Understanding Privilege

Jacques-A. Gerber
3 min readSep 20, 2021

With just one simple experiment

Photo by Author at the San Francisco Exploratorium

The San Francisco Exploratorium features this very simple yet effective experiment for anyone to understand privilege.

There are two transparent handbags, one labeled “me”, the other “someone else”, on each side of the table. In the middle of the table, there are nine groups of two bean bags, each group in a different color, plus one blag bag with an “x” on it (see picture above). Each group addresses a specific demographic property, such as skin color (grey), age (purple), gender (green), or physical ability (orange). For each group, you pick the bag that corresponds to you and put it in the “me” handbag, and put the other one in “someone else”. For instance, if you’re white you put the “I’m white” grey bean bag in the “me” handbag and the other “I’m not white” grey bean bag in the “someone else” handbag. If you wonder about non-binary cases, the green bags are either “I’m male” or “I’m female, trans, or non-binary.” You repeat this for each group (the full list of labels is provided at the end of this article) until you’re done.

All bean bags look similar in size and shape, they only look different from their color and label. The key is that, for each group, one is about three times heavier than the other. Once you’re done filling both handbags, you take each of them off the table and compare the weight that you carry with the “me” handbag with the “someone else” bag. The difference of weight gives you a physical feeling for your relative privilege compared to others, and a good metaphor for what “someone else” has to carry at all times.

What about the black bean bag? The black bag is a “wild card”. It’s an additional weight you can optionally put in either handbag if you think that one of the two bags deserves additional weight that would not be represented in the default groups.

This is simple and everyone gets it, children and adults alike (you may need to remove or explain some groups for kids, depending on their age and what parents consider appropriate for them). You can easily build that experiment yourself at home with just enough small bags (sandwich bags or similar) that you fill with sand or beans or whatever is easier for you.

In this experiment, here are the groups and labels being used: