"The Color Line"

Andrea FergusonStories

One of the most powerful learning experiences of my life is a recent one where, pursuing a personal goal to develop my “will, knowledge, skill and capacity” for interrupting social inequities, I signed up for a two-day training.
The most significant learning took place around an exercise called “The Color Line.” After filling out a self-report questionnaire and scoring myself about the degree to which I experience privilege in my life, I placed myself on a continuum based on my score. I wasn’t surprised to find myself closer to the high end of the scale — I am, after all, a white woman — nor was I surprised to see the lowest scoring participants were people of color. What did surprise me were other patterns the trainers were able to predict: the high percentage of low-scoring participants who held doctorates, how the continuum progressed from darkest to lightest skin tone, the exception of a smattering of whites in the mid-range who turned out to be members of biracial families, for example.
While that activity gave me — and other participants – a lot to think about, the trainers were savvy enough to not leave it at that. Our homework was to find someone with a skin color different from our own, have that person take and score the questionnaire, and have a conversation with them. A New England country girl, I was in New Orleans, over 1,000 miles from home in a city where I knew no one. I tried calling a neighbor back home, but she was out. I reasoned I would find someone when I went to dinner, but I couldn’t quite figure out what my opening line needed to be to enter into such a conversation.
After three hours of walking around, I finally returned to the hotel. As I walked in the lobby, I must have looked somewhat lost, as a young man in a hotel uniform asked if he could help me. Indeed he could, I replied, and indeed he did. We had a lengthy conversation in which we experienced some ah-ha’s, although I suspect mine were not quite as unpleasant as his. I was particularly grateful for his generosity and filled with relief at having completed my homework.
When morning came, we were back in The Color Line. This time the trainers’ questioning, observations and dialogue prompts challenged us to ensure we investigated the meaning of our own scores, the scores of those we interviewed the evening before, and our fellow participants’ scores through several lenses: intellectual, emotional, moral, and social. We talked as a whole group, in pairs, and in small groups. We talked in mixed skin color groups and in same skin color groups. We surfaced and shared emotions and compared and connected those emotions to conceptual frameworks.While this particular training was only one of the varied means through which I am learning about other ways of being in the world and developing skills for effecting change in the world, the learning from this training proved to be transformational, something I carry with me every day that has changed my awareness of who I am, how I walk through my world, and the choices I have every day.