White Benefits Exercise

By Paul Kivel
Adapted from Uprooting Racism (1995, updated 2017)

Introduction to Exercise–Going Deeper [1]

White privilege can be a misleading phrase that many people have difficulty relating to. Many poor and working class white people lack adequate food, safe and secure housing and affordable medical care. At the same time, I think it is accurate to say that all white people in the United States have historically benefited and continue to benefit from exploitation and violence directed at people of color in this country and elsewhere.

Many white people have participated in white privilege or white benefits checklist activities and some of us have taken these exercises to heart in so far as we can name those “privileges” and understand their pervasive and extensive nature. That is a preliminary or first step in the process of white awareness.

The next step is to take each of those benefits and dig into how they are structured, how they operate in our lives, how they are based on exploitation of people of color, and how we can use our white benefits to leverage resources into current people of color-led movements for racial, gender, economic and other forms of social justice.

Group Instructions

Tell the group you are going to read a series of statements and each white person to whom a statement applies should stand up after that statement is read. Tell the group that all the white people are being asked to participate. People of color and those who are biracial or of mixed heritage are being encouraged to observe—although it is fine if they decide at any time that they want to participate as well.

Those who are physically unable to stand may raise their hand or otherwise indicate they are part of the group standing.

Each participant should decide for themselves whether the statement applies to them or not. If they don’t know, they should ask themselves why it is that they don’t know.

If they are unwilling to stand for a particular statement that applies to them they may pass for that statement but should notice any feelings they have about not standing.

After each statement is read and people are standing ask them to continue to stand and reflect on the more specific questions that follow.

The exercise will be done in silence to allow participants to notice the feelings that come up during the exercise and to make it safer for all participants. They should pay attention to their feelings and, at the same time keep in mind that they did not create the systems that have led them to be in these relationships. They are not responsible for them but they are responsible for being aware of their circumstances and responding to them.

Tell participants that they will be given a copy of the exercise afterwards so they don’t have to try and remember the questions. (Make sure you have enough copies for everyone.)

After each statement is read and people have stood and reflected on the follow up questions, ask participants to sit down and then read the next statement.

 

Please stand silently if:

You live on land that was formerly inhabited by Native Americans. (as people remain standing, ask them to reflect on the following or similar questions).

    1. Who are the specific Native Americans on whose land you live?
    2. When and how were they dispossessed of their land?
    3. Where do they live now?
    4. Under what circumstances?
    5. What are their current struggles for land, sovereignty and recognition?
    6. How could you find out more about the Native peoples living in your area so you could support their organizations and struggles?

(Preface: From 1790 for 175 years until 1965 immigration into the U.S. was tightly regulated and with few exceptions only certain European nationalities were able to immigrate legally and become citizens.) Please stand silently if…

Please stand silently if…

    1. Your ancestors were legal immigrants to this country during a period when Muslims and immigrants from Asia, the Middle East, South and Central America or Africa were restricted.
    2. Where did your immigrant foreparents come from?
    3. How and why did they come?
    4. What might have happened to them if they couldn’t have immigrated?
    5. What opportunities and challenges did they face once here?
    6. What languages, customs, rituals, or other practices did your family give up to be accepted as white?
    7. What stories of immigrant success does your family tell about your foreparents?
    8. How do these stories compare with the current narrative about recent immigrants to this country?

Please stand silently if…

Your ancestors were immigrants who took jobs in railroads, streetcars, construction, shipbuilding, wagon and coach driving, house painting, tailoring, longshore work, brick laying, table waiting, working in the mills, farming, dressmaking or any other trade or occupation where people of color were largely driven out or excluded.

  1. What kinds of jobs did your immigrant foreparents have access to?
  2. What were their jobs, trades, or professions?
  3. What kinds of personal, community or governmental support helped them succeed?
  4. How could you use the experiences of your foreparents to counter the anti-immigrant stories that are told in our country about recent immigrants?
  5. How can you support current struggles for the abolition of ICE and CBP (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) and the implementation of just immigration and refugee policies?

Please stand silently if…

You lived or live in a neighborhood that people of color were discriminated from living in.

  1. How did the area you live in become predominately white?
  2. What mechanisms were used to keep people out or force them to leave?
  3. What mechanisms are in place today to maintain and enforce segregation in your community?
  4. What kinds of advantages in education, housing, health care, safety do you have access to compared to those forced to live in less safe, more toxic, dis-invested areas?
  5. Is there a new wave of displacement of people of color or “gentrification” happening in your community?
  6. How could you find out about current housing struggles in your area and join with others to protect those being displaced and to break down white segregation?

