Every human is different. From our physical looks, to IQ, and cultural upbringing. Everyone is born with different tools to get them through life, but some are born with better tools than others. We call this term privilege.
Privilege is a special right, advantage, or immunity granted only to a specific person or group of people. A great metaphor for this is a swimming race in the ocean. between a dolphin, a human, and a dog. Obviously, the dolphin would win. Through no fault of his own, he was created with fins, a tail, a blowhole, and the ability to stay under water for long periods of time without having to come up for air. While a dog may be able to run as fast as 19 miles per hour on land, and Michael Phelps can swim at an incredible 6 miles an hour, they are both no competition for a dolphin who swims at 20 miles an hour. Those were the tools a dolphin was created with and in the world of water it translates into a privilege, others don’t have. The same happens with human privilege. In America whites alone account for over seventy-six percent of the population (Commerce, 2017). Size alone gives white American’s privileges that may even seem unnoticeable. White people got to this country first and still account for the majority of power and decision making. As a white, there are definitely privileges that I am granted based on my color. They are not always so noticeable and sometimes it takes hearing about an average day happening in my life turning into a racial incident for a colored person. I was reading a news article written by an ex-football player who was a rare black growing up in a white neighborhood. When he would walk into a gas station late at night, the manager on duty would monitor his every move from across the store with 911 on speed-dial as though expecting to have this black youth pull a gun on him. Walking into a gas station at midnight, I never had to worry about someone calling the cops on me because I look suspicious. I am white, so it is a given that I am innocent. Little things like this happen daily and are just a small part of my white privilege that sometimes I’m not even aware of.
With privilege we also have our set of ideologies- a system of ideas and ideals that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy. In America, Protestantism is a popular religious ideology relying on salvation, hard work, and being religious (Scott, 2012). Ideologies can also shape international relations. An example of this is Middle Eastern countries’ relations with the United States in particular. Ideological beliefs are likely to have profound effects on each countries perceptions of international threats. These threat perceptions, in turn, will shape their core security policies, including choices of allies and enemies and efforts to spread their ideological principles abroad as a key means of advancing their interests (Haas, 2012).
Another influence in the way we perceive the world is through stereotypes. Stereotypes are a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a type of person or thing. An example of this is thinking that all blacks are athletic. Because many athletes are black people assume that if someone is black they must enjoy and excel at sports. Without even noticing, I have found myself stereotyping people. Once, when I was working in a physical therapy office, Jayden a nine years old black kid came in for his therapy. Making small talk to keep him entertained, I asked what he wanted to be when he’s older and started listing some options. Football player? No. Basketball? No. Baseball? Uh-uh. And on the list went of sports he did not want to play. After a few minutes of getting nowhere with those questions I said, “so what do you want to be?” To be honest, I was a little shocked when he answered, “a scientist.” It never even occurred to me to think of listing a doctor, lawyer, or scientist for options as there aren’t too many blacks found in those positions. Without realizing it, I was stereotyping what type of job Jayden would want based on his color.
Race and Power
Race and power are two words that often come together. People of the dominant race usually hold the most power. Race, is a group of people that share certain distinctive physical characteristics, such as facial structure or skin color. Having prejudice towards one group can lead to racism, which can potentially lead to inequality among different groups of people. The construct of race was legitimized through laws. In 1924, Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act which established the one drop rule which defined a person as black if he or she had any African ancestry—even “one drop” of blood from an African ancestor. Laws continued to identify people by race into the late 20th century as the dominant group of people, whites, made the laws for identifying a person’s race in order to keep those in the subordinate group in a lower position (Scott, 2012).
However, even among people of the same race there are different ethnicities that are treated differently. In the 19th century, millions of Irish fled to the United States to escape oppression and famine hoping for a better life, but life in America proved to be difficult. Before the mid-19th century, the United States was a primarily Protestant country, and many white Protestants were intolerant of religious, racial, and cultural differences. When the Irish arrived, this dominant group showed discrimination. Initially, the Irish were not considered white because of their religious and cultural differences, so they were placed at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. In reality, they were just a different ethnicity. Many Irish went against the ideology of their homeland and supported the Democratic Party and slavery seeing this as an opportunity to advance their social standing and gain acceptance. Today, the Irish have fully assimilated into mainstream American culture to the point that they now only have a symbolic ethnicity. Thus, race is an idea that is socially constructed and evolves over time (Scott, 2012). Power also plays a role in society. It gives an individual the ability to include, exclude, and control. Status and power influence discrimination. Status-based power comes from one’s place in the social hierarchy of race or gender, and position-based power comes from one’s position within the hierarchy of one’s job or duties. Both kinds of power play an important role in discrimination, particularly in who discriminates and how they do so.
