Why I Don't Do Privilege Walks Anymore

I’ve seen this video floating around facebook and it’s been making me angry. It’s not even the obvious strategic editing.  I just thought we already talked about how this activity of the privilege walk is not a productive tool. I did some digging and the video seems to be very recent. Even if the video isn’t recent it had been posted many times in October and November on youtube and facebook. It’s popular. People are noticing it. It’s sparking some discussion. And yet some of us are still trying to convince facilitators why this isn’t a good idea.

For those who are not familiar, a privilege walk is an activity that may teach participants about privilege, intersectionality, and/or the falsity of the United States meritocracy. Participants line up shoulder to shoulder.  The facilitator then makes a series of statements. The facilitator instructs participants to take a step forward if the statement applies to them. For example, in the video above the coach used the following statements. “If you grew up with a father figure in the home.” “If you had access to a free tutor growing up.” “If you never had to worry about your cell phone being cut off.” “If you never wondered where your next meal was gonna come from.” At the end of the statements you can then see how everyone has been affected by privilege based on where they are standing. The statements are all things the participants cannot control but are privileges they have been afforded. The point is to illustrate for privileged participants how they are getting a head start in life, but not based on anything they did personally. It also illustrates intersectionality because you might match someone and move with them on one statement, but then not be matched on another.

I work in a variety of places that use the privilege walk; nonprofits, education, and social justice organizations. I have participated in them and facilitated them. Based on my experience, I am telling you that privilege walks are NOT a good idea. I have vowed never to participate or facilitate this activity ever again. There are three reasons why I don’t facilitate or participate in privilege walks. First, those who are privileged don’t exhibit any real long term learning from these exercises. Second, I have yet to see a set of statements that is comprehensive. Third, and most importantly, the privilege walk is based on exploiting those who have little or no privilege.

I have seen many sets of statements for the privilege walk. Some focus on race (this is the worst example I’ve ever seen), some on gender, some on economic status.  I’ve seen sets that try to focus on all three or that are based on religion. Regardless of the focus the questions are always from a perspective that is valuing the cisnormative heteronormative imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. *thank you Laverne Cox* They normalize whiteness and Western/European values. Those of us left standing in the back are lacking, we are missing out, we are incomplete. Our culture and experiences are not valued as worthy or desirable. Here are some suggestions on how to flip the questions to value the experiences of those of us who usually end up in the back.

For me the third reason is the most important. For those with little or no privilege participating in this activity can be traumatic, requires immense emotional labor, and is rarely beneficial. Usually, participants don’t consent to the privilege walk activity. It is thrust upon them. Even if they are given the option not to participate, damage is still being done if they remain in the space. The types of questions being asked can be triggering. The facilitator is asking participants to share intimate things about themselves. They may be asking participants to revisit traumatic events, or to remember something they’ve put to rest. Those left standing in the back are participating in an illustration of what they already know to be true because they live it every day. And what is all of this in service of? Teaching people with privilege about their privilege. I know that there are some lessons to learn from the privilege walk for everybody. But is it worth the emotional labor? I’m for one am tired of using my emotional labor to teach those with privilege about it.

Some organizations have made adjustments to the privilege walk to make it less traumatic for those with little or no privilege and more of a learning experience for those with privilege. Adjustments range from suggesting this activity only be done with groups that are well into building community to a thorough debrief that allows students to process their thoughts and emotions afterward. However, I’m not convinced these adjustments are enough.  Those participants with little or no privilege are still being exploited in this activity by use of their stories and emotional labor.

What do you think?

Have you participated in a privilege walk? How did you feel? What did you learn?

Have you facilitated a privilege walk? Did you have a good outcome? Did you debrief the exercise?

Do you think privilege walks are a beneficial activity? Have you made some of your own adjustments to the activity?

Or have you joined me in the group of people who will no longer participate or facilitate the privilege walk?

Let me know!  I’m always willing to change my mind with good evidence.

Cooperatively yours,

Cami

Cami Thomas2 Comments