Level Playing Field


  • To amplify the definition of both oppression and privilege with common examples.
  • To increase awareness and sensitivity to the realities of oppression and privilege.
  • To illustrate our own and others’ mixed experience of oppression and privilege.
  • To demonstrate graphically that the “playing field” is not yet level.


  • To provide physical movement and a lasting visual / visceral image.
  • To challenge and reduce feelings of guilt, blame and denial regarding the experience of oppression and / or privilege.
  • To cultivate stronger bonds among participants.


  • Forming the line and giving instructions:   5 minutes
    The exercise:   6 – 12 minutes depending on number of statements. Include a few         minutes for taking / bringing chairs     out of and back into the training space.
  • Process:   20 – 30 minutes
  • Total time:   Plan an hour


This is a potentially volatile exercise, and should be done only after trust has been built among the participants, and a common language and historical, political and social context for oppression has already been established.

  • This exercise works in any large open space. You can use a wide hallway, the foyer to an auditorium, a gym, or an     outdoor space if time and weather allow. There needs to be an unobstructed wall, sidewalk or other “wall” for the “race.”  (Of     course, if there are  obstructions, they can be added to the metaphor during the processing!)
  • Participants need to have their hands free.
  • This is easiest to manage right before or after a break, since you usually have to move a lot of furniture.
    •    Before the exercise consider any movement / support needs of all participants. People will be standing or using walkers or      wheelchairs for 6 – 12 minutes.


Make sure everyone is there for the instructions. People joining after the exercise has begun is confusing and reduces the impact of the exercise.

Ask the group to line up side by side in one line across the room. Have them face you and the flat wall or sidewalk behind you. There should be about equal space in front as behind them.

Instruct individuals to offer respect to one another by remaining silent during the exercise.  (You will have to repeat this often.)

Tell the group you are going to read a series of statements about life experiences. After each one you will instruct them to move either backward or forward depending on their experience. Since “stepping” is something only people who walk do, try saying “move one space forward,” rather than “take one step forward.” This phrasing is less ableist and more affirming to people who use wheelchairs.

At this point you should illustrate the size of the step/move participants should take each time. Determine this by the size of the room and the number of statements  you’re going to read. You don’t want half the room nose-to-the-wall after only a few statements.

If a statement is not heard clearly, anyone can ask for “repeat.”

Ask the group to hold the hands of the people next to them, and to keep holding hands as long as they can. If someone in the group uses a wheelchair or a walker,  be sure  the people on either side of her/him figure out how to keep physical contact. You may tell folks here that at some point they may have to let go. Later in the exercise, you may have to remind folks to let go rather than risk falling down.

Read the statements. Use the statements on the following pages or write your own. You have selected for this group and design. (race and class, gender and race, etc.)

When you finish all statements, pause. Ask the group to remain where they are. Drop hands and look around. Ask them to note where they are, where their friends are.

Tell the group, “the wall” in front of them represents the benefits, rights and responsibilities of the society. It represents basic food, clothing, shelter and meaningful work. It also represents the affirmation of human dignity.” (This may be the actual wall of the room indoors, or the edge of the sidewalk outdoors, whatever line / wall you can have them see / imagine in front of them) “On my count of three, race to this wall.”

You may begin to count immediately, leaving no time to really think about what you asked. Or you may wait a few seconds before you start the count and note how some people prepare for the “race.”


Alter the order of these questions based on time available and which “take home messages” you want to emphasize.

How did it feel to be in your position at the end? (before the race to the wall)

Help people talk about their feelings of guilt, anger, apathy, confusion, frustration.

How did it feel to have to let go of your friends’ hands?

There will often be very touching comments here.

What did you notice about your reactions as the exercise progressed?

There is often a lot of laughing, playful jostling at the beginning. Things get serious fast. Help people pay attention to the change in feelings.

What did you think and feel when you looked around at the end? (before the race to the wall.)  Was there anything that surprised you about people’s positions? Including your own? Often folks will be surprised that a friend is so far away from them, when they thought they had much in common. Others will be surprised at the opposite: folks they never thought had similar experiences to them remained nearby.

How many “cheated” or adjusted their step size (eg, took larger steps backward than forward?) or did not move when they could have? Why? What feelings or thoughts prompted you to do that?

Some folks will start feeling guilty after they move forward several times. They may start to shorten their forward steps and take large steps when a statement moves them back. Folks who are moving backward often, may also adjust their moves. Have people talk about what was going on for them as they altered their moves.

What was your first reaction to my instruction: “Race to the wall?” Some folks near the front will remark: “There was no need for me to run, I was so close.” Others may say, “I ran hard anyway.”  Those near the back may say either; “I ran as fast as I could, because I was determined to get there,” or “What was the point, no matter how hard I ran, I wasn’t going to win.”

Someone will always question the validity or necessity or values represented by the wall: “Just because you or society says that’s the wall we should race to, doesn’t mean I have to. I can establish my own values or goals.”  While, of course, people do have some control of their “goals,” it is crucial to point out that regardless of how individuals may value or define “success” or “achievement,” the society has some pretty concrete criteria (education, money, power, etc.) Usually the person who challenges the validity of the whole wall notion, is someone with quite a bit of privilege.

