Sunday, October 07, 2007

Privilege Exercise

Tonight we ran an exercise based on Peggy McIntosh's famous article "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." We had about 100 Centre students in the gym, lined up should-to-shoulder and holding hands. Then we read a series of statements, such as "if you grew up in a house with more than 50 books, take a step forward," and "if you have ever thought that the police stopped or questioned you because of your race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, take a step back." After a few questions, most students were no longer close enough together to hold hands. After 50 questions, they were spread out across the gym. I was working with a very helpful student who had much experience with this kind of exercise through the National Conference for Community and Justice. We adapted some of the questions to the Centre environment.

When the students were spread out into clear strata, we divided them into four groups, based on where the natural breaks seemed to fall. The top and bottom group were a little smaller than the two middle groups. The four groups then went into different corners to talk about how the exercise felt. We then gathered them all into one large group to share experiences.

This was a fine exercise. The top group felt guilty, and surprised that they were the most privileged - but also grateful to their parents and grandparents. The bottom group felt somewhat good about the obstacles they had overcome. On the other hand, they were the most reluctant to speak in the larger group. When I pointed this out, one of the most forthright said that she had a half-conscious feeling that her insights were not as valid as the more privileged and at home.

One of the best insights of the night for me was that the top group got there not so much by how often they stepped forward, but by how rarely they stepped back.


Fitz said...

Such exercises can be illuminating and instructive yet so easily manipulated & slanted by the questions.

I like the question about “50 books” another good one may be “did you grow up in a married household with your own mother and father”… I would like to see…”did you have a strong faith tradition”

I’m all for taking a step back if your black, but I don’t think being white really gives you a step foreword.

And the question looms “what’s winning?” Is the goal to build up privileges? Eliminate obstacles for the next generation? Lead the good life?

rdbush said...

I would be curious to see which of the privilege groups was more motivated to achieve (or maintain) success.

That is, does the lack of privilege motivate a person to work harder or does it breed cynicism toward the hegemonic structures for achieving it. Similarly--How do the grades pan out across the groups? More importantly, who works harder to achieve them?

Anyway, sounds like a great exercise. Wish I could have been there for it.

Gregg said...

Hi, do you have the list of questions you used? Would be interesting to try this here in South Africa...

Anonymous said...

if you will email me at i would be happy to send you the information about the exercise.