Starting the Conversation about Privilege

privilege pic

By Heidi Hemling – Starting a conversation about privilege is difficult. Whether we are aware or unaware, there are situations each day that force us to confront our privilege or its deficit. I recently participated in a privilege walk with my cohort. As a graduate student, I was surprised I had never heard of or experienced this exercise. And if I’m being completely honest, I have to admit that even after learning more about the process, I was not prepared for the emotional response and deep self-reflection that would follow…

As a cohort, we stood on the lawn outside of Lalumiere; chatting, laughing, and awaiting further direction. The mood was light and the energy fun and carefree.  We were instructed to form a line and join hands. As our professor stood before us, she explained that she would begin reading a number of statements to us that had to do with topics including sexual orientation, race, gender, violence, religion, experiences with caregivers, and so on. While the statements were read, we were instructed to either take one step forward or one step back. She also reminded us that this movement may or may not require that we let go of the hand of the person next to us but encouraged us to hold onto one another as long as we were able. As we began, quiet fell over the group and our professor read many statements including, but not limited to, the following:

  • If you are reasonably sure that you will not be denied access to jobs or political resources because of your gender, take one step forward.
  • If your parents or guardians attended college, take one step forward.
  • If you were raised in an area with crime and drug activity, take one step back.
  • If you believe that you weredenied employment because of your race, gender, or ethnicity, take one step back.
  • If you went to galleries, museums, and plays with your family, take one step forward.
  • If you attended private school or summer camp, take one step forward.
  • If you were raised in a single-parent household, take one step backward.
  • If you went on a vacation out of the country before age 18, take one step forward.
  • If you have ever felt uncomfortable about a joke directed at your gender, take one step back.
  • If you are relatively sure you can enter a store without being followed, take one step forward.
  • If you have been a victim of violence because of your race, gender, class, or sexual orientation, take one step back.

In recalling this experience, one of the most impactful parts of this activity for me was feeling the energy that existed prior to the exercise slowly turn to quiet, and then fade into reflection, and still further into a very real and heavy emotional response. As we took steps forward or backward after each statement, we moved closer to and further away from each other, at times being able to join hands with someone for a moment but almost always having to let go again shortly after. I felt surprisingly sad when I could no longer stretch my hand out far enough to join with those who had stood beside me. My mind began filling with experience-specific memories connected to the privilege, or lack thereof, that those statements brought up. The reactions overwhelming my heart and mind moved on a spectrum from embarrassment to empowerment. For example, moving forward to claim my place as a first generation college student made me feel strong and resilient, while moving back only to be confronted with some of my past experiences made me feel sad and insecure. Reliving some of these moments, although very briefly and in the context of privilege, was enough to cause me to feel differently about my own unique privilege.

It was powerful to see the faces of my classmates as we completed the exercise and were instructed to look around the lawn. The group, as a whole, ended up in very different places than where we began. I struggled as I sat with the feelings of shame and insecurity bubbling up in my chest. In one swift moment, I felt judgement for ending up where I did. However, as quickly as that initial reaction occurred, it dissipated and I felt empowered for being resilient and finding the strength to overcome my circumstances. What moved me most was the look on each of our faces as our eyes were opened to the in-vivo illustration of what privilege looked like and meant in our own lives and in our future beyond our graduate program.

As the days pass, I continue to sit with the feelings and emotions that were brought up for me during our cohort’s privilege walk. I am struck by the way such a seemingly simple activity can so alter my self-perception as well as my perception of those around me. It is a poignant reminder of the frame of mind from which we need to operate. Privilege, or its deficit, is not always obvious to the eye of a passerby, however it is often at the root of the social inequalities we witness. It is capable of clouding our viewpoint and leading us to make unwarranted conclusions or assumptions. These very pitfalls are the reason we must start having difficult conversations with one another. It is essential that we become better able to recognize privilege in our lives and the power it may hold. No matter our roles; students, faculty, educators, counselors, it is our responsibility to carry an awareness of our own privilege and an understanding of how it may enhance or hinder our abilities to effectively serve those around us. We must hold ourselves accountable and use this increase in self-awareness to help remedy the social inequalities that cripple so much of the world we live in.

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