At Naropa, the arts university “dedicated to advancing contemplative education” in Boulder, Colorado, students in the Master of Divinity program are anywhere from 20-something to 60-something and represent a range of ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds. One thing they share, says John Weber, administrative director of the Religious Studies Department, is a willingness to take a deep look at themselves and their community. At Naropa, this process begins with a Privilege Line Dance — a co-creation of the Religious Studies Department and the diversity branch of Student Affairs — that quickly and dramatically illustrates the diversity of each new class and opens a conversation for students to talk deeply about who they are.
To try the dance with your own class or group, have them form a line, shoulder to shoulder, and hold hands.
Read aloud the following instructions:
• Keep your eyes on your own feet.
• As you hear a statement that applies to you, take a small step back.
• If you are not sure, stand still.
• Don’t let go of someone’s hand until you absolutely have to.
Read aloud the following statements:
- I am a female.
- I am a person of color.
- Someone in my immediate family is considered non-white.
- I or someone in my immediate family is GLBT.
- I am Jewish.
- My first language is not English.
- My parents immigrated to the U.S.
- I was raised by a single parent.
- I was raised rurally.
- As I was growing up, neither of my parents had a college education.
- I was held back a grade in school.
- I have or have had a significant visible or non-visible physical health problem.
- I do not have health insurance (beyond catastrophic coverage).
- Alcohol and/or drugs are or were a problem in my immediate family.
- My family of origin required financial assistance at some time.
- I have borrowed money to attend Naropa (not from family or friends).
- I grew up with violence in my household.
- I or someone in my family has been labeled as mentally ill.
- I have been disparaged because of a physical characteristic (height, weight, body parts, etc.).
- I have been disparaged for being a virgin or for being promiscuous.
- I am adopted.
- I am a first-generation college student.
- I identity myself as Christian.
- I identify myself as Buddhist but not Shambhala or Tibetan Buddhism.
- Religion has been used against me to control my thoughts and behaviors.
- I do not own a car.
- I need to work for money to survive at Naropa and in Boulder.
- I am uncomfortable with this exercise.
- I avoided the truth during this exercise.
Look around the room. Each step back indicates a decrease of social rank and privilege. Now sit down and contemplate where you are.
What was this like for you? Are you surprised or upset?
How did it feel to be the front person? Back person? In the middle?
What did it feel like when you had to let go of a hand?
Remind your students that this is not about stereotyping or creating divisions but getting in touch with our rank, power, and privilege. Explain that allies are people who use the privileges they have to support those with less. Keep in mind that a perceived privilege in Utah, for example, might be viewed differently in Boulder.