Skip navigation

GSSWGraduate School of Social Work

Professor Delves into the Study of Privilege

When you parked your car on campus today, did you think about how far you'd have to walk later, or whether your car was under a light? If you answered, "Yes," you're probably a woman.

"What toll does it take having to think about [the possibility of sexual assault] every day?" asks Eugene Walls, an assistant professor in DU's Graduate School of Social Work.

These and other questions that relate to privilege — whether based on race, gender, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, religion or other status — are among the topics to be discussed at the Pedagogy of Privilege Conference that Walls is organizing Aug. 15–16 at DU.

"Privilege — an unearned advantage that people get from being a member of a certain social identity — sort of greases the wheels of life, in a way that you think is normal if you're part of that group," Walls says. "If you imagine a set of double doors, discrimination and marginalization and oppression are like if you walk up to the doors and someone is holding them shut. Privilege is like having a doorman hold them open for you. And if all you're used to is the door being opened, you don't realize not everyone gets that."

In Walls' class on disrupting privilege, one of his primary lessons is getting social work and other graduate students to understand the myriad injustices marginalized groups endure.

If you're heterosexual, not only do you have access to marriage — and the tax cuts and legal benefits that go with that — but you're also privy to the "symbolic legitimization of your relationship — and how that supports your family and supports you staying together," Walls says.

If you're white and you get pulled over by a traffic cop, you probably did something wrong, he notes, and, even then, you may still get let off with just a warning.

"People think it's intentional and it's not always," Walls says. "It's very possible that a white police officer is doing a really unconscious level of racial profiling, and it guides their behavior."

Similarly, he says, it's well documented that white people have greater access to health care, get more thorough checkups and receive more accurate diagnoses.

In the academic setting, "If you're a white person, you can guarantee the teacher's not going to call on you to provide the ‘white perspective,'" he says. And if you're Christian, you don't have to ask for special favors to accommodate your religious celebrations and practices.

"What kind of toll does that take to have to do that constantly?" he asks.

"People say it just sounds like male bashing or Christian bashing. It's absolutely not. It's just recognizing that in the structure, the wheels are greased more for some people than for others. Over a lifetime the toll is pretty significant," he says.

Once his students begin to understand how pervasive privilege is, they start to move into despair, he says.

"It's not like privilege exists without a connection to oppression," Walls says. "As a white person, the privileges I have come at a cost to people of color. Every time a sexual assault occurs, it reinforces sexism, [when sexism is reinforced], I benefit as a man. It's a painful process to recognize that connection."

Walls cautions that we can't treat white males — or any other privileged social identity — as a monolithic group, either.

"If they're a gay man they might [walk through the world with fear for their safety] or if they're a man of color and there's a group of white men coming toward them they might feel threatened," he says. "It's not an either-or. Most of us have both privilege and marginalization."

With that in mind, Walls says it's important for those who have an abundance of privilege to speak up. He recalls a quote often attributed to the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards, speaking about President George H.W. Bush: "He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple."

Walls says that while those who start at home plate can still be successful, those on third base need to realize how much farther the non-privileged have to run. And, then, he says, they should ask themselves, "What can I do, if I recognize I started on third base, to try to challenge the system?"

At the Pedagogy of Privilege Conference, hundreds of people will attempt to answer that question and others like it in 40 workshops and keynote sessions, which feature speakers Julia Serano, author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (Seal Press, 2007); Victor Lewis, who helped produce the 1994 documentary The Color of Fear; and Kevin Kumashiro, professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago and founding director of the Center for Anti-Oppressive Education.

While those born on third base may not be ready to ask the nice officer to write them a speeding ticket instead of a warning, they may still begin to ask some of the other fundamental questions Walls has outlined: "How do we use our voice? And how do we spend our privilege?"

GSSW is cosponsoring the conference in addition to several other on-campus organizations including the Center for Teaching & Learning, Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, Center for Multicultural Excellence, Office of Graduate Studies, Student Life, Morgridge College of Education, Graduate School of Professional Psychology, Gender & Women's Studies Program and the Honors Program. Outside sponsors are The Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado, Iliff School of Theology, and The Denver Foundation.

This story and others can be found at DU Today.