In early February, I participated in a ‘Privilege Walk:’ an exercise that forces examination of individuals’ levels of privilege or disadvantages in life. I had just finished speaking on an adoption panel and Sue Orban, the panel moderator asked all of us, panel members and audience, to partake.
Each question requires the responder to step forward or backward depending on their answer. It’s popular because it shows the intermingling of privilege and benefits that one experiences, but that a person doesn’t think about consciously or are so culturally ingrained they’re unnoticeable. In other words, everyday advantages that we don’t realize we have.
Here’s a Privilege Walk video.
The value is in both examining one’s opportunities in relationship to those around you and to think about your own privilege, in a variety of scenarios and ways that did not occur previously. Questions can be tailored specifically regarding, gender, class, sexual orientation, mental wellness, and physical ability. For our drill, the questions combined some of those above, plus specific adoption-related ones as well.
At its conclusion, you realize, everyone experiences both privilege and marginalization. The questions are based on Peggy McIntosh’s book, White Privilege: Unpacking the Knapsack.
It’s a non-confrontational method analyzing inequalities along a host of social, ethnic and cultural normative spectrums.
Everyone begins on the same line and you notice, though you may think you were similar to the person next to you, their life experiences may be starkly different.
Here are some of the questions;
- I can choose bandages in flesh color that more or less match my skin.
- The culture of my ancestors was studied in elementary school.
- I usually see members of my race and ethnic group portrayed on television in a positive light.
- I or my ancestors made a choice to come to America.
- I have never spent any time in a foster home, orphanage, or homeless.
- When I go to the doctor, I can share my family’s medical history.
- I am aware of all my siblings.
- I can shop in any store without fear of being followed.
- I received vaccinations that were timely and stored properly.
- I was born into a family with access to medical care.
For our version of this exercise, we used a game board and very small cut-outs that looked like feet that we moved up and down on a grid, all starting from the same point.
Sue asked us questions both about ourselves and our children or the ones people were adopting. We moved the two different feet on the ladder forward and backward according to our answers.
Since this was an adoptee panel, the purpose was to see the privilege that the adopting family member has, which their future child does not.
I answered questions for myself and Sonali. At the end of the exercise, I saw a clear delineation between my experiences and all the privileges in her life thus far. If Sasmita had been doing the drill, the differences would have been even greater.
Unfortunately, conducting it this way, I did not experience one its core objectives, seeing my privilege or marginalization compared to people next to me, but I tasted the concept.
It was a good reflective exercise contemplating the many advantages and disadvantages I have as an Indian adoptee growing up in the United States. I am privileged because even though I’m brown-skinned, I was raised in a white, middle-class neighborhood, and a lot of their privilege extends to me.
For an everyday example, take Band-Aids. I’d guess that nearly all non-minorities I know never thought twice about a Band-Aid’s color. But for myself and minorities, it’s always annoyed us that they never blended with our skin. You always know if I’m wearing a Band-Aid because it contrasts with my skin.
One drawback is the questions were black and white, there was no room for a gray area. The answers to some of the questions, however, are complicated. I understand the reason for the straightforward format, but it makes answering some questions more difficult. There was a question about wanting for food, I answered what I remember. But what I don’t know is whether I lacked food before my adoption. I could only answer from the time I was adopted and onwards.
And not all the answers have to do with privilege on their face. Some were based on proper planning or parental choices. But keep digging deeper and choice itself for many is a privilege.
Most of the benefits we receive are invisible, but they are no less powerful or helpful in our lives. The Privilege Walk drill, helped me view them afresh.