These were the types of questions East Tennessee State University students, staff and faculty reflected on at Thursday’s ETSU Civility Week Privilege Walk, an introspective activity held to generate discussions about the different sociopolitical advantages and disadvantages some face in society.
Megan Dew, a graduate assistant for the Diversity Educators Program and a master’s student in social work, said the main aim of the event was to get students to recognize other people’s unique experiences with identity intersectionality, privilege and oppression.
“We have everyone line up in a straight line so they all end up in the same place, then we read off a list of statements,” Dew said. “Based on the statements, people will either take a step forward or a step backward.
“We do this all in silence so we can process where we end up at the end of all the statements, and then we come together and talk about what that experience was like.”
Studying intersectionality means examining how different identities converge to shape the way others perceive and experience the world around them. While a white man might experience American society in one way, a black woman will often experience it completely differently.
Dew said the event was held to get students thinking about the different ways people navigate these different sociopolitical experiences.
“Intersectionality has to do with the different identities and roles we play in society and the different ways we’ve been affected by those identities,” she said.
Emerson Todd, a student double-majoring in sociology and psychology and president of the ETSU Sexuality and Gender Alliance, said the activity often sparks a lot of self-reflection.
“I’m hoping people will reflect on what got them to where they are today,” Todd said.
When it comes to privilege and oppression — whether it’s over gender identity, class, sexuality, race or all of the above — some find the conversation difficult.
Todd said it doesn’t have to be that way.
“I think that sometimes it's difficult to recognize the privileges that we have because we don’t like to think about the fact that there are some things that do give us opportunities that other people might not have. I don’t think that’s a very comfortable thing to think about when you think about everything you’ve personally done,” Todd said.
“What (some) people don’t understand is that saying you have privileges doesn’t negate the fact that you still worked hard — it just means you maybe had some different things to work with than other people do.”
Joy Fulkerson, director of leadership and civic engagement, agreed. Fulkerson said the Privilege Walk helps members of the campus community feel safe about sharing their unique experiences with the society around them.
“These are just opportunities for students to connect with one another,” Fulkerson said.
For more information on other ETSU Civility Week events, visit www.etsu.edu.