Privilege Walks Don’t Do What We Say They Do — Why We Need New Talking Points
“Mirror in the sky, what is love?
Can the child within my heart, rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tide, can I handle the seasons of my life?
Well I’ve been afraid of changing because I built my life around you.
But time makes you bolder, even children get older, and I’m getting older too.”
Lyrics from Landslide, by Fleetwood Mac
Over the weekend I was on a retreat with about a hundred middle school students reflecting on community. The weekend was broken up into self-reflection, small group discussion, activities and large group forums. The weekend followed a schedule and a curriculum, the sequence one with history and longevity. From a playbook that holds meaning, connectivity, creativity and prayerfulness.
One of the activity slots focused on team building exercises that surface group dynamics at play. Within that container, debrief is the key, as that is the time where you practice applying what comes out of a game to yourself, and you leave time to listen to how other people experienced and observed the same activity. One of the games used a survival scenario, making the group’s success or failure dependent on everyone completing a task. As the instructions were shared, select challenges were given secretly to each group member, for the purpose of making the task more difficult, and for the purpose of requiring interdependence among the group members. My challenge was that throughout this exercise I would not be able to see, which was made true practically by tying a bandana over my eyes.
The nature of the game involved getting our entire team out of a room, down a flight of stairs, into a second room on that lower floor, and through three different obstacle courses either by going over or under them without touching any of the objects. If an object was touched, everyone would have to start over from the beginning of the challenge. Mind you, this is all information I have in hindsight, not that I knew in advance of having my eyes covered. To complete this exercise personally, I would have to allow other group members touch and manipulate my body through each part of this exercise, assuming the risk that consent and explanation may or may not be offered. Forgetting for a moment that this is a problematic setup for many reasons, it is especially stressful as someone with complex PTSD, and secondly stressful within a community where that disclosure has not yet been made. We were the third small group within our activity to complete this exercise, everyone accepting the premise and moving through the objectives, seemingly without resistance or conditions.
I learned later that the person that had offered to lead me through this exercise was not able to talk during the activity, a learning that did not make the lack of narration throughout the exercise less upsetting. With tears welling as I sat down for the facilitated debrief, I was able to take the time to collect myself after a trigger that I was not expecting, declining to process out loud immediately. As I reflected with more composure later on, I was struck most by two variables. First, that only one person, adult or youth, had acknowledged that I seemed uncomfortable, and second, that it hadn’t occurred to anyone who planned or participated in this exercise that discomfort and unsafety might be present.
It was the classic setup of an exercise that someone would have to excuse themselves from to get out of, and would either passively or consciously be disclosing something about themselves as a result. It was also the larger setup of creating an individual(s) unsafety for a larger teachable moment, and assuming that the intended lesson is the one the activity provides and provides consistently. In this case, that lesson has to do with privilege, and the responsibility of those with privilege to offer support to those who are in need. The word privilege was never actually used, but the currency of ability was.
I had three separate thoughts as I felt myself become triggered.
The first was from a recent experience of crying unexpectedly in front of my two-year-old niece. Without pausing she said to me in a voice above a whisper, “take a breath Aunt Amanda, just try to take a breath.” This isn’t a commentary on developmental readiness to express empathy or care for someone’s emotions, what it is instead is a reflection of what skills someone has seen modeled.
The second thought was of hearing silence in response to my requests for information about what was happening and what would happen. Feeling overcome by the sense that more than not advocating for myself, my needs weren’t registering as present by my fellow group members, and the situation was continuing with that knowledge known by me even if not sections or the whole of the group.
That rang especially clear when half way through the game the moderator asked each person to check in with someone and rank on a scale of one to ten how stressed they felt, and no one checked in with me.
She called on me specifically as she pointed this out to the group and I said only, “I need this to be over.” Right after that as we continued through a member in a hurry touched the objects in the obstacle, causing us to start again.
My third thought was how important it felt to not become openly upset during the game; how much I resisted the role of explaining what was problematic during a situation that was already occurring. Similarly, how that resistance hadn’t lifted during the debrief time, which felt like the situation continuing and contributing to my unrelieved trigger. Strengthened by the aloofness I was observing.
