As a video about white privilege goes viral again, experts caution it could actually cause more damage

A video created years ago to try to help students understand the concept of privilege has found new life in the wake of George Floyd being killed in police custody and the subsequent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The video, which was published on YouTube in October 2017, is the work of Adam Donyes, the founder and president of Link Year, a Christian program designed for students who have completed high school but haven’t yet started college.

In the video, Donyes tells a group of young people that they can take part in a race. The winner, he says, will receive $100. But then Donyes makes things a little more interesting. 

After the racers have lined up, Donyes asks people to take two steps forward if they meet certain criteria.

"Take two steps forward if both of your parents are still married," he says in the video. He also asks people to step forward if they grew up with a father figure, had access to a private education, never had to help their parents pay bills, and never wondered where their next meal would come from.

At the end, some (mostly white) racers are nearly to the finish line while others, largely people of color, are still at or near the original starting line. "Every statement I've made has nothing to do with anything any of you have done,” Donyes says. “It has nothing to do with decisions you’ve made.”

“I guarantee that some of these black dudes could smoke all of you, and it’s only because you have this big of a head start that you’re possibly going to win this race called life,” he continues. “Nothing you have done has put you in the lead you’re in right now.”

He ends on this note, as the students can be seen in a prayer circle: “If you didn’t learn anything from this activity, you’re a fool.”

It’s unclear when, exactly, the video was made, but it’s racked up more than 1.9 million views since it was first posted on YouTube and is earning a fresh new wave of viewers on social media. Donyes did not respond to Yahoo Life’s requests for comment.

But while the video has a powerful message, experts say it’s not perfect.

Leslie Kay Jones, an assistant professor of sociology who focuses on social movements, digital media, race, and gender, at Rutgers University – New Brunswick, tells Yahoo Life that she’s concerned about whether the students in the video consented to be a part of it, given that there are “clear class and race biases” shown. “There is body language in the video that suggests that the students are embarrassed to be separated out from their peers in this way,” she says. “There are facial expressions that express the white students are noticing and beginning to become uncomfortable with the clear racial pattern that is emerging.”

That matters, Jones says. “It is actually through exercises like this and educational culture like this that students are taught that blackness and being black are bad and wrong, instead of that racism is bad and wrong,” she says. “The goal of the lesson is to teach white people to sympathize with black people because they are black, rather than challenging the institutions that require you to be white in order to guarantee food, housing, education and access to basic infrastructure.” 

The basis of the video is helpful, but it doesn’t show the whole picture of privilege, Harald Schmidt, assistant professor in the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “Inequality isn’t just between races — it’s between income and wealth, too,” he says. “In this society, unfortunately, it’s a fact that black communities have historically and structurally been disadvantaged. But there’s nothing inherent about being black that says you have less stable families.” Schmidt also says there’s a risk that the video can be stigmatizing.

Related Video: A Deeper Look at the Concept of White Privilege

If teaching about privilege is the main goal of the video, which it appears to be, it misses things like access to loans and health care, as well as gender, Schmidt says. 

Jones also disagrees with the way in which racial inequality is explained — or not — in the video. “The instructor essentially explains racial inequality as the economic result of group differences in family structure,” she says. “He makes no attempt to think through what these questions should have to do with socioeconomic success, leaving students with the impression that while the circumstances are unfair, the system is not.”

The video also leaves out deeper layers of racism that are important, Jones says. “The lecture also falsely suggests to students that the only consequence of racism for black people is that a white individual might get an opportunity they otherwise would have gotten,” she says. “Without a discussion of what this means on the group and society level, this is basically a lesson about how great it is to be white and how terrible it is to be black in America.”

Experts acknowledge that privilege can be a difficult thing for people to grasp, and that it’s tough to shove all aspects of it into a short video. Ownership is an important element that’s not fully addressed here, Schmidt says. “It’s important for people of privilege to understand that, there but for the grace of God go I,” he says. “It’s naïve to think you got to where you are completely on your own esteem. You might as well claim you have taught yourself to walk and read on your own.” 

Ultimately, Jones says understanding privilege is just the tip of the iceberg in the Black Lives Matter movement. “I think that the concept of ‘privilege’ could be useful as part of a toolkit, but if you are serious about dismantling racism and anti-blackness, you can’t do it without saying the words. Every time,” she says.

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