Photo: Åse Bjøntegård Oftedal
I am a person of immense privilege
It felt strange to stand, shoulder to shoulder with fifty strangers across the hallway of the Oregon Convention Center, shuffling together to make room for everyone. Glancing left and right, I wondered who these people were, why they were here, and what it was about a session on privilege that had drawn them. We were asked to join hands, and so we did: One long line, brothers and sisters, a snapshot of America, hand in hand, together.
The voice was loud and strong, a voice without a noticeable accent. The voice of a middle aged white man, in pressed khaki pants, a plaid shirt, unbuttoned at the neck, with a business like look about him, and a neatly trimmed, greying beard. He read stoically, clearly, with purpose, and no trace of hurry, giving his words the weight they deserved. Lending gravitas to the questions that we answered with our bodies.
“If your ancestors came to the United States by force, take one step back.”
“If your parents, or guardians, attended college, take one step forward.”
“If you have tried to change your speech or mannerisms to gain credibility, take one step back.”
“If you are able to be drive carelessly without someone attributing it to your gender, take one step forward.”
“If you get time off for your religious holidays, take one step forward.”
“If you have ever traveled outside the United States, take one step forward.”
“If you were raised in a single-parent household, take one step backward.”
At first, there was giggling; nervousness I suppose.
But then, as arms stretched to the breaking point and the chain fell apart, the room fell silent.
The questions continued:
“If you have been a victim of sexual harassment, take one step backward.”
“If you have ever had a maid, gardener, or cleaning service, take one step forward.”
“If you have a foreign accent, take one step backward.”
Some people moved forward. Others moved back. We looked around at one another as we were stratified throughout the room. One woman, continually moving backward, stared straight ahead and showed no emotion.
The Privilege Walk is an activity designed to point out the things we take for granted, the things many of us don’t even think about, the things that just “are” but that make all the difference. It’s a tool. A way to objectively measure where you are on a spectrum, and what that looks like next to the other people in a particular room. It’s a visual reminder of what we already know, but isn’t talked about enough: White men often finish first, women of colour often finish last, any orientation other than cisgender-hetero is less privileged, and access to education matters immensely.
When the room stopped moving you could have heard a pin drop. I looked around and noticed something interesting: of all of the women in the room, I was the farthest ahead. All around me stood men, and none of them otherwise than caucasian. At the other end of the room were only women, and the overall colour gradient of the room looked like a box of Crayola skin toned crayons lined up from lightest to darkest.
The debriefing was fascinating.
I’ve thought about that experience a lot in the past six months. The concept and discussion of privilege is not one that’s particularly new to me. It’s one we’ve examined from several sides of the coin as we’ve traveled and lived, on purpose, in places where we were the drastic minority. It’s one of the reasons that we made those choices, so that we, and our children, would have an understanding of what it feels like to stick out physically, to operate in a language that’s not easy, to be marked instantly as an outsider, to have to navigate political and religious differences, and to be discriminated against for no reason other than colour, nationality, or gender.
Of course, even the ability to write that paragraph, to make that choice to begin with, is an indicator of our ridiculous privilege.
Travel is a privilege
I sat with a man in Tunisia one afternoon. He’s a wealthy man, owner of several homes in vacation destinations. He goes to Europe several times a year. His children attend the best schools Tunisia has to offer.
“You know what my dream is?” He asked me. “My dream is to go to America. But, this will never happen.” He continued in his Arabic accented English, taking a sip of his tea.
“This will never happen because America would never grant me a visa. I am an Arab man, from a Muslim country, without a business tie to America. I will never be allowed to go. Your passport…” here he tapped the table between us, “Your passport, as an American, this is a golden ticket. You are free in this world. Me? I am not.”
From that moment forward I never looked at my passport again without hearing his voice. He is absolutely right.
There is a lot of talk about the ease of travel. The ability we now have to “quit our jobs, travel around the world, and follow our dreams.” The rise of digital nomadism and the distributed workforce. The value of travel to education, benefit of international experience on a resume, and how much more richly one can live, as an expat, than is possible at home.
My own life and choices embody many of these sentiments. We traded a six figure job for the uncertainty of long term travel and made it fly. We make more money now than we ever have and we work a measly 20 hours a week or so. Did we work for that? Hell yes. Was it a result of our privilege? In almost equal measure, yes, it certainly was. I’m a believer in dream building, living life on my own terms, educating my kids in wildly unconventional manners, and stretching a dollar by getting the heck out of the first world on occasion.
But I also realize that this reeks… it reeks… of privilege. White privilege. Educated privilege. Generations deep of well-traveled privilege. Entrepreneurial privilege. Cisgender privilege. First world privilege. Amer-Canadian privilege.
I was born into a family that handed me privilege in my first breath that other people just don’t have. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t deserve it. I just got it.
I was raised in a culture and community that helped me build my privilege. I was born into a progressive family, in a more gender-equal nation than most, and I took for granted… I take for granted… that privilege every day. Every single time I hop on an airplane with two passports in my pocket to choose from. Every time I buy my way out of a place that I don’t want to be with a blase attitude *cough*Jakarta*cough.* Every time I glibly mention that I’ve purchased tickets to Florida in February, Los Angeles in March, Montreal in April, Boston in May, and Portugal in June, although I may also pop over to the west coast for a little work before I leave the continent. Privilege.
