Abstract for: The Dynamics of Privilege

Most people attribute their successes to their personal capabilities and actions. Actions and outcomes are easily observed, but your success also depends on the systems in which you are embedded, including your race/ethnicity/gender, and your family, community, school, and other circumstances. These systems are harder to perceive, and it is difficult for people to recognize and understand the multiple feedback processes that lead to the accumulation of wealth, privilege, and success for some while denying these for others. How can educators and others help people learn about these complex system dynamics for themselves? How can we help people learn to see how these systems affect life outcomes, that the failures and poor outcomes of others are strongly conditioned by those systems, and not to character defects? Here I present one approach, used with executives at the MIT Sloan School of Management in a system dynamics course. Surveys of participant beliefs, interactive causal mapping exercises, and simple simulation models help participants understand how small initial disparities in people’s situations often cumulate to large, durable advantages for some and disadvantages for others—and what can be done about it.