My blog posts are officially a day behind, so if you haven’t caught up on all the blogs… don’t feel too bad. I mean, feel a little bad, but just enough to go back and get all caught up. For Day 13 I was a guest speaker at Monroe Community College. I was asked to organize a diversity training for the student leaders of a group called Campus Ambassadors. The training will take place over the course of a few weeks, but my favorite place to start is with a privilege walk.
I think that this eye-opening experience should be required in schools. There are a number of ways that these privilege walks are done, but here is how I do it: I have all the participants stand next to one another, holding hands, in a straight line. I read aloud a series of prompts, such as:
-If your parents were married for the majority of your childhood, step forward.
-If your grandparents owned property, take a step forward.
-If you can freely travel the world without fear of sexual assault, step forward.
-If you were brought into this country illegally as a minor take a step back.
-If you had more than 50 books in your home growing up, step forward.
-If you regularly rely on public transportation, step back.
-If you ever participated in an activity that required a participation fee, step forward.
-If you grew up assuming you would attend college, step forward.
-If you can easily and reliably find hair and skin care products for your ethnicity and skin color (at an affordable price), step forward.
These are just some examples of questions that I ask. I do not allow participants to speak during the exercise because I think that the most common reaction to becoming aware of our privilege is to explain it away. When participants are taking steps forward while their peers/colleagues/friends are taking steps back, they eventually have to release hands. In that moment when you realize that your privilege has benefited you in a way that others have not experienced, it's normal to feel guilty and want to explain it away. We want to say “Sure, I went to a well-funded school but that doesn’t mean it was easy for me! I still had to work really hard. Should I feel guilty that I happened to go to a good school?”
No. You shouldn’t. That’s not the point of the privilege walk. The goal isn’t to make the people who are really far out in front (almost always the white males) feel guilty. The goal is to make everyone more aware. So, I ask people to remain silent and aware. This time, I asked one of the white guys to volunteer to try walking in someone else’s shoes. I had him respond to each question in the opposite way than he would in his real life. So, for example, when I said to “take a step forward if you grew up with fresh fruits and vegetables available on a daily basis” he would not step forward if that was true in his real life. Answering the opposite of his reality allowed him to experience a very different perspective than if he answered these questions as a white man who came from generational wealth opposed to minority woman experiencing generational poverty.
This volunteer was so far behind the rest of the group there was a point that he could no longer hear the questions I was asking. He was leaning forward, cupping his ear, straining to hear the next prompt. If that isn’t a powerful picture of privilege… I honestly don’t know what is. People want to deny that white privilege exists, but to me, that is it in a nutshell. That by no fault of his/her own, a person’s inherited circumstances can put him/her at a significant disadvantage. Comparatively, some of us have unearned privileges that put us at an advantage.
What I like about this visual image is that it shows that privilege is not just racial – it’s also about socioeconomics, class, gender, religion, culture and physical/mental health. Can you imagine answering this series of questions that have nothing to do with a person’s personal choices, work ethic, values, etc. and telling the kid who is a dozen yards behind everyone else to pull himself up by his bootstraps? Can you imagine saying “Hey, I know you can’t hear the questions anymore because you are so far back in your circumstance that you no longer have access to all the tools, information and resources that are readily available to me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t work hard. You just need to work harder!”
No, you wouldn’t say that. Because you aren’t an enormous dirtbag. Still, that’s what a lot of us do in real life. We talk about equal opportunity, but we don’t talk a lot about equity. Yes, we all have equal opportunities… but those of us that are really privileged are standing a couple feet from opportunity while others start off life a half mile back.
My brother Adam won a Martin Luther King Jr. essay contest while he was in high school. His essay was about racism and cultural appropriation. This was the early 90’s by the way. Let that sink in a minute. The stuff we are all in a huff about right now in America – kneeling during the anthem, exploiting black culture via cultural appropriation, implicit bias, racial and social injustice… these were things that my brother – a privileged 17-year-old white kid from the suburbs – was intentional about exploring and understanding. Not only was he aware of his privilege, he leveraged his power, privilege and influence to educate and inspire others to think differently.
I know that discussing our privilege is uncomfortable. I know that I will get really hurtful and even hateful messages from some of you about this topic. But I also know that I will keep talking about it anyways. Because as hard as it is to ask people to become aware and to think differently, it is also right. Not because it is what my brother did, even though I think it’s pretty bad to the bone that he did in fact live this way. But I will do it because it’s what Jesus did. Loving people beyond reason, seeing beyond wealth and beauty into the heart... that is what Jesus did. It’s who he is, and it’s who I am called to be. So for Day 13, I asked people to examine their own circumstances and imagine the circumstances of others. I encouraged them to be willing to lay down their privilege in an effort to create equity for a friend.