The privilege walk is an eye-opening experiment that. The purpose of the walk is to expose the lifelong impact of privileges and normality that we were either born into or born without. The exercise helps identify all the factors that were in place before we began making our own choices in life, and factors that widen gaps for opportunities. This experiment relates to the concept of privilege and race because after the experiment is over everyone gets to see where they end up and realize that there were so many privileges they do or don’t have based on what they were born into. They also get to see what they actually accomplished on their own. Privileges are usually based on race, culture, and where in society their parents ranked which ultimately affects their life position. This experiment is designed to test the distance between those who have privilege and those who don’t. It also allows for reflection on one’s life and achievements and whether they were earned or born into. One of the final goals of the exercise to is gain awareness, and responsibility, about how we use our privilege, even though no one creates the circumstances of their birth.
In my experiment, I have rounded up nine neighbors of mine and myself with a non-biased facilitator reading the questions. The questions I have selected cover a wide range of topics from birth privilege to learning experience. Living in America, also known as the melting pot, my hometown of Brooklyn, New York is quite diverse. Among ten of my neighbors there are two Muslims, two Jews-one of which is a convert, two African-Americans, one Asian, one Latino, one Russian, and myself. With that said, here is the list of twenty-five questions I asked based on all different factors in life:
1. If your ancestors were forced to come to the U.S., not by choice, take one step back.
2. If your parents did not grow up in the U.S., take one step back.
3. If your primary ethnic identity is American, take one step forward.
4. If the primary language spoken in your home is English, take a step forward.
5. If you’ve ever tried to change your appearance, mannerisms or behavior to avoid being judged or ridiculed, take one step back.
6. If you’ve ever had to skip a meal or were hungry because there was not enough money to buy food while you were growing up, take one step back.
7. If one of your parents was unemployed or laid off, not by choice, take one step back.
8. If your parents were white-collar professionals — doctors, lawyers, etc. — take one step forward.
9. If there were people of a different race or class working in your household as servants, gardeners, etc., while you were growing up, take one step forward.
10. If your family owned the house where you grew up or land of any description, take one step forward.
11. If you were raised in a two-parent household, take one step forward.
12. If you ever had to accept clothes from charity organizations take a step back.
13. If you had to rely primarily on public transportation, take one step back.
14. If you were raised in an area where there was prostitution, drug activity or regular violence, take one step back.
15. If you lived in an area where you were able to play safely and unsupervised outside, take one step forward.
16. If you saw members of your race, class, ethnic group, or gender portrayed on television in degrading roles, take one step back.
17. If you studied the culture of your ancestors in elementary school, take one step forward.
18. If you attended private school or summer camp, take one step forward.
19. If you were told that you were beautiful, smart and capable by your parents, take one step forward.
20. If you were encouraged to attend college by your parents, take one step forward.
21. If you had access to an inspiring natural area, take one step forward.
22.If you were paid less, treated unfairly or denied employment because of race, class, ethnicity, or gender take one step back.
23. If you were ever offered a good job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.
24. If you were ever afraid of, or the victim of, violence because of your race, class, ethnicity, gender, or ability, take one step back.
25. If you were ever uncomfortable about a joke related to your race, class, ethnicity, gender, or ability, but felt unsafe to confront the situation, take one step back (Brown, 2013).
At the end of this experiment I was a little surprised. Some of the results weren’t that far off from what I expected but most were a little more eye opening. When I saw my neighbor, who is a Jewish convert I thought he’d end up somewhere near me but turns out he was more than a few spaces behind. He said that after converting he had to leave his family of origin and then was unfortunately never accepted by both sides. Jews kept their distance from him as he was a little different looking and his family never accepted the new man he became and refused to follow him. Finding work in a Jewish place was hard as his Hebrew and understanding of the Jewish culture wasn’t the same as someone from birth. But in the non-Jewish world they weren’t ready to accept a business man with a fully-grown beard into their prestigious Manhattan firm no matter how many times he explained he had loads of experience in business. Next, I spotted my Russian neighbor Clara who lives in a mansion in the leading spot. I could not believe it. She told everyone how growing up in America was practically like growing up in Russia. Her whole neighborhood spoke Russian, the stores were in Russian, and the schools as well. She got all the advantages of American society but didn’t face any discrimination as everyone was just like her.