What does this exercise show us?

At some point after the exercise is complete, tell the group the name of the exercise. Help them have a discussion about the politician’s and media use of the “level playing field” propaganda. If possible, move the discussion to the need for programs like affirmative action.


  • None of the exercise statements was about any individual’s choice or decision. Each was dependent on parents, other people or social circumstance. While recognizing     the feelings of guilt and blame that can arise, reinforce this “no choices” point.
  • None of the statements, nor any person’s position at the end of the exercise, has anything to do with how hard people worked, how smart they are, how well-intended     or determined they were.
  • Many of the statements relate the multi-generational impact of oppression and privilege. While there is no denying that substantial social change has occurred, it is     still true that, at least, some of the effects of oppression from one generation do impact     subsequent generations.
  • The statements in the exercise (and the life experiences they represent) have a cumulative effect. People of Color do not have just one opportunity denied; women do     not experience just one incident of harassment, etc.
  • In the exercise, no matter how fast or hard folks near the back run, they will not beat the front folks to the wall. Relate to perceptions and reality in the comments: “women have to work twice as hard as men” or “People of Color have to be twice as qualified as whites,” etc.
  • What emotional responses might logically be evoked by these common, repeated     and expected (by adulthood) experiences? (by both the target and privilege groups?)
    You can begin here to talk about internalized oppression and internalized privilege.
    The feelings, particularly of young people (in target groups) of “Why bother? I can’t get     there.” or “I can’t do that.”
    The assumptions by people in privilege groups of “I accomplished that simply on my     own merit and determination.”
  • The “playing field is NOT level. Race, class, gender, etc. (depending on which issues are addressed in the statements of the exercise) continue to have significant influence on people’s access to the opportunities of this society.
  • There remains a need for programs like affirmative action.



  1. If your parents spoke English as a first language, move one space forward.
  2. If, as a child, you had a room of your own with a door, move one space forward.
  3. If you were raised in a community where the vast majority of police, politicians and government workers were not of your racial group, move one space back.
  4. If you were denied a job or promotion because of your race, move one space back.
  5. If you can get your hair cut in most any hair salon, move forward.
  6. If you’re racial or ethnic group has ever been considered by scientists as “inferior”, move one space back.
  7. If, in your home as a child, there were more than 10 children’s books and 30 adult books, move forward.
  8. If you were discouraged from pursuing activities, careers or schools of your choice by teachers or guidance counselors, move back.
  9. If one or both of your parents completed college, move forward.
  10. If you have spent one year or more without health insurance, move back.
  11. If you have been ever been harassed or disrespected by police because of your race, move forward.
  12. If one or both of your parents never completed high school, move back.
  13. If you can easily find hair care products, skin care products and bandaids to suit your skin color and hair, move forward.
  14. If you ate government “surplus” food as a child, move back.
  15. If you were taught, thoroughly, about the history of your racial group in K-12 school books, move forward.
  16. If you needed braces or other dental or medical care as a child, but you did not get them, move back.
  17. If you, as a child, were ever told you were dirty, shouldn’t touch someone’s food, or drink from the same glass, because of your skin color, move back.
  18. If you can easily find a birthday, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day or sympathy card picturing people of your skin color, move forward.
  19. If you have ever lost a job, a promotion because you had to take considerable time off work to care for a sick child, parent or partner, move back.
  20. If you have ever been asked if you were the secretary, maid, housekeeper, janitor or some other subordinate job, when you were the boss, the hotel guest or homeowner, move back.
  21. If neither you nor your parents had to spend any amount of time on public assistance, move forward.
  22. If you were ever asked “Where are you from?,” or “When did you come to this country?” – and you were born in the U. S., move a space back.
  23. If your bags have never been searched in a store, move forward.
  24. If, as a child, you were never told you must dress or act in a proper way, because it reflected on your whole race, move a space forward.
  25. If you were insulted, belittled, demeaned or ignored this week because of your racial identity, move one space back.
  26. If you were ever stopped or questioned by police or other people about your presence in a particular neighborhood, move back.
  27. If you never had to wonder if you were hired to meet an affirmative action goal, move forward.
  28. If, when you were growing up, you were regularly told “only one glass of milk or one helping of fruit” at a meal because there wasn’t enough, or if your family had an “FHB” rule, move one space back.
  29. If your fitness as a parent has never been questioned because of your income, education, work or welfare status, move forward.
  30. If your relatives of any generation were forced to leave ancestral lands, move back.
  31. If you or any relative was ever forced to live in an internment or relocation camp, move back.
  32. If you had a relative of any generation who survived or died in a Nazi death camp, move one space back.
  33. If you had a relative of any generation who was lynched, move back.
  34. If you have never had to hand a grocery store cashier food stamps for your food, move forward.
  35. If you have seen the owner of a purse (or other valuable) close it, move it or clutch it tighter when you approached, move back.
  36. If you have never been followed by the security guard in a store, move forward.

©1995, 2000, 2009, 2011 cultural bridges to justice / jona olsson –   adapted from “Horatio Alger” exercise by Ellen Bettman from an activity by Martin Cano, Valerie Tulier and Ruth Katz of “A World of Difference.”  2/09