The day I checked my privilege

I took this class on multicultural conflict resolution — one of the best classes I ever took.
Midway through the year, we did this exercise where we all lined up side-by-side in the middle of the classroom.

It was an exercise to teach us about privilege.

“Take a step forward if you have always had enough to eat.”

I stepped forward.

I looked around. Most of us had moved forward. Two or three people stayed in one place.

“Take a step backward if you have a learning disability.”

I looked around. Two people stepped back, and one of the guys who hadn’t stepped forward in the first place was now a pace behind.

“Take a step back if you are not Christian.”

I took a step back. So did a third of the class — the two students from Iran, the two Israelis, a few other Jews, another Muslim guy,the class Druid…

“Take a step forward if your first instinct when you see a police officer is to trust them, and take a step backward if your first instinct when you see a police officer is to be afraid.”

I stepped forward.

I looked around.

Almost every single White and Asian person in the room stepped forward.

And every single Black and Latino person stepped back.

And this was the first time I really faced it – the fact that I’m lucky to see a cop with a gun and immediately think “oh, that’s Officer Friendly, and he’ll protect me.”

And I looked around at my friends who had taken a step back – the Econ major, the computer science guy, the woman who wanted to be a teacher, all from different parts of California, some rich, some poor – and they were afraid of the very people I trust.

There were lots more criteria — maybe 50, maybe more. Some of the ones I remember included if you came from a single parent household, a steps back. If you had an invisible illness, a step back, if you didn’t HAVE to work in high school, a step forward. If you were gay or bisexual, a step back.

By the end of the exercise, we were all in different places. Even though we started out on that exact same line, a few were in front, some were in the middle, and a bunch were in the back — The person at the front was a white guy. Had a Xmas tree. And he was embarrassed.

“I don’t think I should be here,” he said. “My family isn’t rich.”

I was somewhere in the front-middle. White skinned, yes. But a woman, and Jewish, and some other stuff held me back.

And I realised that day we experience the world differently.

In some ways I am privileged. In some ways I am not.

And I’ll tell you the truth – it was hard taking those steps forward. It was hard owning my own privilege.

But here’s what I learned: We each come from a different world, and each of our worlds is based on so many things — some within our control, and some… not.

And the only way to get that we don’t all experience the same reality is to confront it head on, which can be painful. I was lucky I got to do that in a classroom with Edith Ng, a terrific guide and teacher who helped explain it to us and make it safe for us to face it without turning on each other.

And I think that’s what many of us are doing right now. We are confronting this issue of privilege for the first time – it’s scary and it’s uncomfortable, and it SUCKS to face it.

And I think that’s why it’s gotten so toxic between us.

We are reeling.

So my hope for all of us – in each of our own worlds on uneven playing field we share – is that this conversation will be a new starting point. But we won’t *just* talk and listen – we’ll work together as comrades to make it fair. We don’t start out in the same place. We just don’t. And those of us further ahead have a responsibility to make things equal for everyone.

About the Author
Sarah Tuttle-Singer, Times of Israel's New Media editor, lives in Israel with her two kids in a village next to rolling fields. Sarah likes taking pictures, climbing roofs, and talking to strangers. She is the author of the book Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered. Sarah is a work in progress.
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