Why “The Privilege Line” Is A Frustratingly Unfinished Exercise

(and how to make it better…Maybe)

So, recently Buzzfeed’s video on privilege has been making the rounds. The video shows a group of folks doing the classic privilege walk exercise (many exist, here’s one and another, haven’t used either though).

Let me preface with: props to BuzzFeed for tackling the issue at all. Not enough organizations are even broaching the topic, and it’s a commendable start.

That said, this version of the exercise is unfinished. In fact, most people do this exercise in a way that may have some tough consequences for the PoC involved– me included. I have done and led this exercise multiple times, and each time I have done it much the same way, because that’s how I saw it done. Then, I saw the below reaction, as well as some reactions from folks online:

Someone else from my Twitter TL talked about this, but for the life of me I can’t find the tweet or remember who. If I’m straying too close to someone else’s work, please let me know!

Essentially, when you’re a PoC or from another oppressed background, you inevitably end up in the back. 

And you know that you will.

Lack of privilege, for those who experience that, isn’t new. We don’t usually need that constant reminder– we know. Privilege and “power” as defined by larger society are obvious markers for those of us who lack them. The exercise itself centers on whitenessand the PoC often end up as props to help White people see how privileged they are.

Which… I get. I get often needs to be done. WP need to see, somehow, the privilege they live in, and if this does it, then that might be a start. Still, by refocusing on whiteness, we only (as Brittany Packnett says) “reproduce White privilege” within the context of the exercise, and that rubs me the wrong way.

But here’s what else we can do:

When I do this exercise from now on, I want to start doing the line again, but with a different version of the questions. Something that centers on and calls out the unique ways PoC have their own forms of power, questions that uplift communities and also pushes PoC to question their own experiences with each other. Questions like:

  1. Step forward if you have a strong understanding of your family’s history and culture.
  2. Step forward if you speak a second language.
  3. Step forward if you have a specific community of people who share similar familiar and cultural contexts with you?

I don’t know. I feel like if, the second time, the exercise were done but “power” were REdefined away from common ideas of “privilege,” it’d be an interesting look at where we SHOULD be headed and how we could recenter on something other than the hegemony.

Is that crazy? A horrible idea? Can you think of other, community-empowered questions? Let me know in the comments or something. I’d love to share.

11 thoughts on “Why “The Privilege Line” Is A Frustratingly Unfinished Exercise

  1. edifiedlistener says:

    Thanks for taking this on and suggesting an alternative possibility. I’ve never thought about how this exercise is centered on whiteness and sparking whites’ particular awareness. Considering questions which might be considered more strengths-based especially with regards to marginalized people strikes me as a brave and counter-intuitive step in shifting the emphasis. Great thinking!

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  2. am Tsaasan says:

    I haven’t participated in the walking versions, however I participated in different sort of exercise…

    We were 30ish folks sorted into 5 colors and when we came into the room there were taped areas and each had a color. We were instructed to build the best community we could, there were rules (ie you can’t step outside of your boundary line) and then were asked to talk to our group about our plans as materials were passed out.

    We built and built and 15 minutes later we had an awesome infrastructure, schools, farms, etc.

    After the exercise was over we presented our communities to each other and were asked to describe our group’s experience… it was the first time I looked around at the other groups. I was shocked that I had not noticed how we were given WAY more materials than any other group, we kept getting new materials passed to us and were oblivious that other groups did not… or that they had materials that were taken away if they were left unattended… or that their taped boundary lines were adjusted to get smaller along the way… or that other groups had folks who ‘went to jail’ for stepping outside the lines (honestly we had so much room we all fit easily)…

    It was a powerful exercise.

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    • Sue Wise says:

      To: Am Tsaasan
      I am intrigued by the community-building exercise you describe. I believe this would be a valuable activity to include with my preservice social studies teachers. Might you be able to point me to the source of this activity?

      Thanks in advance.
      Sue Wise

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  3. Simone Aro says:

    Some other questions might include:
    If you feel pressure to be the primary breadwinner in your household at the expense of your family life take one step back.
    If you are more likely to win custody of children in a separation take one step forward.
    If you are likely to be chosen to board a lifeboat first take a step forward.
    If you feel no one would believe that you could be raped by a member of the opposite sex take a step backwards.
    If anyone has ever assumed you would be good at something due to your race or culture, take a step forward.
    If you have a day or month dedicated to the history of your race or culture take a step forward.
    If you have ever given someone unwarranted special treatment for fear of being labelled as sexist, racist, or homophobic otherwise, take one step back.
    If you have ever had your opinion suppressed by the use of the phrase “check your privilege” take a step back.

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  4. Daniela says:

    This is so interesting – a colleague of mine and I work in Cape Town, South Africa and have tried the privilege walk with our students just to reach the same conclusion as you did! We also asked them in a second step ‘dream up a new grid’, but coming up with new questions. Its fascinating how difficult it is to develop new questions, that prioritise different values and thoughts..but also how affirming it is for students to change their positions…would love to engage more on this with you!

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  5. joanapjtarymax says:

    Do you take part in a community, club, family, group of friends (or some other kind of group) where when one is in need the others help?

    Have you ever donated something?

    Have you ver been given a donation?

    If you there was no way to hire somebody and you would need to build a house/shelter. Would you know how to do it?

    Do you have freetime to see your beloved ones (ex family, friends)?

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  6. Linda Grace says:

    I have STRONG anti-privilege-walk feelings. I’ve never attempted it myself because I’ve seen it devolve into hurt, humiliation, and anger every time I’ve had to take part in it. I’m sitting here trying to come up with an alternate activity that gets at these ideas of power and privilege, but doesn’t reinforce “HEY! I’m AWESOME in all my privilege” or “Well, I KNEW I didn’t have any privilege anyway”.

    I’ve taken part in a similar exercise wherein participants assign a point if they have that privilege, then the leader facilitated a discussion without asking anyone to expose their specific number…but the same problem remains – it potentially reinforces those with privilege and further marginalizes those without.

    Diversity work is hard.

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