Please stand silently if…

A substantial percentage of the clothes you wear are made by women and children of color in the U.S. and in other countries.

  1. Where do your clothes come from?
  2. Who makes them? Under what conditions?
  3. What are those workers current struggles for better wages and working conditions?
  4. How could you find out more about and support their struggles?

Please stand silently if…

Most of the food you eat is grown, harvested, processed and/or prepared by people of color in this country and abroad. For example, think about the coffee, tea, cocoa, bananas, or other fruit you might have consumed this morning.

  1. What countries does your food come from?
  2. Who performs the farm labor necessary to provide you with food in this country and overseas?
  3. What are their wages and under what conditions do they work? What kinds of abuse do these workers, especially women workers face?
  4. What forms do their struggles for fair wages, safe working conditions and respect take?
  5. How could you learn more about and support those struggles such as the Fight for Fifteen, Restaurant Opportunities Center, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, or any number of fair trade and global anti-slavery struggles?

Please stand silently if…

The house, office building, school, or other buildings and grounds you use are cleaned or maintained by people of color.

  1. Who are the domestic workers, grounds keepers and janitors in your house, neighborhood or community?
  2. What are their working conditions?
  3. Do they receive living wages, health care, rest breaks, vacation time, and compensation for overtime?
  4. Many of these groups of workers are organizing. How could you support the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance, National Day Laborer Network and other worker-led organizing groups?

Please stand silently if…

Most of the electronics goods you use such as cell phones, computers, and microwave ovens are made by people of color in this country and abroad.

  1. Who makes your computer and cell phone?
  2. Under what conditions do they work?
  3. What countries do the essential elements and minerals come from?
  4. What do you know about the six million people who have been killed in the Republic of the Congo over the last 20 years in wars over control of the trade in precious metals that go into our electronics products?
  5. Cell phones and computers are valuable tools being used by workers and others in countries such as China, Egypt, Turkey and Brazil to organize for better working conditions and democratic government. How could you use yours to amplify their voices and support their efforts?

Please stand silently if…

Family, friends or colleagues were ever cared for by people of color either at home, school, or at a medical or convalescent facility.

  1. Who was a family member or friend who was cared for?
  2. What kind of care did they need?
  3. Who provided that care?
  4. Under what conditions did the care provider work?
  5. Was their work acknowledged, appreciated, respected and adequately compensated?
  6. What does it say about our society that much of the most intimate and necessary caring work is carried out primarily by women of color who are underpaid, lacking in basic worker’s rights, disrespected and vulnerable to violence?
  7. Can you imagine a society in which everyone who needed care received adequate care and respect and everyone who provided such care was fully compensated and worked with dignity?

After the Exercise

After the exercise ask white people to pair with other white people to talk about what feelings and thoughts came up for them participating in the exercise. Ask people of color, and people who are bi-racial or multi-heritage to pair with other non-white people to share what came up for them and what it was like to observe white people doing the exercise.

Reassemble the group and facilitate a group discussion of the feelings, thoughts, reflections, and insights that people want to share.

To conclude the discussion, tell the group the purpose of this exercise is for white people to begin to understand the profound material, emotional, moral and spiritual implications of living in a society in which they directly benefit from the exploitation of other people.

Benefits from racism are amplified or diminished by our relative privilege. All white people benefit in some ways from whiteness, but the ruling class has cornered the market on significant benefits from being white to the exclusion of the rest of us. It benefits them when our interdependent relationships with people who provide us with benefits are hidden or obscured.

Finally, point out that individual white people are not responsible for the circumstances under which they stood for particular questions in the exercise. They were born into and inherited a system that exploits people of color and provides benefits to white people whether they want them or not. Although not responsible, they are responsible for how they respond to this system of exploitation and violence.

 

Footnote

[1] Black, Indigenous and other people of color have been naming and resisting the various kinds of exploitation and violence named in the questions above for a very long time. People of color have long commented on these white benefits, including W.E.B. DuBois who, in his book Black Reconstruction (1935), labeled white people’s psychological sense of superiority over people of color and entitlement to these benefits “the wages of whiteness.” Beginning in the 1970s and 80s white people such as Peggy McIntosh, Diane Elliot and Ricky Sherover-Marcuse started developing exercises that allowed white people to be confronted more viscerally with the impact of white privilege. I gratefully draw on their work in this exercise.

 

 

For more context on this exercise see pps 35-47 in my book Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice (revised and updated ed. 2017). Creative Commons. For information about other books and training and curricular materials or for feedback or questions about this exercise contact Paul Kivel at paul@paulkivel.com.