Embodying our privilege
The white man reading the questions was Bill Proudman. He runs an organization called White Men as Full Diversity Partners, dedicated to encouraging leaders to take courageous action in creating and sustaining inclusive cultures in their workplaces.
He is a man who would be at the front of the room every time in the Privilege Walk. He believes that it is our resonsibility to embody our privilege and use it in a way that moves other people forward and levels the playing field.
He’s tired of white men being sidelined in discussions of diversity and abdicating their responsibility in ameliorating the myriad of problems. It is his belief that people of power and privilege need to participate, as full partners in developing cultures of inclusion and diversity.
Instead of privilege being the thing that gives me a leg up, it becomes the thing I use to give others a leg up. Privilege becomes a way create equality and inclusion, to right old wrongs, to demand justice on a daily basis and to create the dialogue that will grow our society forward.
So what does that mean?
What does that mean for me as I stand at the front of the room? Surrounded by the white men, having the ah-ha moment that I’d taken more steps forward than any of the other women in the room. Recognizing that a large part of that was due to my dual citizenship, the family legacies of education and travel, and a freedom of movement that most people don’t enjoy. What am I supposed to do with that?
You’ve heard the old adage, “To whom much is given, much is required.” I believe that. I’ve been given a lot. And much of it simply by virtue of my luck of the draw at birth. There is a responsibility that goes with that. What am I doing, today, that’s embodying that?
Like most things, I think of this in the context of my lifestyle as a traveler:
– How do I travel? In such a way that I exploit others as a result of my privilege? Because I could certainly do that, and I know people who do.
– Or, do I travel looking for ways to use the privilege I have for others’ gain?
– What do I invest my power and my influence in? As an educated person, and a writer, a mother, and a community member?
– How do I advance my own education? Through talking, out of the mouth of my privilege? Or through listening and giving others a voice?
– Do I use my privilege to segregate myself or others? Or do I, instead, work to find commonalities, set aside the “easy way out,” and roll up my sleeves to do the real work of culture building in messy situations?
– Do I power through my days, unconscious of my privilege? Or, do I work to acknowledge it and assess it and live in such a way that honors the gifts and yet seeks to develop them for other people, both at home and abroad?
– Am I about the work of enjoying, or empowering? Do those two things have to be at odds? I don’t think so.
Over that past few months my mind has returned, with some regularity, to that room and my place in it. I can see the faces of the folks I’d been holding hands with. The emotion we experienced together, the ways in which the energy in the room changed as Bill gave voice to each question, the nuance of the metamorphosis of the tone in the room, all are as real to me now as they were in that moment.
Where, before, I’d have been tempted to deny, or underplay the privilege I have, I’m now challenged to stand firmly in it. To own my place in that room, and in the world.
This is me:
– Born to a family that had enough
– With parents who, both, found ways to be home to raise me
– Free to travel
– With no memory of an experience that included only one country
– Literate in three languages
– Educated without debt
– Married with more than average income
– Three dozen countries and 6 continents under my belt
– Of the dominant race, culture and religious heritage of my birth place
– Truly free to live, work and move about the planet as I wish
That is an amazing amount of privilege.
I am responsible for what I do with it.
– At home, and abroad
– I’m responsible for educating my children to take hold of their privilege and use it well
– I’m responsible for championing the rights of those who have less privilege than I do
– I’m responsible for leveling the playing field where I can
– I’m responsible for using my resources to help others develop theirs
– I’m responsible for how I think, talk, and act within the cultures and communities I find myself
– I am responsible to avoid any exploitation of any group or individual, ever, as a result of the privilege I have
It encompasses everything from buying habits, to jokes at dinner tables, to the books I read, political activism, and who I employ, or don’t, and my actions when I’m a guest in other countries. It means giving up things, intentionally doing without stuff, and experiences, I could have as a result of my privilege that would exacerbate the problem instead of helping to solve it. It means thinking, constantly, about what’s going on in my head and my heart, my family, and my community as I encounter the world from my place of immense privilege.
I think about this all the time, and sometimes I get it wrong. A lot of the time I get it wrong, but I’m trying. I’m learning. I’m listening. I’m working to do what I can, here and there, today, and yesterday, in small ways and big ways; every day I seek to do better.
It’s a real thing. If you think it isn’t, then you aren’t thinking about it yet. If it’s a new concept to you, I’d encourage you to have a dinner party, a big one, with all of your friends, and after dinner break out the Privilege Walk activity and see what happens.
Don’t just do it; sit and talk about it. Tell stories. Listen to stories. Open your mind to the experience of the woman standing at the back of the room with a blank look on her face, as equally as the man standing at the front of the room who is frustrated and confused, not understanding how he got there, and feeling angry at the insinuation that this is somehow “his fault” because he “never asked for this privilege,” and he “worked hard for what he has.” Share experiences with every person in between.
We all have privilege, on a sliding scale, and even the people at the back of the line in America are standing miles, and miles, ahead of people in other places, in other cultures, in other stratas. We all have privilege, and we’re all responsible for what we do with it.
This article originally appeared on On Your Terms and is republished here with permission.