Beyond the Privilege Walk

What good is a privilege walk activity if participants aren’t engaging in perspective shifting? 

In a “privilege walk” activity, students typically stand in a straight line across the room and respond to statements about various privileges, such as, “If you are a white male, take one step forward.” At the end of the activity, participants who answered “yes” to more of the questions will be standing toward the front of the room, while those who more frequently answered “no” will be standing toward the back. The goal of the exercise is to help students recognize how power and privilege affect their lives, even if they are unaware that it is happening.

When my high school class participated in a privilege walk as part of its multiculturalism unit, I was not ready to open to the perspectives of others. In fact, the skill I honed most that day was, regrettably, my defensiveness. As the leader called out questions such as, “If you would never think twice about calling the police when trouble occurs, take one step forward,” I felt shame brewing inside me. In reaction, I only held more tightly to my narrow experience. I began to resist the exercise by taking smaller and smaller steps forward.

“The questions were unfairly distributed,” I rationalized to my teenage self. “They skipped over what’s been hard for me.” In retrospect, however, I see that the only perspective I was truly open to was my own. Rather than increase my awareness of privilege, the exercise caused me to clamp down on my views. 

Looking back on that day, I attribute the exercise’s inefficacy to a single factor: its inability to teach us how to practice shifting our perspectives.

Education professor Lori Desautels defines perspective as a “bundle of beliefs, a mindset that we each embrace determining how we see one another, our experiences, and possibilities or lack thereof.” Without adeptness at shifting perspectives, privilege walks run the risk of solidifying participants’ fixed—or potentially biased—views.

Privilege is, by nature, insidious and invisible. As author David Foster Wallace notes, “The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” Gaining awareness of unexamined privilege necessitates a deep shift, one that takes place below the level of intellectual learning. 

The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.

For it to work, students with privilege must become ready to reinvent their perspectives. Neuroscience calls this skill neuroplasticity: the brain’s innate ability to structurally and functionally change with new experiences.

Yet, in the midst of difficult emotions—such as those experienced during privilege walks—perspectives may narrow as students cognitively tighten in response to stress. Therefore, when engaged in such emotionally charged material, it is imperative for participants with privilege to hone a practice of shifting their habitual perspectives.

Let’s say we approach perspective shifting as a teachable skill—one necessary for a fruitful privilege walk. How can teachers impart it to their students? We can think of perspective as a muscle that grows more flexible with use. To strengthen it, Desautels recommends first teaching differing physical perspectives.

For instance, teachers could place an object in the middle of the room, asking students to record their observations from their points of view. Upon reading their notes aloud, students would discuss the fact that, while everyone is in the same room looking at the same object, everyone inhabits a different perspective on reality.

Mindfulness can also serve as a powerful preliminary. Using apps like Headspace or Insight, teachers can offer short meditation periods wherein students let their consciousness expand. Research shows that such practices can shrink the amygdala, the brain’s fear center. Moreover, when we relax, we naturally pivot our attention back toward collective reality and a broadened perspective becomes more available. In this state, students can access a mind state where they feel calm and open to learning.

Or, educators could rework the existing privilege walk model to exemplify varying perspectives. By putting minority groups through a process of publicly demonstrating that which they already know, the usual activity may ultimately hurt those already historically disempowered. As educator Christina Torres notes in her article “Why the Privilege Line Is a Frustratingly Unfinished Exercise,” “The exercise itself centers on whiteness, and the people of color often end up as props to help white people see how privileged they are.” What do already marginalized groups stand to gain from this activity then?

Torres recommends emphasizing the unique ways that minority groups have their own forms of power. For example, “Step forward if you have a strong understanding of your family’s history and culture,” “… if you speak a second language,” or “…if you have a specific community of people who share familiar cultural contexts with you.”

Ehrenhalt is the school-based programming and grants manager with Teaching Tolerance.

Educators can help students shake up their default settings with practices like these. 

Want to learn more? Check out next year’s Educational Neuroscience Symposium here.

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