The Privilege Walk—and, Talk

An excerpt from my thesis

For clarification, I ask Sarah, “You have community here on campus?” I do not want to assume she is part of the Native community centre on campus.

“Ya, I have community.”

“What difference does it make?”

“It’s huge!”

“Do they know you come from poverty?”

“Um, I think that I just assume that all First Nations people come from poverty,” she says with factual numbness.

“Do you guys have the conversation?”

“No. We joke about it. Sometimes, very casually it will get brought up…,” Sarah says with wonder.

I did not grow up with much humour. I am curious about humour and how it shapes lives in poverty. I ask Sarah, “In a satirical way?”

“Ya, in a joking way. We don’t really—Native people have a really profound sense of humour and we’re extremely resilient, so, it’s not that we would naturally talk about our past in a way like that. But!—Oh, I told you we did that privilege walk[1] [in a class]! That was an experience where there were questions related to poverty. We [Natives] all took steps back for the most part.” After reading her narrative account, Sarah told me that the Native students could not take any more steps back; their backs were pushed up against the wall. The non-Indigenous students could not see who was behind them. One of her Native university friends started to cry. It was a painful—highly visible—experience.

As a White person, I would not have to take as many steps back as Sarah. I would be standing in front of her. My fingertips are quivering; the tears sitting on my eyelashes are blurring my vision. I cannot bite my nails to ease the burn in my heart; my nails are burning from being ravaged. Sarah, who has so graciously been a part of this project, sharing her experiences and wonders, would be standing behind me. If we did this type of privilege walk together, Sarah and I would no longer be coming alongside one another; I would have to leave her behind. I wonder, would I have looked behind to see who whose back was up against the wall? Would I have even thought that any student would have to walk that far back? I wonder, if the wall literally had not been there, how more steps back would the Native students have had to take on this privilege walk? Sarah brings forth many wonders about early education experiences I have experienced—and, have learned through others. Being forcibly—and publicly—separated from friends because institutional policies grouped students into this and that category.

I share with Sarah: “I was walking back from my summer job on campus and some group was doing that privilege walk. I couldn’t believe it. ‘No way! I thought.’ You just mentioned it when we first met and wow. It was interesting to see the placement of bodies and the number of bodies at certain places. It was deeply uncomfortable for me to see because I know where I would have been positioned. I don’t know if I could have publicly done it. I had this thought that I would have to be careful in the conversations and activities I ask others to engage in, because I would be uncomfortable to be forced into doing it.”

Sarah says, “It is—painful.”

I confess to Sarah: “To make myself publicly exposed about where I come from.… I would have been horrified for people to publicly know where I come from.”

Sarah explores this thought. “I think it’s different. I think that if I had been in a class where it was consisting of mostly Caucasian people, I probably would have felt very uncomfortable. But because I was in a community of Indigenous people, we were there together in solidarity, so it was different, right.”

Sarah brings up emerging wonders about privilege on the higher education landscape. I am drawn to an early experience as a master’s student. I was an observer in an undergraduate class. The professor used a form of the privilege walk while students remained seated. Students rated themselves on an inequality scale based on an extensive list of questions. After this, students were asked, voluntarily, to come up to the white board and mark on a line where they were located: the highest level of privilege to the lowest level of privilege. Many students eagerly rushed up to the board to put their mark on the social class line. In a diverse (although white dominated) class of around seventy-five students, not a single student walked up to the board and put a tick further down the line than lower-middle class. I wonder how the “statistics” would have looked if this exercise had been conducted anonymously. Many students chose not to go up to the board and reveal their position on the social class line.

Marilyn, a participant from my exploratory research project, told me that she did the privilege walk online for a class. She was extremely distressed. She told me, “I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know I was that low.”

(From my field notes, August 14, 2016)


I say, “Okay. Interesting. Cause the group I saw, lots of Whites. Lots of international students—maybe. I know my struggle in White versus White and being silenced by all other …” I still struggle to turn down the volume on the white settler noise.

Many connotations of the privilege walk march through my mind. I wonder how poverty-class students experience these tensions. I wonder if academic lessons, such as the privilege walk, fracture and fragment, rather than illuminate shared experiences to build new understandings and shift ways of being—and, seeing. I wonder about how poverty-class students experience these academic lessons.

I have no community with other poverty-class students on campus. It feels too big a stretch for me to travel to Sarah’s world. I am a White body in a sea of disconnected White bodies—on and off campus. I am still learning what community is in loving ways—and, what it feels like to be included and valued—just because of whom I am rather than what serviceable purpose I serve. Sarah leaves me with many wonders about community and how it shapes poverty-class undergraduate students’ experiences.

(From my field notes, October 12, 2016)

[1] A privilege walk is designed to be an educational exercise to make students aware of their own positions of privilege in relation to those around them. This can take a myriad of different forms. For example, there are online exercises where a student answers a series of questions about their upbringing (e.g., Did your family ever go without electricity? Did you have a cell phone growing up?) and each question gets a score. After all the questions are answered, the student receives a score. This score places the student on a social class scale of, for example, upper- to-underclass. In Sarah’s example, each question posed by the professor, students either took a step forward or backwards. At the end of the exercise, the closer a student is to the front, the greater their position of privilege.

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