-play or a form signed by the person they shadowed (indicating that they completed the shadow).
Next, students write a paper that incorporates McIntosh's (2001) discussion of unearned privilege and other course material to address (a) what it was like to live as the person they selected, and (b) what privileges of their own became visible to them. Finally, students give 5-minute class presentations about their experience, and the group discusses similarities and differences both within and among groups of women, thereby challenging stereotypes about particular groups of women or women in general.
Common Themes in Student Papers
To identify common themes reported by students, I coded 34 papers submitted during one semester I used this exercise: 27 shadows and 7 role-plays. A wide range of experiences and privileges were apparent, as discussed in Moradi (2004) and summarized in this table based on that work.
In addition to these themes, students frequently highlighted self-realizations that resulted from the exercise. Indeed, 62% (21/34) of students noted that the exercise helped them translate their learning into personal experience, and many described the experience as "eye-opening." For example, one student who, with a friend, role-played a clandestine lesbian couple, wrote the following:
"The amount of planning that went into ensuring that we would not be recognized troubled me ... the mere planning of this activity gave me an insight into the fear that [can be] involved in a lesbian relationship."
Similarly, one Christian Arab American student realized the contrast between feeling visible when she wore a hijab (veil or covering) and her everyday privilege of being able to pass as White:
"I felt an overwhelming sense that my presence was known, that I could not pass through the room unnoticed. It was hard to forget about all the recent anti-Muslim sentiment and interpret the stares that I received as harmless glances, as I usually would."
Other students reported that the exercise resulted in new or renewed connections with the person they shadowed, and some students expressed a personal commitment to changing their own attitudes and behaviors.
Although described in the context of a psychology of women course, the shadow/role-play exercise can be used in a variety of courses to teach about stereotyping and the ways that different forms of diversity intersect. For example, in social psychology courses, this exercise can facilitate personal understanding of research on stigma, prejudice, discrimination, and group identity.
Regardless of the course involved, it is essential that instructors adequately prepare students for the exercise and debrief them afterward, teaching students about the nature of stereotypes and encouraging them to be self-reflective and critical observers. In particular, students should be made aware of the potential for confirmation bias in their observations (e.g., attributing events to discrimination or nondiscrimination factors without considering alternative explanations, attending to information that reinforces rather than challenges their stereotypes). Furthermore, students should be reminded that a one-day exercise involves a small sample that may or may not represent the shadow/role-play person's larger life experiences.
McIntosh, P. (2001). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women's studies. In M. L. Andersen & P. Hill Collins (Eds.), Race, class, and gender (4th ed., pp. 95-105). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Moradi, B. (2004). Teaching about diversities: The shadow/role-play exercise. Teaching of Psychology, 31, 188-191.