Shame and discomfort as ‘tools’ in the EDI training toolbox
Written by Alicia Sullivan
“...When we’re thinking about privilege, we’re not thinking seriously about power. And if we’re not thinking about power, we’re not thinking seriously about social change.” — Brian Morton
Over the years, while supporting organizations working to make progress in equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI), I’ve leveraged several free online EDI resources in my work.
One such resource, a Buzzfeed YouTube video about privilege, features an activity that is widely used to engage in dialogue about privilege and marginalization in workplaces and other group settings.
In the video, a facilitator reads a series of statements aloud, asking participants to step forward or backwards. Samples of the statements in this experiential exercise include:
- If you are able to move through the world without fear of sexual assault, take one step forward.
- If you can make mistakes and not have people attribute your behaviour to flaws in your racial/gender group, take one step forward.
- If you have ever been the only person of your race/gender/socio-economic status/sexual orientation in a classroom or workplace setting, please take one step back.
Prima facie, these statements seem innocuous at best, and a bit impertinent at worse.
However, these statements may stir up negative feelings in people from historically marginalized backgrounds, as well as those who identify with the dominant culture.
My story: The (lack of) privilege walk
My first encounter with the ‘privilege walk’ happened several years ago.
I was attending an offsite team-building workshop led by two seasoned external facilitators where one of the main activities was the privilege walk. As the main facilitator read the list of statements, I quickly fell behind everyone else.
Strong emotions started welling up in the back of my throat, and in my stomach. I felt ashamed that all my credentials could not hide perceived disadvantages related to my social background. For the first time, I felt exposed in front of the people from whom I craved professional and social validation.
I thought to myself, “No more ‘Miss pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps through hard work,’ eh?.” I felt like an imposter who did not belong in that space.
The “secret” was out, and I felt like they now knew of my background without even knowing the details. In one sentence, I was born and raised under humble circumstances off a dirt track in a foreign land. I always presumed that most of my colleagues were raised under different circumstances, but they didn’t know how distinct mine was from theirs until that moment in the middle of a fancy meeting room.
The facilitator asked everyone to turn around and “look at where your colleagues are located in the room.”
The floodgate of tears opened. I was humiliated. I was alone and at the back of the room. In that moment, I felt under-privileged and like my hard work and professional achievements to ‘elevate’ my social standing were not enough to make the grade.
Confused, embarrassed, exposed, time stopped for me. I don’t remember how the activity ended, but I didn’t feel good.
Some of my colleagues were thoughtful and checked in with me afterwards. In that moment, I suspected that some pitied me, that some felt slightly embarrassed for me, or some felt a bit guilty about their own privilege and social standing. Looking back now, I think all of my colleagues were demonstrating compassion.
Entering the office the next day, I felt like I was wearing the scarlet words across my chest: IMPOSTER EXPOSED. I felt an awful, unshakably uneasiness for the rest of the trip.
Fast forward six years, this activity re-emerged in a safer environment, and I reflected and felt inclined to share the story above.
Contemporary definition of ‘privilege’ from a social justice lens
According to American writer Brian Morton, the current interpretation of the concept of privilege, received its influential contemporary expression in a 1989 essay called “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” by educator and activist, Peggy McIntosh.
Describing privilege as an invisible “knapsack” of advantages that white people carry around, often unaware of unearned advantages, McIntosh offered a list of benefits that signal some advantages primarily open to people associated with the dominant culture. In this context, privilege means unearned access to benefits and opportunities, and that members of dominant groups have which are supported by power systems/structures.
Beware of possible unintended consequences when using the privilege exercise
Recall my personal experience with the privilege walk as a participant?
As a person who identifies with an equity deserving group with intersecting identities of marginalization, I have experienced the unintended impact of this exercise firsthand. In addition to being a participant, I’ve been implicated in administering this exercise in some form when facilitating unconscious bias workshops. I was unconscious of the impact on participants. Now that I’m aware, I’ll be intentional in my approach if I ever use the privilege exercise in the future.
Here are three reasons why this exercise may be problematic if it is not administered by an experienced professional, properly contextualized with appropriate debrief and carried out through a trauma-informed lens.
1. The privilege exercise centres whiteness and the dominant culture
One of the fundamental issues with the privilege exercise is that it centres whiteness and dominant culture, often leaving participants from racialized and other equity-deserving groups positioned as “props” to help White people (and those who embrace the dominant culture) see and acknowledge their privilege. For an interesting perspective check out this article from renowned educator and writer Christina Torres: Why the privilege line is a frustratingly unfinished exercise.
“Essentially, when you’re a person of colour (PoC) or from another oppressed background, you inevitably end up in the back…and you know that you will.”– Christina Torres
An American activist and the co-founder of Campaign Zero, Brittany Packnett, adds that this exercise often:
- relies on people with marginalized experiences to share and name their experiences in order for much of the learning to happen for people who hold privilege.
