When I was in college I participated in a social justice workshop and during which we did what’s often referred to as a “privilege walk”. The privilege walk has become a go-to social justice activity, to my point here Buzzfeed doing one. For those of you who haven’t participated in one, here are some of the essential components.
How it works: All participants line up in a horizontal line. The facilitator reads out statements and people move according to whether the statement is true for them or not. The statements have to do with privilege, typically all different aspects, but sometimes centered on a theme.
The statements may be something like, “take a step forward if you were raised by two parents,” or “take a step back if you’ve wondered where your next meal was coming from.” “Take a step forward if you’re comfortable holding your partners hand in public.” “Take a step back if people accuse you of using the wrong bathroom.” Etc.
After the statements are read sometimes there is a final prompt like, “see who can cross this finish line first,” or sometimes the activity simply closes. Sometimes, not all the time, the facilitator will debrief the activity ask how people felt, what the activity was like, what it’s meant to represent. Sometimes there is no debrief and folks are left to reflect on their experience alone.
Now many people have different experiences and thoughts when it comes to privilege walks. Many folks, both those with highly marginalized experiences and those with a lot of privilege dislike the activity a lot. Others find it enlightening and eye opening. One thing privilege walks do really well is create opportunities for us to get real with the people we are with about our history and experiences. When done with in-tact groups (like a class in a school or team in a business) it can create ways into conversations that may be hard or take longer to get to otherwise.
The main reason that I don’t facilitate privilege walks
is that I believe privilege walks rely on the experiences of people with marginalized identities to create a powerful learning experience for people with privilege.
Participants who have less privilege are asked to publicly share many of their experiences of being marginalized so that people (like me, who have had a lot privileged experiences) could learn from that difference. So we could be aware of the privilege that we have and they do not.
I first participated in a privilege walk almost a decade ago, and the memory is still vivid. I grew up quite privileged (white, upper class, high income, two-parent household) and I had some awareness of that. I had often been told by my parents that I was “lucky” and should be grateful for what I had. I barely took any steps backwards during the walk. Aside from questions about sexuality and gender it was smooth sailing. It felt awful. I felt guilty and shameful every time I took a step forward, it was powerful.
But, not all moments that are powerful are helpful or good. The memory of doing that privilege walk isn’t tied to a profound awakening or a call to action to use my privilege, it’s tied to shame. “I’m wrong for this, people are going to judge me for this, they are going to think that I’m bad.” For those of us with (a lot of) privilege it can often feel like this shame-riddled experience.
Not only are marginalized people having to put their stories out there in order for me to learn but the way that I’m learning can leave me in places of shame. Shame can be incredibly corrosive and often stops us from seeking out more information or believing that we can change. Shame makes us feel like bad people, not people who are part of bad systems.
So was it a powerful experience, yes. Did I learn from the experience? Yes. But at what cost?
The last thing about privilege walks that compels me to avoid them is that privilege walks quite literally create a divide in the room and in the group. This divide can in turn generate a sense of us vs. them and an accompanying we-could-never-understand-each-other’s-experiences-feeling. Instead of feeling empathetic towards those with less privilege, we may feel more disconnected. Instead of standing next to someone in a moment of injustice, we are no where near each other.
Us vs. them mentality has been used to continue to justify and perpetuate injustices. The belief that one person should see another person as ‘the problem’ is one of the fundamental truths social justice education works to undermine. Instead of highlighting how the systems negatively affect all of us and how systems encourage us to blame each other, privilege walks can instead are invited again to look at each other as the problem.
While I’m very much for conversations that invite folks to examine privilege, creates an opportunity for empathy, and that experientially brings about powerful realizations, for me privilege walks are not worth the cost.
- They relies on people with marginalized experiences to share and name either experiences in order for some →much of the learning to happen.
- They can generates shame without creating clear outlets, ways to process it, and ways to transform privilege for the good.
- They continues to perpetuating an us vs. them divide.
A truth (don’t facilitate privilege walks), however, is never that simple. There are ways/times that folks in my life, those with heavily marginalized identities who would have been in the back of the room have shared powerful stories about privilege walks in their life. A friend of mine who has a host of deeply marginalized identities participated in a privilege walk when they were in high school and thought the experience was deeply powerful, helpful, and uniting. That it brought their class closer together, allowed them to surface a lot of truths they wouldn’t have otherwise, and created fodder for deep conversation. The conditions that we do these activities in change how the activities land. Their group knew each other, trusted each other, had been working together and had a whole semester to unpack the different emotions and realities that the walk brought up.
I think a lot of people facilitate privilege walks because they want to do something to bring up or discuss privilege and they don’t know what else to do. Not because they feel it is specifically the right activity for the job or the moment. That is what I want to challenge us on and why I want to share my go-to privilege activity. To increase the options we have in our toolbox.
What I do instead
There is one perfect activity to replace privilege walks. I think as social justice educators when looking for something new we need to get curious. Get curious about our goals, about our intended outcomes, and about what we believe is important. What metrics are we using to assess our activities? Are we considering what emotions we are inviting into the space? Do we have enough time to honor those emotions? What is the cost of the educational route we are taking? Is the hard experienced simply part of the work? These questions are important to ask ourselves and to consider when building our trainings.
Instead of facilitating privilege walks I usually enter the conversation through a different door. My favorite activity to get a group examining and talking about privileges is Privilege for Sale. This activity has always created powerful learning opportunities (like privilege walks) but does not require personal disclosure for that power. It also allows people to engage emotionally with something that can often feel academic or highly political. While I don’t believe there is any one single activity that is always the right one, Privilege for Sale is my go to.
In the end there is no one way to do social justice education. I’m so grateful that more and more of us are dedicating our time, energy, and resources to having these important conversations. Thank you, it’s helping create a more beautiful, just, and equitable world. Let’s get back to it.