What is privilege? Defined as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people,” privilege can ultimately mean much more than that.
Recently, many colleges and universities have participated in a study called the “privilege walk,” which is an exercise that lines students up side-by-side and take steps in relation to their answers to a series of questions related to privilege or disadvantage, including questions about their household, significant other, disability and race.
At the end of the walk, students are then told to look around and see how far up or behind they are compared with others.
At Iowa State, the privilege walk has taken place multiple times around campus.
The Awakening Series, an event that included a discussion and provided a safe space for multicultural students, took place Wednesday through Friday. At one point, participants were encouraged to engage in the privilege walk activity and were able to visually see how privilege affects their peers.
The privilege walk also took place on campus during a Dress and Diversity class.
Kelly Reddy-Best, assistant professor of apparel, events and hospitality management, found an alternative to the walk by asking students to draw 20 lines on a sheet of paper.
She then asked them to draw a pinpoint on the middle line, and from there, she asked a series of questions related to privilege. Students either drew a line up or down in relation to the questions until the end of the activity, when their papers resembled a line graph.
Privilege plays a substantial role in society, but the term differs for everyone when they think of what it means to them. At Iowa State, privilege is divergent from one person to the next.
Denise Williams-Klotz, assistant director at the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, defined privilege as “an unearned benefit.”
“When we talk about privilege, you can look at individuals, but it’s much more meaningful to look at societal systems in our communities and how people exist within those systems,” Williams-Klotz said. “It’s also important when we talk about privilege to understand that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, that there are many historical components to how we view a given privilege.”
Britney Williams, senior in kinesiology and health, said privilege has affected her in positive and negative ways.
“A positive way [privilege has affected me] is that I’m from a middle-class family, and socioeconomically, there’s things that I haven’t had to worry about that other people [have],” Williams said. “Being on this campus, it’s predominantly white, and I think there’s a privilege. If I’m going into a classroom, a lot of times I’m the only person of color in the entire classroom. And so I always get this feeling, but my white counterparts aren’t experiencing that, because when they go into a classroom, everyone looks like them.”
Many times, assumptions are made about people by others who know nothing about them. Often, privilege and race clash, which can end up leading to stereotypes and appropriation.
“My scholarship, for example, people say, ‘Oh, you got that because you’re black,’ not ‘Oh, you got that because you worked hard in high school and you had a great ACT score,’” Williams said. “People just automatically assume I got it because of another thing, so privilege, in a negative sense, is just always kind of being othered and being discriminated against for something that I can’t control.”
Williams-Klotz has experienced similar tribulations. Although she’s a hard-working woman in a high position at a university, she still encounters speculation.
“Where we see privilege sometimes play out is the assumptions people make about you and how that relates to what you are able to do,” Williams-Klotz said. “For me, somebody assuming that a woman in a position of power can’t make an effective decision, can’t influence policy, can’t do her job correctly, that’s where we see things play out in a larger scale.”
At the end of the day, the most influential thing a person with privilege can do is to speak up rather than remain silent.
“If you’re not speaking up in these spaces where you have privilege, then what’s the point? It’s really about educating people, and the person that’s oppressed shouldn’t always have to be the one educating,” Williams said.