This exercise was specifically designed with the stated goal of highlighting the importance of support as a skill set and community practice, believed to demonstrate how to care for those whose needs are different than ours. Hear “whose need is greater than ours”, though here again stated less directly.
I go through the steps of highlighting this example because I think it reveals a timely blind spot, and one that mirrors for me lost opportunities to reframe the context created to bring awareness to privilege, at a time where the failure to do reflects complicity in white supremacy and hate violence.
In a recent past professional life, I was entrusted with preparing community-based advocates to provide crisis support to survivors of sexual violence. I was also entrusted with equipping educators to create trauma informed, consent based settings for learning with multiage audiences of children, youth and adults. Early in that role, I was also tasked with reimagining how we introduce a framework of accountability, which required a new piloted training design. The opportunity present in that task was the layering of objectives that diffused a lot of resistance from participants, and added a concreteness for skill development, as well as privilege and the surrounding power dynamics present in these roles.
In this setting, advocate privilege and adult privilege were the only things participants all had in common. That meant that in any interaction, there was a power imbalance that favored them within their role, enabling gate keeping, and making them susceptible to advantaging their biases and perceptions of the people they were supporting and making decisions with.
What this allowed was a framework shift. Not one where we conjectured about the experience of being disadvantaged, but where we articulated what enables marginalization. Not one where we called the advocates’ point of view objective, but where we practiced tracking and naming biases. Not one where discretion was encouraged, but one where transparency of thinking was demonstrated. Where how you made a decision was as important as what was decided, and consent was a practical concept more than an aspirational one. Where accountability was oriented toward enabling consent within a power imbalance that wouldn’t otherwise provide consent mutually.
Any tool for examining privilege that leaves a participant with more rigid biases has failed those not privileged by that bias. Any exercise that doesn’t connect privilege to power is using a definition for privilege steeped in white supremacy. One that still appeals to benevolence as an ingredient for equity, where the underlying assumptions aren’t stated or challenged directly, if at all. One that leaves participants ill equipped to challenge or name their own biases or perceptions of those who are marginalized by their points of reference. One that makes me think the solution is my own generosity.
During this weekend’s retreat, news of the terrorist attacks on two Christchurch mosques in New Zealand. The youngest victim killed was a three year old named Mucad Ibrahim. In the words of Dr. Maha Hilal in an article in Think Progress, ‘“The most dishonest thing would be to say that I am shocked. I’m simply not.” These were the words of a Muslim Australian TV anchor in response to the shooting at two mosques in New Zealand on Friday, which left at least 49 Muslims dead and dozens more seriously injured. The alleged gunman, 28-year-old white supremacist Brenton Tarrant, left behind a manifesto that not only cited Trump, but also spoke of immigrants as invaders in the midst of a “white genocide.” Among the violently anti-immigrant, Islamophobic sections that Tarrant wrote in his manifesto, one stands out. Muslims, he wrote, “are the most despised group of invaders in the West, attacking them receives the greatest level of support.” While Muslims across the world struggle to make sense of this violence, it is becoming abundantly clear that Muslims are neither safe from large swaths of society nor the state.”
It is impossible to discuss privilege with intellectual honesty if we are not linking privilege to power dynamics, and violence to its underlying ideological glue. To equip anyone with a framework of accountability is to grapple with this fact, and its erasure in our consciousness. To equip anyone for relationships of support means that our skill building has to address power imbalances, and the normalizing that makes us believe they are there accidentally. Gone are the days where charity could be said in seriousness as a solution to widening divide in safety. Gone are the moments where are tools can stay in the embrace of undisposed myths we pass down. Gone are the times where we can afford to perpetuate problematic teachings.
The opportunity is in embracing our own accountability. As caregivers. As survivors. As individuals in positions of gate keeping. As story tellers. As people of faith. As educators. Our backbones need to strengthen, and our modeling of new skills needs to transcend our shortcomings. We need more two-year-olds who can remind us boldly, “to take a breath”, who can receive tears and know how to provide authentic support and listening. We need to imagine that what we need can be taught, learned, internalized, and grown.