Critical Essay

Seeing whiteness: Exercises in understanding race

I used to lead activities like the "Privilege Walk" and "Cross the Line." I couldn't shake the feeling that they were not taking us very far.

When I worked in the residence life department at a predominantly white Christian college, I was responsible for conducting an annual racial diversity workshop for staff members and student leaders. I became familiar with a few standard workshop activities, most notably one called the Privilege Walk and one called Cross the Line. Both exercises offer participants the opportunity to reflect critically on some aspects of diversity. But I soon learned that these exercises have some drawbacks and may actually obscure or reinforce some of the problems that racial diversity training should expose.

In the Privilege Walk, participants begin standing side by side at a starting line, with the finish line about ten paces ahead. The facilitator then reads a series of statements. If a participant’s experience corresponds with a statement, he or she takes one or more steps forward as directed. A statement may be “It was assumed from a young age that you would go to college” or “You don’t have to worry about helping your parents out when they retire” or “You never think twice about calling the police when trouble occurs.” The exercise ends when all of the statements have been read.

Typically, at the end of the activity a white male has crossed the finish line far ahead of everyone else, while people of color are gathered closer to the start, and at least one person of color is left at the starting line. People who are in line to win the race are meant to recognize that their success is the result of unearned privilege.