What is privilege? And who has it?
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wanted to find out. And in the process, find out how a diverse group of Atlanta residents understood their own privilege.
We gathered a group of 11 men and women – of different racial, economic and educational status - to participate in an exercise called the Privilege Walk.
The goal of the exercise, which has been replicated by groups and organizations all over the nation, was to help define privilege and show how it can and has affected lives in ways they are often unaware of.
Sharmen May Gowens, the CEO of the YWCA of Greater Atlanta, quietly observed the AJC exercise.
Several week’s earlier, at the YWCA’s “Conversations” luncheon, an annual forum on race and gender, she conducted her own privilege walk with volunteers from the audience. She called it one of the organization’s most effective tools to use to explore conversations on race and gender.
“People walked away from there feeling like their eyes were really opened. Some people said to me, ‘I didn’t realize how privileged I was. Others said, ‘I thought I was all that and found out I was a regular person,” Gowens said. “It changed how people perceived themselves and others and many people from the audience said was eye-opening.”
We asked questions like:
- If your family ever had to move because they could not afford the rent, take a step back.
- If you were taken to art galleries or plays by your parents, take a step forward.
- If you were raised in a single parent household, take a step back.
- If there were more than 50 books in your house when you grew up, take a step forward.
- If your ancestors were forced to come to the United States, take one step back.
- If you ever inherited money or property, take one step forward.
Participants started out in the back of the room together, holding hands. As they moved forward and back, they were eventually forced to physically separate from each other.
“When you look at where the city of Atlanta has come from, the growth has been astronomical,” said Lisa Fenn, a 54-year-old black woman, who works as an executive coach and education consultant. “But at the same time, we are an inequitable city. If you look at all the growth that is happening around us, it makes you wonder how and why is this happening. Who is being included and who is not being included.”
Some of the results were surprising – even to those who participated.
But some of the results were predictable.
“I was very surprised with where I ended up,” said Laura Espinoza, a Hispanic, account executive. “To me I thought I was somewhat successful, having overcome a lot of adversity. In my mind, I’m thinking, I’ve accomplished a lot. Then we did this, and I realized that I was still in the back. I was shocked.”
In the above video you will see the participants answer the 31 questions about privilege by either stepping forward or backwards. You’ll also hear from them about what they thought of the experience and what they learned from participating in the walk.
After the exercise, Doris Shannon, who has an MBA and runs a motivational coaching company, stood silent in her thoughts.
“I guess I was a little shocked about where I ended up, because I was at the very back,” said Shannon, who is black. “I knew I would be near the back, I just didn’t think I would be the last person.”
Some participants in this privilege walk were Cox employees.
About the Re: Race project
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution launched Re: Race, a new body of coverage on how we experience race and ethnicity in Georgia.
Through this effort we hope to provide a safe place for a community conversation about the issues we encounter every day.
Read past coverage here.
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