Do I have a responsibility to understand my privilege?

Aunty Munya and I were recently interviewed for an article Privilege walks: an exercise in better retention? by AHRI, the Australian Human Resources Institute. In this article they pose the controversial question:  “If there was a workplace exercise that increased inclusivity and employee retention, but it risked dredging up guilt and shame, would you go ahead with it?”.

In exploring how to become an ally to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, I have shared my experience that becoming aware of my own privilege is one of the most powerful things I have done, and that I try to do on a daily basis:

Understanding my privilege is the most practical thing I can do to support others and basically be a better person. Every day I experience an advantage or right that I have that others do not enjoy, just because of the colour of my skin. My learning about privilege is lifelong.
A very simple example of this is having a credit card. Countless times I’ve been called late at night by a distressed team or community member where the hotel is refusing check in as they do not have a credit card. Having a credit card is a privilege, as simple as that sounds.  Guilt or shame is the #1 enemy of allyship. I have had no choice about being born white. However, I do have a choice about becoming aware of my privilege and finding out what I can do to support others who don’t have the same privileges. Of course, it’s then about taking appropriate action.

You will note that I state that guilt or shame is the #1 enemy of allyship. It can create fear and a paralysis that stymies any action. This is the opposite of what we want. This is why Munya and I spent considerable time exploring a way to explore privilege with people that was both empowering and inspiring.

Closing the Privilege Gap

To explore the role of privilege in the gap in Australia, we use the the Privilege Walk. This activity is designed to explore the underlying privileges that certain individuals or groups of people not only enjoy but are rewarded in society for no other reason than their gender, ethnicity, race or nationality, or their sexuality. The exercise provides a visual illustration of the concept of white privilege which American writer Peggy McIntosh wrote about in her seminal essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” in 1988.

There are many versions of the Privilege Walk that can be adapted to suit any setting or situation where prejudice, inequality and discrimination occur. So for instance it can be used to examine gender, racial or sexual inequality such as exists between whites and blacks, men and women, heterosexual (or ‘straights’) versus homosexual, intersex or transgendered peoples, people of different cultures or ethnicities and so on.

At Evolve, we have adapted the Privilege Walk to Australian society to explore the hidden and apparent privileges of ‘white’ Australians in relation to the disadvantages of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – the Indigenous peoples of Australia.

The purpose of the Privilege Walk is to learn to recognise how power and privilege can affect our lives even when we are not aware it is happening. It is not intended to belittle, ridicule or make anyone feel guilty or ashamed of his or her privilege or lack thereof. Rather, it seeks to demonstrate the hidden, unassumed power of privilege and the ways in which it serves to disempower and disadvantage certain individuals or groups of people in society. The exercise is revelatory in the sense that it shows that everyone enjoys privileges of some kind one way or the other, albeit in different shades and degrees. By revealing our various privileges, we can begin to see ways in which we can use our individual and collective privileges to work for social justice. It is not about blaming anyone for having more power or privilege in society or for receiving more help in achieving certain goals, but to have an opportunity to identify both obstacles and benefits experienced in our lives.

This exercise can be very challenging because it is dealing with racism and inequality in society. For those who have never thought about the privileges they may have been given because of their sex, race or ethnicity, their able-bodiness, heterosexuality and so forth, it can even be quite confronting. Privilege is strongly aligned to racism and raising consciousness about racism is never easy. Evidence shows however that the greatest learning takes place whenever we are pushed out of our comfort zones.

In the HRM article, the focus was on how we do this in a way that is safe for people. An extract from this article is below.

Walking the line by Samantha Smith, 2019

Co-directors of cultural awareness training organisation Evolve Communities, Munya Andrews and Carla Rogers, decided to incorporate McIntosh’s research into their take on privilege walks. Targeting workplaces, their aim is to show the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians while creating more inclusivity and better employee retention.

“[The privilege walk] is not intended to belittle, ridicule or make anyone feel guilty or ashamed of his or her privilege or lack thereof,” says Andrews. “By revealing our various privileges, we can begin to see ways in which we can use our individual and collective privileges to work for social justice and the betterment of all.”

This sentiment is echoed in McIntosh’s research. As she says about her own history. “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group”.

