Wondering What ‘Privilege’ Is? This Video Has Some Answers For You

Recently Huffington Post reposted a Tools For Change exercise from Buzz Feed

Thanks to the folks at Buzzfeed, especially  Daysha Edewi for posting such an excellent video exploring the nature of privilege. Thanks as well to Evan Pang who posted the video on Huffington Post along with a short article.  The video has had more than 750,000 hits in a very short while and Tools for Change has been deluged with calls and emails asking about the exercise and our work.

I want to share a bit where the work that inspired this video comes from, what its purpose is and point to how to use it with your groups and communities.

This exercise comes out of many decades of work by people at Tools For Change along with Paul Kivel and other colleagues. It’s a result of many of us looking for ways to work together to achieve justice and compassion in our communities, organizations and businesses. Its purpose is to reflect the reality that, despite the myth of equal opportunity, there’s no “even playing field.”   In fact the exercise reminds us of the economic, political and cultural structures that put some of us in the front of the room and some of us in the back, without any of us deserving those placements.

The process of moving forward or back in response to the questions posed is as much about helping us understand the nature of power dynamics as it is about understanding our individual privilege or oppression. The exercise is about the nature of our relationships and isn’t an absolute measure of how privileged or how oppressed we are.

Each of us is more than any one identity. There are situations when we’re in an oppressed position, and others when we’re in a privileged position. Sometimes, we’re in both simultaneously. Privilege and oppression are in dynamic relationship; if we alter one side of the dynamic, both shift.

In this exercise, after participants move in one direction or another and are able to view the social field, strong feelings and revelations emerge.  At the end of exercise, we ask people to stop and reflect on what they have experiencd for just a moment.Then we say that the front of the room is where the jobs are, where all dreams of a better life can be manifested,  and then encourage people to run for it.

Attending to how we feel about our relative position in the social field may be important to help us move into action on behalf of making the field more equal.  However, the exercise reveals much more than that. It points to the myth that there is fairness in how the field is constructed in the first place. If you really take a look, you can see how the field is structured to keep some of us in front, and others way behind.

Looking honestly at what shows up in the room helps us look at dynamics of power and also to who has access to resources in any given community.  It gives us the opportunity to be aware of these realities and, if we ask the right questions, to create deeper meaning still. For example;

For those in the back, can you see the whole field in front of you?

And for those in the front, did you look behind?

And for those in the middle, did you experience confusion?

Who ran to the front of the room and who did not?   Why?

When we answer these questions, we begin to see some power dynamics that typically unfold when trying to work together.

Those of us who are in the back can see the furthest, but our perspectives are often ignored. We may have been taught to be silent about what we see, or to not take ourselves seriously. Or if we do speak out, we’re told that we’re “disrespectful”, “angry” or “hateful” by those in positions of power, and we suffer repercussions.

For those of us in the front, we may have been taught that our perspectives are the ones that count, that we’re supposed to know everything, and we better keep looking forwards. Ironically, those who know the least about the social field of power are asked to provide leadership and solutions, and are taught to defend their position.

And for those of us in the middle, we may have been taught to look up front for the answers, despite being aware of greater complexity in the field. Needless to say, this can cause great confusion and pain.

Despite the discomfort that can result when we honestly take a look at our position on the playing field, it’s also the basis upon which real change can occur. It’s when we start to recognize the nature of these dynamics of power that truly just and equitable work can begin.

To learn more, visit our Alliance Building resources  where you will find this exercise and several others to support communities to engage in these deep questions.  Also take a look at our movement building pamphlets.  There is also a version of the exercise and many excellent resources on www.PaulKivel.com.

Thanks to Martin Cano for creating the original draft more than 25 years ago, to Paul Kivel who revised this and to Margo Adair and Sharon Howell who refined this into such a powerful tool.  Paul gave many helpful comments to sharpen our thinking for this blog post.

Thanks to Jimmy and Grace Boggs ( who just turned 100!) and those at the Boggs Center for their guidance and leadership these many years. Jimmy, Margo and Martin have passed on, but their spirit of struggle and compassion still lives on in the work of others.