[Paleopsych] CHE: For Resident Assistants, a Race for Inequality

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For Resident Assistants, a Race for Inequality
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4.8.6

    White Americans pay too little attention to the benefits their skin
    color gives them, and opening their eyes to their privileged status is
    a valid part of a college education. But one approach, called the
    privilege walk, does more harm than good. That is particularly true
    given that the people most often forced to play the game, new resident
    assistants, are already well aware of what the game purports to teach,
    and should have as few barriers among them as possible.
    The privilege walk usually takes place on a basketball court. Students
    line up at midcourt and, depending on their responses to statements
    read by a facilitator, move toward or away from the baseline in front
    of them. The game ends when the first person reaches the baseline.
    The statements, designed to separate whites from persons of color and
    males from females, fall into two equally pernicious categories. First
    are the blatantly racist statements. Their central assumption is that
    all persons of color had a uniformly grim upbringing in poor
    neighborhoods with broken families and ill-equipped schools. For
    instance: "If you were raised in an area where there was prostitution
    or drug activity, take one step back," or "If you had to rely on
    public transportation growing up, take a step back."
    Second are vague statements that students can interpret in different
    ways. For instance: "If you were ever denied employment because of
    your race, ethnicity, or gender, take one step back" -- as if you
    could always be sure why you didn't get a job -- or "If your parents
    were professionals, take one step forward."
    The first type of statement is insulting for the obvious reason that
    it depends on -- and gives voice to -- stereotypes. But the second
    type is just as ugly: Students of color are quickly conditioned by the
    overtly racist statements to interpret the vague ones in ways that
    reflect badly on them. For instance, a statement about having
    professional parents ought to elicit questions from the students about
    the definition of professional. Is a teacher a professional? What
    about a highly trained chef? By the time in the privilege walk that
    many of the vague questions are asked, the students have gotten the
    point and don't bother to ask. They understand that when in doubt,
    persons of color are to step back and whites are to move forward.
    Although few 19-year-olds have had much experience in the job market,
    responding to a statement truthfully is not really what counts.
    Inequality of outcome is all that matters.
    Meanwhile, without a hint of irony, the white male students have begun
    trying to win. Taking cues from each other, they make larger and
    larger strides toward the finish line at each opportunity.
    Before coming to Ohio State University, I spent the better part of a
    decade working in residence-life departments, and I have been both a
    participant and facilitator in privilege walks. At every walk I have
    ever been a part of, the winner has been an athletic white male who,
    egged on by similar students, achieved his victory with the help of
    giant leaps and surreptitious scoots forward.
    While the white males are urging each other toward the finish line,
    the African-Americans -- particularly the females, the group supposed
    to do the worst in the exercise -- form another clique, sequestered
    off in one segment of the court, usually chatting about something
    unrelated to the walk. Despite the fact that not every student of
    color grew up in the ghetto -- in fact, the majority of
    African-Americans at the universities where I have studied or worked
    came from the middle class -- they all know what roles they are
    expected to play.
    In the end, the privilege walk builds barriers that might not have
    otherwise existed. Persons of color rapidly develop an us-against-them
    mentality and refuse to move forward or backward except in lockstep.
    African-Americans who didn't grow up in dire circumstances feel that
    responding to the statements correctly would be both a betrayal of
    their group and a public admission that they are not "authentic." That
    is not the sort of choice we ought to be foisting on to students who
    just want to be resident assistants.
    Nor is it a good idea for privilege walks to reinforce in white
    students the very stereotypes that our orientation programs attempt to
    overcome elsewhere. When the game is over and the triumphant white
    kids are asked to turn around and look at the rest of the students,
    what they see is a group of blacks and Latinos packed together at the
    back, not at all interested in the exercise. The implicit message the
    white students get is: TV and movies are right, these people all come
    from the same horrid neighborhoods.
    I have sometimes wondered in the middle of a privilege walk whether
    some students of color had decided that they had had enough and were
    just tuning out of the rest of the orientation program. After all,
    they had gone through the same strenuous series of individual and
    group interviews as the white kids, and sat through the same meetings
    designed to fill their heads with the rules of residence life. They
    had all spent at least one year -- usually two or three -- on the
    campus, in and around residence halls. In short, they had done the
    same things and arrived at the same place as the white students had.
    What possible purpose could there be to separate them from their white
    peers now and let everyone know what a miserable life they were
    supposed to have had growing up? To educate whites, of course.
    And that may be the worst thing about the privilege walk: It doesn't
    really teach anything. The underlying premise -- that whites are going
    to see that students of color have had very different opportunities
    -- is silly on its face. If there are whites who have lived for 19
    years in the United States and haven't gotten that message, is a
    30-minute privilege walk going to change their outlook? Any person
    whose worldview is so easily swayed should never be allowed to be in
    charge of anything, let alone the well-being of a floor full of
    The privilege walk is a toxic mix of half-baked educational theory and
    guilt that gets recycled during orientation by unimaginative
    residence-life staff members who can think of no better way to teach
    whites than to turn a group of African-Americans into martyrs. That
    stereotyped view of ethnic groups is precisely what makes students of
    color feel excluded, as if the folks in charge see them as nothing
    more than interchangeable pieces of window dressing.
    The people who are in charge of resident-assistant orientation have
    their hearts in the right place -- there can be no question about
    that. But the privilege walk is not only a waste of time, it also has
    the potential to do harm.
    Popular culture constantly reminds people of their differences; RA
    orientation should stress commonalities. And here's Commonality Number
    1: On any campus, residents in need of advisers will be there sooner
    than you think, so don't waste a half-hour on nonsense. Not even
    well-intentioned nonsense.

    Travis McDade is the reference and bibliographic services librarian at
    the Michael E. Moritz Law Library at Ohio State University.

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