Rogers and Andrews drew on McIntosh to arrive at 15 statements that are used in the privilege walks they run. The questions include:

  • If you can go shopping and feel confident that you’re not going to be followed by suspicious staff, take a step forward
  • If most of your teachers looked like they shared your ethnicity, take a step forward
  • If none of your parents attended university, take a step backwards
  • If you’re a woman, take two steps back
  • If any member of your family was removed as a part of the stolen generation, take three steps back

Andrews, who has participated in these walks “hundreds of times” as she is “often the only Aboriginal person in the group”, often finishes at the back of the group, on the same line everyone started on. “I’m not surprised where I end up, of course, growing up as an Aboriginal person in Australia. I’m not surprised at all,” she says.

Knowing where you’ll finish is not necessarily common. Andrews has a powerful memory of a Koori woman who took part in a walk. The woman expected to end up at the front of the group, but instead remained behind.

“She said ‘I’m young, I’m urban, I’m educated – I should be up there with my colleagues who are at the front’ and that lead to a discussion around institutionalised racism,” says Andrews.

Andrews’ colleague Rogers, who is white, often ends up towards the front of the group.

“I think for me, to be aware of my own privilege, is the most powerful and proactive thing I can do as a non-Indigneous person,” Rogers says. “I work with Munya and a lot of Indigenous people but I’m still learning and coming across a new privilege every week and this has helped me grow as a person.”

Retention vs criticism

Andrews and Rogers have been told by participants that the exercise is empowering and makes them feel like they belong. The co-directors believe this directly benefits the retention rates of the organisations for which they run walks.

And there is evidence that workplaces that foster these feelings have better retention. AHRI’s report on the subject, which surveyed 339 HR professionals, found that 60 per cent said a positive culture was one of the most effective retention methods.

That being said, there are those who criticise the privilege walk. Perhaps the most searing indictment is that the walks actually take advantage of minorities.

As former privilege walk facilitator Meg Bolger wrote on Medium, “Not only are marginalized people having to put their stories out there in order for me to learn but the way that I’m learning can leave me in places of shame. Shame can be incredibly corrosive and often stops us from seeking out more information or believing that we can change. Shame makes us feel like bad people, not people who are part of bad systems.”

Rogers says it’s worth addressing that criticism, but from her experience the exercise benefits those less-privileged. “My observation is that less privileged people have found it empowering because it’s acknowledging them and giving them a voice.”

Andrews says she has had pushback from the other direction. One participant actually told her, “If anybody calls me privileged I’ll punch them in the head.”

Andrews says that acknowledging privilege shouldn’t be threatening to those who have it, because it changes depending on context.

“When I’m walking down the street and I see a homeless person I can say I’m more privileged than them in that context because I have a nice job and a beautiful home to go home to,” she says. “It’s not about feeling guilty, you can’t help the family you were born into and the advantages you got through life. It’s about being aware and helping those around you.”

The co-directors say that organisations receive a variety of benefits from privilege walks. In particular, they can use them to collect data and design policies around Indigenous inclusion.

“If they’re writing Indigenous policies they can consider if they are coming at it from a privileged viewpoint and instead consider what things do they need to take into account for their less privileged customers or employees,” says Andrews.

While Andrews and Rogers swear by their exercise, it’s easy to see the anxiety privilege walks might provoke in any HR manager thinking of conducting one. There seems to be something inherently divisive in having colleagues begin by holding hands, and end up on the opposite ends of the room, separated by nothing less than ethnicity, class, upbringing, gender and sexuality.

This potential for division is why the experience needs to be contextualised. After performing a privilege walk with a group of employees, Andrews and Rogers will debrief the team.

“Depending on the level of knowledge on privilege, inequality and disadvantage, you can have some rich conversations,” says Andrews. She’ll prompt discussions with questions directed at certain groups. For example, she might ask the men in the room why they think that at a certain moment they took two steps forward when none of the women did.

You can see the appeal of the walks, and their risks (remember the person who threatened violence). But if you think they just create division, you have to ask: if you don’t acknowledge people’s differences, how can you hope to be truly inclusive.

When we began doing the privilege walk in our cultural awareness programs some 5 years ago to demonstrate the gap, there was some initial resistance and concern. Now it proves to be a must have inclusion in our foundational cultural competency program. We explain in our programs that being an ally is about your impact not intent. Understanding your privilege and using it for good, is a critical first step in this.

Curious to understand your privilege?

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