Rethinking the Privilege Walk

Both the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent racial justice protests have highlighted gaping disparities in our country. By now, many of you have likely seen videos of Privilege Walks circulating around social media as a means of illustrating these gaps. The version I have most frequently seen shows a group of people lining up for a race, and the person who finishes first gets a $100 bill. The organizer then reads a series of statements about privilege, and if they apply to the individual, that person gets to take a step forward. The purpose is, of course, to illustrate the “head start” that many with dominant identities receive. It’s not about how hard you work in the race; it’s about your starting position.

While I think it’s important to understand identity-based privilege as unearned, we have to rethink the Privilege Walk exercise. The exercise risks revictimizing those at the back, and in some cases, these individuals are used as educational props for increasing the awareness of those in the front. Moreover, when the exercise is designed as a race with only one winner, it completely disincentivizes people from leveling the playing field. If only one person can benefit by winning the $100, then why should those in the front slow down and risk losing the race?

Here’s how we need to rethink the metaphor. Line up people as if they’re going to run a race. At the end of the track, imagine there is a wall with several locked doors. Each participant is given a key. Randomly placed behind one of the doors is something that will benefit all of society. Think big. Maybe it’s a cure for cancer. Maybe it’s a new solar technology that drastically reduces our need for fossil fuels. Maybe it’s a work of art so powerful that it spurs global change for refugees. Imagining the Privilege Walk in this way creates an incentive for everyone to make it to the end of the race, and to do so as quickly as possible.

As an educator, I often think about the collective knowledge we lose in this country because not everyone has the privilege of a high-quality education. When we transition our thinking from a competitive model to a collaborative one, that’s how we create systemic change. Innovation, or the right key, can come from anywhere. Let’s make sure we have the supportive conditions in place for that innovation to thrive.

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