So, apparently, book privilege and newspaper privilege are things now.
A handout included in the official list of resources for Confratute — a national education conference held at the University of Connecticut this week — contained instructions for a “41-step privilege exercise,” a “race based” activity where participants have to take a step forward or backward depending on whether or not they have certain privileges.
“If you were raised in a home where a daily newspaper was delivered, take a step forward.”
“If, as a child, your parents keep, or kept, over 40 books in your home, take one step forward.”
Now, there’s no doubt that being raised in a home with ample reading materials would give a person an advantage. But how exactly does this belong in a self-described “race based” activity? Is it meant to suggest that people of a certain race are more likely to have faced these specific issues than others? If so, how does that stereotype help?
This conference isn’t the only place that this kind of activity has popped up. Colleges around the country are also doing “privilege” walks in an attempt to show their commitment to social-justice activism. Earlier this year, I wrote a piece about the University of Michigan’s “privilege walk,” which used a particularly strange list. From that piece:
Among [the privileges on the list:]
1. “If you were embarrassed about your clothes or house while growing up, take one step back.”
2. “If you have tried to change your speech or mannerisms to gain credibility, take one step back.”
3. “If members of your gender are portrayed on TV in degrading roles, take one step backward.”
4. “If you can walk past a construction site without being looked up and down or catcalled at, take one step forward.”
So, basically, anyone who has ever gone to school in a bright orange sweatshirt with flowers on it (not that I’m talking about myself or anything), only to feel humiliated, could technically step back for item 1 regardless of family income. For item 2, anyone who had not used an f-bomb during a job interview. As for item 3, anyone familiar with characters like Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, or actually pretty much most TV dads would realize that everyone in the room could step back regardless of gender.
Note: Nowhere on the list is there any mention of mental illness, drug addiction, homelessness, parental abuse, or approximately 9 million other things that a person could be suffering from that are arguably worse than having to deal with a construction worker calling out, “Good morning!.”
All of us, both as individuals and as groups, have certain privileges and disadvantages compared to other people. But are these kinds of exercises really the best way to go about discussing these issues? How does singling out certain privileges as if they’re the most important on lists like these do anyone any good?
Hint: It doesn’t. While it’s important to learn about difficulties that others have had to deal with (yes, including those surrounding race), using a definitive list like this that treats some difficulties as being more worth discussion than others only perpetuates the obsession with identity politics that is driving us farther apart.