What is Privilege?


Today a diversity and inclusion colleague I highly respect posted a link to an exercise in which participants line up side-by-side and then take a step back for each type of privilege they have not experienced in their lives. 35 types of privilege are listed in the article, and a short video about it is below. It’s a powerful exercise, filled with potentially transformative learning.

It’s also an exercise that I’ve had several successful people tell me over the years was a traumatic experience for them. Why? Because, experiential learning activities require proper debriefing! The woman in my story was actually told, when she was standing alone at the back of the room, “See how inclusive our company is? Even someone so lacking in privilege can be successful here!” Exactly the opposite of the desired outcome for the exercise!

The meaning we make of our experience is in the debriefing! It takes a skillful facilitator to speak up to a CEO, but ethics and learning require it be done.

Please join Daniel Yalowitz (vice-provost for graduate education at the SIT Graduate Institute) and me for a five-day session at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication, “Gaining Gaming Competence: The Meaning is in the Debriefing,” and/or a one-day session, “Gaming Agility: Getting More Out of Our Tools.”

We look forward to seeing you there, and to working with you to build inclusiveness, respect, collaboration and justice in our workplaces and communities!

9 thoughts on “What is Privilege?

  1. I was recently at a seminar on pedagogy and this exercise was discussed…it was pointed out that it can do more harm than good….I guess it is all in the assessment of your group, the preparation and the de-briefing.

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    • Exactly, Sharon. Exercises in and of themselves can have the opposite learning intended, just as “contact hypothesis” shows us that cross-cultural interaction requires debriefing/sense-making in order to have positive effects. Thanks for joining us here!

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  2. Hi Dianne, I ran this exercise in the early 2000’s and did not debrief it well. The poor young fellow who “won” was inconsolable in tears. One of the few regrets I have. I think it can be a powerful exercise, if treated carefully. Interesting to see that it’s still around. Thanks for posting, and wish I could be at SIIC this year to take your class!

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  3. I have also done this in a different way. When a category/question is given, persons for whom that is true walk across the room and face those for whom it is not true. There are two lines, therefore, facing each other silently. It is very powerful. Then those who moved return to the original line. Also has to be debriefed so carefully as it is very powerful. Each way reveals in a different manner. I, too, have times when I really did not handle the debriefing well and still remember them vividly.

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  4. Very interesting Dianne, thank you for sharing. I recently returned from a Group Relations conference in the US, the word “privilege” was the most frequently used word. I constantly wondered why this is so heated in the US but not so much in Europe where we have our fair share of inclusion/ diversity issues.

    Interesting exercise, I can see how not de-briefing it well can be painful! Thank you for sharing!
    Sorry to miss SIIC, I would love to be at your course. I’m sure it will be great, as always!

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    • We will miss you, Pari-joon! I have very mixed feelings about privilege, actually. Like you, I see it as a US D&I thing primarily. Here, it can be extremely powerful and transformative for people’s world views when done appropriately. And, sadly, it can be counterproductive and even hurtful when not. I wonder who in Europe may have tried something similar, maybe with different words, as it’s important to look at. Not to blame, but to empathize or understand. Hugs to you, my dear!

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  5. Pingback: Exercise on Privilege | Open Horizons

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