Conceptions of privilege are deeply flawed

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This week, I had to participate in an activity I call the “Buzzfeed Privilege Walk.” A common class activity, the walk involves walking either forward or backward based on responses to certain prompts. For example, one of the sentences given was: “If you feel comfortable walking home alone at night, take a step forward.” Then, everyone would move or not, and the next question would commence. At the end, there was a small discussion about the activity, people’s placements, and the prompts given.

This was not my first time doing this activity. I had done the same in high school, and I completed a similar activity for my first-semester UConn class. I am no stranger to this approach to the subject of privilege. With these experiences, I think I have enough perspective to concretely say that I hate it.

Given my race, sex and experience, leaving my thoughts at that would be in bad taste. To be clear, I do not deny the existence of privilege in all its forms. In fact, I think a lot of people do not consider the implications of the concept enough. I just think that activities like this are unhelpful to the actual discussion of privilege. In fact, I would argue that it backfires on its intent.

The discussion following this specific instance of the Buzzfeed Privilege Walk progressed the same as all the others. The people in the front speak about how they admit their privilege and had no idea the people behind them had to go through so much. The people in the back talk about how surprised they were to find how unprivileged they were. Everyone pats themselves on the back for being so progressive and moves on.

However, the activity and following conversation showcase the underlying problem: the Buzzfeed Privilege Walk reduces people to their identities. The specific questions usually try to skate around this, but it is obvious when one tries to push certain groups forward or backward on the line. In a way, it tries to stratify people by their identities to showcase privilege.  

This creates an air of judgment. People notice when the actions of others defy their expectations. Every time I have done the Buzzfeed Privilege Walk, this subject has come up among the participants. It can be dismissed as harmless, but it is pervasive and unavoidable.

Judgment based solely on identity. Why does that sound familiar? Well, it’s because the Buzzfeed Privilege walk falls into the same trap of ignorance that stereotypes do. The problem with stereotyping is that it does not take into account individual experiences and instead lumps everyone of a group into a box. The Buzzfeed Privilege Walk does the same thing. This makes those who either have or have not experienced the things meant for their identities feel awkward, as if they are being pigeonholed. Moreover, it makes those outside of the identity believe that these statements are true of certain groups across the board, only furthering misconceptions.

The purpose of talking about privilege is ultimately to make the world more equitable. People with privilege should be attempting to harness this privilege to lift up those without and dismantle systems that breed inequality. The hard part of approaching this topic is that specific privileges or disadvantages do not affect all people within a group. Not all immigrants feel isolated from their community, and not all those who have travelled are affluent.

So, privilege is inherently not a personal experience, nor is it something that can be compared from one person to another. The Buzzfeed Privilege Walk, and indeed much of discourse on privilege, still manages to get both of these points wrong.


Peter Fenteany is a weekly columnist  for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at peter.fenteany@uconn.edu.  

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