- generates shame without creating clear outlets, ways to process it, and ways to transform privilege for good.
- continues to perpetuate an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ interpersonal divide, leaving structural and systemic issues hidden in plain sight and unexplored.
Facilitators should take care to de-centre whiteness and dominant narratives. For example, instead of using a statement about material advantages, statements could reflect personal attributes and attitudes. So, the statement, “If you ever went on a family vacation, take one step forward” could be reframed as, “If your family support system provides you with the care and comfort you need to develop skills to resolve life’s challenges, take one step forward.”
2. The privilege exercise may induce harm/trauma
For anyone who has experienced the privilege walk in any shape or form, you may have felt like your trauma was on display. This goes for both sides: the person with perceived privilege and the one perceived as lacking privilege.
I don’t know what the experience feels like for a person who identifies with many aspects of the dominant culture, but I’m sure it's not a good feeling. These individuals also need support when processing discomfort, difficult emotions and shame to help them channel these emotions towards developing advocacy skills to support EDI work within their sphere of influence.
My suggestion is that anyone who chooses to use this activity may want to consider a trauma-informed approach and ensure that there is access to professional mental health support on standby for people who may want to use it.
3. The privilege exercise may shame people with perceived privilege
This exercise may cause people with perceived privilege to feel guilty and ashamed. If these feelings are not channeled properly, they can become unhelpful or harmful. Meg Bolger, a well-known facilitator, said it best in her Medium article:
“Not all moments that are powerful are helpful or good. The memory of doing that privilege walk isn’t tied to a profound awakening or a call to action to use my privilege, it’s tied to shame…I’m wrong for this, people are going to judge me for this, they are going to think that I’m bad…For those of us with (a lot of) privilege it can often feel like this shame-riddled experience.”– Meg Bolger
Carried out ineffectively, the exercise can paralyze the people whom it is designed to “awaken” to take action. Instead of shaming people, the activity should be constructed in a way that empowers people by exposing them to individual and systemic inequities in ways that “they get it” and are able to choose to take action towards using their privilege for good.
A former white female manager used her position of privilege to bolster my visibility in a workplace where I had gone unnoticed for years. She explicitly sponsored me, gave me opportunities to be in rooms with people of influence, co-facilitated high-impact EDI trainings with me and demonstrated how to ask good questions and close deals. She debriefed with me, provided support and feedback and pushed me out of my comfort zone to take on high-impact and high-visibility assignments that I would not have volunteered for.
My confidence and competence increased through her championship. This is an example of what privilege in action looks like when it is used for good.
Beyond the privilege walk
Here are a few considerations for exploring systemic issues and solutions in more comprehensive ways beyond exercises like the privilege walk:
- Leverage the expertise of facilitators who may be able to apply a trauma-informed approach to framing activities and debriefing about individual experiences with it.
- Have a mental health professional on hand to help people process unsettling emotions that may come up. Participants can choose whether to access that professional.
- Try to administer such activities with people who have an established relationship with one another. Activities such as the privilege walk can be an opportunity for building understanding, enrich compassion and a deeper appreciation for teams when effectively positioned.
- Centre the unique ways members of equity-deserving groups have their own forms of power and coin statements that uplift communities. For example, instead of the statement “If the primary language(s) spoken in your household growing up was not English and/or French, take one step back” reframe the statement as “Step forward if you speak a second language”.
- Reframe the activity to highlight our common experiences/challenges and how systems of power can negatively impact all of us instead of creating an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ dynamic.
This Dissent Magazine article highlights more thought-starters.
On the one hand, I have achieved a fair amount of privilege over time which offers me many choices to overcome systemic barriers. On the other hand, I’m acutely aware of areas where I experience persistent marginalization. The privilege exercise opened my eyes to both aspects. But if I could go back to that (lack of) privilege walk, I would opt out to spare myself the shame.
If you want to use the privilege exercise in your workplace, classroom or other spaces, be conscientious about how you administer it. Find more information and contact CICan’s EDI Knowledge Mobilization and Dissemination Centre at Sheridan for guidance on improving Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in your workplace.
Bolger, M. (2018, February 16). Why I don't facilitate privilege walks anymore and what I do instead. Medium. https://medium.com/@MegB/why-i-dont-won-t-facilitate-privilege-walks-anymore-and-what-i-do-instead-380c95490e10
Morton, B. (2022, Summer). Against the Privilege Walk. Dissent Magazine. https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/against-the-privilege-walk
Torres, C. (2015, July 9). Why “The Privilege Line” Is A Frustratingly Unfinished Exercise. https://christinatorres.org/2015/07/09/why-the-privilege-line-is-a-frustratingly-unfinished-exercise/
This article was developed as part of CICan’s 50 – 30 Challenge Ecosystem partnership with ISED. Interested in learning more? We encourage you to visit our website for resources, personalized one-on-one support and training to support your organization on their EDI journey. Keep up to date by signing up for our mailing list.