If there was a workplace exercise that increased inclusivity and employee retention, but it risked dredging up guilt and shame, would you go ahead with it?
On Australia Day two years ago, Buzzfeed invited nine people to step into the spotlight and perform a privilege walk – an exercise that exposes to its participants the different social positions each occupies. In the video of the experience, the group are asked to stand in a line and hold hands. Depending on their response to certain statements made by the facilitator each individual either steps forward, steps backwards, or stays where they are.
The statements are along the lines of:
- If your parents had to work more than one job to support your family, take one step back
- If you can show romantic affection for your romantic partner in public without fear of ridicule or violence, take one step forward
- If people have blamed your mistakes on your gender or ethnicity take one step back
It’s not long before people struggle to hold hands, as some members of the group steam ahead while others remain behind. The moment they are forced to let go is powerful – a dramatisation of the very different struggles seemingly equal people face.
The effect that drama has on participants is the purpose of privilege walks. Initially inspired by the report White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Dr Peggy McIntosh, they have been around for years. In fact, some organisations use them as part of their diversity and inclusion programs.
Walking the line
Co-directors of cultural awareness training organisation Evolve Communities, Munya Andrews and Carla Rogers, decided to incorporate McIntosh’s research into their take on privilege walks. Targeting workplaces, their aim is to show the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians while creating more inclusivity and better employee retention.
“[The privilege walk] is not intended to belittle, ridicule or make anyone feel guilty or ashamed of his or her privilege or lack thereof,” says Andrews. “By revealing our various privileges, we can begin to see ways in which we can use our individual and collective privileges to work for social justice and the betterment of all.”
This sentiment is echoed in McIntosh’s research. As she says about her own history. “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group”.
Rogers and Andrews drew on McIntosh to arrive at 15 statements that are used in the privilege walks they run. The questions include:
- If you can go shopping and feel confident that you’re not going to be followed by suspicious staff, take a step forward
- If most of your teachers looked like they shared your ethnicity, take a step forward
- If none of your parents attended university, take a step backwards
- If you’re a woman, take two steps back
- If any member of your family was removed as a part of the stolen generation, take three steps back
Andrews, who has participated in these walks “hundreds of times” as she is “often the only Aboriginal person in the group”, often finishes at the back of the group, on the same line everyone started on. “I’m not surprised where I end up, of course, growing up as an Aboriginal person in Australia. I’m not surprised at all,” she says.
Knowing where you’ll finish is not necessarily common. Andrews has a powerful memory of a Koori woman who took part in a walk. The woman expected to end up at the front of the group, but instead remained behind.
“She said ‘I’m young, I’m urban, I’m educated – I should be up there with my colleagues who are at the front’ and that lead to a discussion around institutionalised racism,” says Andrews.
Andrews’ colleague Rogers, who is white, often ends up towards the front of the group.
“I think for me, to be aware of my own privilege, is the most powerful and proactive thing I can do as a non-Indigneous person,” Rogers says. “I work with Munya and a lot of Indigenous people but I’m still learning and coming across a new privilege every week and this has helped me grow as a person.”
Retention vs criticism
Andrews and Rogers have been told by participants that the exercise is empowering and makes them feel like they belong. The co-directors believe this directly benefits the retention rates of the organisations for which they run walks.
And there is evidence that workplaces that foster these feelings have better retention. AHRI’s report on the subject, which surveyed 339 HR professionals, found that 60 per cent said a positive culture was one of the most effective retention methods.
That being said, there are those who criticise the privilege walk. Perhaps the most searing indictment is that the walks actually take advantage of minorities.
As former privilege walk facilitator Meg Bolger wrote on Medium, “Not only are marginalized people having to put their stories out there in order for me to learn but the way that I’m learning can leave me in places of shame. Shame can be incredibly corrosive and often stops us from seeking out more information or believing that we can change. Shame makes us feel like bad people, not people who are part of bad systems.”
Rogers says it’s worth addressing that criticism, but from her experience the exercise benefits those less-privileged. “My observation is that less privileged people have found it empowering because it’s acknowledging them and giving them a voice.”
Andrews says she has had pushback from the other direction. One participant actually told her, “If anybody calls me privileged I’ll punch them in the head.”
Andrews says that acknowledging privilege shouldn’t be threatening to those who have it, because it changes depending on context.
“When I’m walking down the street and I see a homeless person I can say I’m more privileged than them in that context because I have a nice job and a beautiful home to go home to,” she says. “It’s not about feeling guilty, you can’t help the family you were born into and the advantages you got through life. It’s about being aware and helping those around you.”
The co-directors say that organisations receive a variety of benefits from privilege walks. In particular, they can use them to collect data and design policies around Indigenous inclusion.
“If they’re writing Indigenous policies they can consider if they are coming at it from a privileged viewpoint and instead consider what things do they need to take into account for their less privileged customers or employees,” says Andrews.
While Andrews and Rogers swear by their exercise, it’s easy to see the anxiety privilege walks might provoke in any HR manager thinking of conducting one. There seems to be something inherently divisive in having colleagues begin by holding hands, and end up on the opposite ends of the room, separated by nothing less than ethnicity, class, upbringing, gender and sexuality.
This potential for division is why the experience needs to be contextualised. After performing a privilege walk with a group of employees, Andrews and Rogers will debrief the team.
“Depending on the level of knowledge on privilege, inequality and disadvantage, you can have some rich conversations,” says Andrews. She’ll prompt discussions with questions directed at certain groups. For example, she might ask the men in the room why they think that at a certain moment they took two steps forward when none of the women did.
You can see the appeal of the walks, and their risks (remember the person who threatened violence). But if you think they just create division, you have to ask: if you don’t acknowledge people’s differences, how can you hope to be truly inclusive?
Would you do a privilege walk? Tell us in the comments below.
There are numerous ways you can improve workplace retention. This course from AHRI focuses on techniques to support and sustain improved performance in a team through effective coaching relationship and conversations.