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Take the Privilege Walk

Adrienne Maree Brown Aug 17

Many of us have done a "Privilege Walk" at some point in our lives. The purpose of the walk is to expose the lifelong impact of privileges and ‘normality’ that we were either born into or born without. The exercise can very powerfully help identify all of the factors that were in place before we began making our own choices in life, factors that reinforce and widen gaps in resources and access to opportunities.

The rules are simple. Everyone gathers behind a long horizontal line. When the facilitator reads a statement that applies to you, such as, “If your family owned the house where you grew up, or land of any description,” you step forward; if it doesn’t, you step back. Afterward, participants get to hear and process together the personal stories about how race, class, gender, and ability affected the opportunities of individuals in the room.

The traditional "Privilege Walk" exercise helps unveil the distance between those who have privilege and those who don’t. That visible gap shows the work that must be done within the privileged group, but often still keeps the focus on privilege, relegating those who have less to the back. It can work well within a group whose goal is to center attention on privilege and begin to unpack the guilt of having been born with those advantages. The downside is that those without privilege, as in life, can end up coming in second.

Reconfiguring the “Privilege Walk” into the “Circle of Privilege” exercise was meant to help groups center their work and energy on community building, and illustrate that everyone has a role in social change work. In this new exercise, everyone starts in a large circle, instead of behind a horizontal line, and those with the least access to power will take steps forward and end up at the center of the circle.

Those who are in the center at the end of this exercise are those who have been most impacted by inequality, and they should be on the frontlines of the work we do to create a better society and a safe and healthy planet. When it comes to human rights, or environmental and economic justice, these are the experts. Those further back may have more societal decision-making power and material resources, but they need the earned wisdom of those in the center to guide the work itself, and to determine where those resources should flow to promote deep, sustainable change. Both experiences are necessary, but currently the more privileged folks have a bigger influence over nonprofit work.

The goals of the exercise are twofold: firstly, to create an experiential map of oppression and privilege for the participating group as a reference point; and secondly, to give participants the experience of re-centering the impact of privilege in an effort to encourage new relationships of power and community.

The exercise:

Participants form a wide circle facing the center of a room (or any open space). A facilitator reads the following sentences while participants take steps forward and backward accordingly:None of these questions concern things within people’s personal control. After the exercise is completed, the participants’ arrangement in space represents a map of the social, political, economic and environmental circumstances into which people are born and reared. That physical display then allows for reflection: How did it feel to go through the process? How often does one encounter spaces where access to resources and opportunity is honestly assessed and appropriately acknowledged? What would be different if people in communities most impacted by inequality were seen as the center of, or as experts on, their communities’ needs and situations?

One of the final goals of the exercise to is gain awareness, and thus wisdom and responsibility, about how we use our privilege, even though no one creates the circumstances of their birth. These lessons apply in social justice work — which the exercise was originally developed to inform — as well as in a wide range of everyday situations. Invite and gather those in your life to try it!

Birth Privilege:
If your ancestors were forced to come to the U.S., not by choice, take one step forward.
If your parents did not grow up in the U.S., take one step forward.
If your primary ethnic identity is American, take one step back.

Childhood Home:
If you’ve ever tried to change your appearance, mannerisms or behavior to avoid being judged or ridiculed, take one step forward.
If you’ve ever had to skip a meal, or were hungry because there was not enough money to buy food while you were growing up, take one step forward.
If one of your parents was unemployed or laid off, not by choice, take one step forward.
If your parents were white-collar professionals — doctors, lawyers, etc. — take one step back.
If there were people of a different race or class working in your household as servants, gardeners, etc., while you were growing up, take one step back.
If your family owned the house where you grew up or land of any description, take one step back.
If you were raised in a two-parent household, take one step back.

Childhood Community:
If you had to rely primarily on public transportation, take one step forward.
If you were raised in an area where there was prostitution, drug activity or regular violence, take one step forward.
If you lived in an area where you were able to play safely and unsupervised outside, take one step back.

Learning Experience:
If you saw members of your race, class, ethnic group, gender or sexual orientation portrayed on television in degrading roles, take one step forward.
If you studied the culture of your ancestors in elementary school, take one step back.
If you attended private school or summer camp, take one step back.
If you were told that you were beautiful, smart and capable by your parents, take one step back.
If you were encouraged to attend college by your parents, take one step back.
If you had access to an inspiring natural area, take one step back.

Beginning Work:
If you were paid less, treated unfairly or denied employment because of race, class, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation  take one step forward.
If you were ever offered a good job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step back.
If you were given the confidence or teaching to know how to work with your hands, take one step back.

Beyond Work:
If you were ever afraid of, or the victim of, violence because of your race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or ability, take one step forward.
If you were ever uncomfortable about a joke related to your race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or ability, but felt unsafe to confront the situation, take one step forward.
If a chronic health issue has limited your opportunities, take one step forward.

Adrienne Maree Brown was formerly the executive director of The Ruckus Society, a facilitator with the Detroit Food Justice Task Force and a cofounder of the League of Young Voters. An earlier version of this article appeared at WireTapMag.org under the headline “Tools for Activists: Turning Privilege Disparities into Just and Sustainable Action.”