She had a very privileged life. Speaking to my Asian neighbor who is a doctor I thought she had to overcome a lot to become one. But even though her parents are both immigrants, they worked hard and provided her with a college education that together with her smart brain she excelled in life. And that is why she ended up standing right next to me even though she comes from a family of immigrants. I already knew I had somethings going for me, but this experiment showed me how lucky I really am. Sure I have heard anti-Semitic shouts thrown my way, but nothing has really affected my personal life. While financially I have always thought of myself as middle class- not enough to roll in the dough but making too much money for my college to be paid for by the government and get benefits, I am definitely upper class when it comes to privileges. I have a stable home and am not worried about where my next meal will come from. The Jewish mother of eight who lives across the street from me was also right behind me. This was new to me because I know they are struggling financially yet they still ended up right near me. This showed me that privilege was not necessarily related to income and more about how someone’s home life is and life experience. Interestingly, one of my Muslim neighbors was right behind me.
He discussed how when he first came to America he had to change his clothes and mannerisms to be accepted. He realized that to succeed in life he had to conform to American society. And that is how he ended up with a nice, middle class family. My other Muslim neighbor however, ended up way more in the back as she spoke about the racism she experienced daily. She discussed how after September 11th she couldn’t go anywhere in NYC without being called a terrorist and even had her house vandalized at one point. The terrorist stereo-type followed her around in life as she constantly wore a hijab and honestly did look quite scary. She was not nearly as successful in America as the other Muslim as she did not conform to American society and faced constant racism for it. My Latino neighbor, standing in the back end revealed that even though there were lots of nationalities in his public school for some reason the Latino’s were the most segregated. Upon fact-checking this info I was surprised to find that the most segregated group by race, income, and language are Latino students, with more than seventy-five percent attending predominantly non-white schools (Scott, 2012).
In the very back was my big black neighbor Neil, and in a warped way I sometimes found myself jealous of him at low times. I would watch enviously as a child as he bought himself a huge burger stuffed with pickles and tomatoes and then easily swiped his EBT card and went back home to kick up his feet in front of the TV with a bottle of coke. And I would stand there counting my little pennies to buy my candy treat of the week for twenty-five cents. Neil didn’t have to worry about anyone picking a fight with him due to his size and neither did his mother as he was so big surely no one would mess with him. I on the other hand, would hurry down the block on my bike fearful of strangers starting up with me. It was no wonder I was jealous! After this experiment though my perspective changed. Neil spoke about the difficulties he faced growing up in the hood, and the violence he dealt with every day. He was forever scarred watching his father die in a gang fight and never had the money to go to college. With little career options to choose from Neil chose to enroll in the army. But one year into his service he was injured in an attack and forced to fly back home and spend his life disabled and unemployed. He wasn’t privileged after all and luckily the government was there to help him out a little. But even with that help he ended up one of the last people in the line next to his mother.
From this experiment I saw that not everything is as it seems. Neighbors that I thought had it easy had to work hard for what they had and others who I thought would’ve had it harder actually didn’t have to do much to get where they are. It also shows that even if someone is not monetarily rich there are lots of other ways they are. I am rich in the way that I have a complete, whole family, with parents that are both employed and grew up in a stable, safe environment. It’s things like this that are taken for granted but should not be. With these natural privileges that I am born with I have lots of opportunities in front of me. Growing up everyone in my life such as family, friends, and classmates always heard the word college floating around. It was a given that if I chose to go to college of course I’d be able to. It was also encouraged, as both my parents have college degrees. But not everyone is that lucky. Some people grow up being told college is a waste of four years and it would never be affordable. And these are the people who end up in the back of the line and lack privilege. So, ask yourself, did I earn my success in life or was I born into it?
- Brown, A. M. (2013). Take the Privilege Walk. The Indypendent. https://indypendent.org/2013/08/take-the-privilege-walk/
- Commerce, U. D. (2017). Quick Facts United States. United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045217
- Haas, M. L. (2012). The Clash of Ideologies: Middle Eastern Politics and American Security. Oxford University Press.
- Scott, M. (2012). Think Race and Ethnicity. Pearson.