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Writer Luvvie Ajayi kicks off 3% Conference with privilege experiment


By Minda Smiley, Reporter

November 2, 2017 | 5 min read

The 3% Conference has made its theme this year ‘Beyond Gender’ in hopes of addressing and sparking discussion around other forms of diversity like race, LGBT and disability in addition to gender.

Luvvie Ajayi conducts privilege exercise onstage at the annual 3% Conference in New York

Photo credit: Bronac McNeill Photography & Film

To kick things off, the conference’s organizers enlisted the help of award-winning writer and emcee of the event Luvvie Ajayi to conduct an exercise of sorts on stage to illustrate the myriad of ways that privilege can manifest itself.

The experiment, which included 4A’s chief executive Marla Kaplowitz, J. Walter Thompson head of planning Torsten Gross and owner of Brown and Browner Derek Walker, asked participants to take steps forward or backwards depending on their responses to different prompts. For example, those who consider English to be their first language were told to take a step forward. Participants who studied the culture of their ancestors in elementary school were also told to take a step forward.

Participants were asked to take a step back if they’ve “ever been made fun of or bullied for something you could not change or is beyond your control” or if they have to “think twice about calling the police when trouble occurs.” Other topics addressed by Ajayi during the exercise included whether or not their parents went to college, if they have a disability and if they can easily find a religious community that will not exclude them because of their sexuality.

The point of the exercise was to illustrate in a very visual way the different – and sometimes surprising – ways that individuals are affected by privilege, or lack thereof. One thing that was glaringly obvious by the end was that all of the people of color who participated ended up in the back.

Afterwards, Ajayi asked the participants questions about how the experiment made them feel and whether or not they were surprised by where they end up in relation to others onstage. Ronnie Felder, managing director-HR at VML, said that he was surprised to find himself towards the front.

“As an Asian-American gay man, I thought I would be toward the back,” he said. Ajayi pointed out that even a few years ago, before gay marriage was legalized, he may have found himself closer to the back, her point being that the exercise continually evolves as privileges are given – and sometimes taken away – from different groups of people.

Ajayi noted that the first time she did the exercise years ago, she assumed she’d be towards the back since she’s a black woman. But afterwards, she realized that she had more privileges than she’d initially thought, namely class privilege, gender identity privilege and sexual orientation privilege.

“I was walking with all of that stuff and not giving it any credit,” she said, adding that people often take for granted things that others don’t have. For instance, she pointed out that Gross – the only person onstage in a wheelchair – was the sole person to step back when participants were asked during the exercise if they “can assume they will easily have physical access to any building.”

Walker, who is a black man, said that he didn’t feel bad about being in the back because he’s “still kicking ass” despite his lack of privilege in many areas. He also used to opportunity to caution against using “diversity” as a catch-all term since, as the exercise showed, some people are facing more obstacles than others.

“We tend to talk about [diversity] like we’re one big group. There’s a hierarchy to diversity,” he said. “Agencies will hire white women before they’ll hire a black man. They’ll hire a black woman before they’ll hire a Hispanic man. In this diversity struggle, we’re not moving as a group. We should be, but we’re not.”

Wunderman proudly supports The Drum’s 3% Conference coverage. We believe true diversity does not check boxes, it checks itself. http://wunderman.com/

Wunderman is supporting The Drum's 3% Conference coverage
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