by Marsha Rakestraw

Update 1/19: Since this post was first written in 2008, several people have cogently written on how privilege walks are problematic and have offered alternative suggestions. We recommend you read more, starting here, here, and here.

“Privilege is not something I take and which I therefore have the option of not taking. It is something that society gives me, and unless I change the institutions which gave it to me, they will continue to give it, and I will continue to have it, however noble and egalitarian my intentions.” ~ Harry Broad

“Having been born into circumstances that give me certain privileges—based on my gender, the color of my skin, the country of my birth, my education—it becomes my duty to use those privileges to undermine or eradicate the basis for them.” ~ Derek Jensen

Before studying humane education, it had never occurred to me that I could be colluding in perpetuating oppression against others in American society just by being part of that society.

I am completely aware that some of my choices have negative consequences for others around the globe (chocolate=slavery, clothes=sweatshops, etc.), but I always felt that, because I wasn’t racist and didn’t discriminate against other cultures or “special interest groups,” and because I’m trying to make non-oppressive choices in my own life, that I was doing pretty much all I could to be supportive—short of joining a group or taking more aggressive political action.

I never thought about the fact that, as Allan Johnson, author of Privilege, Power and Difference says, “Privilege is always a problem for people who don’t have it and for people who do, because privilege is always in relation to others.”

Recently I’ve heard a great deal about privilege walks taking place, especially on college campuses.

The purpose of a privilege walk, in the words of activist and author Adrienne Maree Brown, is to “expose the lifelong impact of privileges and ‘normality’ that we were either born into or born without.” As Peggy McIntosh, associate director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women says, she has come to see privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day.”

In a 1988 paper, McIntosh developed a list of 50 questions to help her identify “some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life.” These questions have evolved into the “privilege walk” activity, in which students stand in a line and, based on their response to each question, either move up one step – or don’t. The inequalities in the lives of participants become clear, as does the reasons behind those inequalities.

Adrienne Maree Brown has reversed and modified the walk to help social justice groups focus on community building.

The privilege walk provides a great opportunity to explore issues of privilege, power, and oppression with youth and adults alike. (Johnson’s book, Privilege, Power and Difference, which examines the systems of privilege and difference also serves as an excellent resource.)

But, the conversation can also go further. For example, Keith O’Brien, one of the commenters on the blog post by Doug Noon about doing a privilege walk, mentions that in addition to using the privilege walk, he has students do the walk again, using a second set of statements “all based on choice. These second statements are all things they have a conscious choice over, regardless of their starting point (privilege) in life.”

Additionally, how about looking at privilege and power through the eyes of indigenous peoples who live (or lived) outside of “civilization”? How many indigenous people (and how many “modern” folks) could step forward on questions about having their lands (or water or other natural resources) stolen? Their culture and traditions suppressed or destroyed? Their children taken away or indoctrinated with the “right” values? Their people wiped out?

Students can also examine questions such as:

  • Does the privilege walk ask the right kinds of questions?
  • What can be done to dismantle these systems of oppression?
  • What daily choices can we make to help those who are left steps behind us to move forward?
  • What can we do to help us pay attention to the impact of privilege (or the lack of it) in our lives and work toward a world where everyone, regardless of race, class, sexual orientation, gender or culture, can take step after step forward together?