The First Privilege Walk

Christian Parenti in

How Herbert Marcuse’s widow used a Scientology-linked cult’s methodology to gamify Identity Politics and thus helped steer the U.S. Left down the dead-end path of identitarian psychobabble.

In the summer of 2021, a social justice training exercise called the Privilege Walk made headlines when outraged Republican lawmakers Tom Cotton and Dan Crenshaw denounced it on the U.S. Capitol floor as racist. The so-called Privilege Walk, or Power Shuffle, is a workshop activity much beloved by the diversity training industry, in which a group of participants stand together on a line, then each take one step forward or backwards in response to a facilitator reading a series of statements such as: “If you’re a white male, take one step forward. If you were ever made uncomfortable by a joke about your ethnicity, gender, appearance, or sexual orientation, take one step back.” At the end participants find themselves arrayed along a continuum of “privilege.” Thus sorted, discussion ensues.

The Privilege Walk is now a standard element in the diversity training used by nonprofits, churches, universities, corporations, and even some parts of the U.S. military. Proponents of the Walk say it helps us “unlearn oppression” and “build alliances across difference.” Mainstream critics say the exercise propagates divisive identity politics and mock it as foundational to the Oppression Olympics. A Marxist critique would say that the Walk transmogrifies material problems into cultural ones, economic exploitation becomes the more nebulous problem of oppression. Both are forms of domination, yet they are each very distinct. When rendered as oppression, the material problem of class power is replaced by the attitudinal problem of “classism.” Furthermore, the Privilege Walk relies on a methodological individualism that assumes macro-level social phenomena have micro-level causes and solutions.

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