Power and Identity

What does it mean to have power, either as an individual or as part of a powerful group?

Power, choice and ability to act

Power gives people options, so they can make choices and decisions. It gives them the ability to take action, to do things, to make things happen in the way they want.

Power and privilege

Having more power than others may confer certain privileges. That is especially true if one is part of a group of people with more power in society. It means that society has largely been shaped to reflect their experience. When individuals who are part of that social group look around at the world, they most often see their own values, experiences, ideas and beliefs reflected back at them.

For example:

  • When they watch television, the stories are usually about people who look, act, think and live like them.
  • When they read books, they are most often written from the perspective of people who look, act, think and live like them.
  • People who are in positions of power (e.g. at work, in public or political life) tend to look, act, think and live like them.

Identity as a source of belonging and power

Consistent validation of one’s perspective and experience tends to build confidence and enhance self-esteem. Such positive reinforcement can encourage people to identify with others who resemble them, providing even greater validation of their worldview.

In fact, choosing to acknowledge your commonality with people who resemble you can be a very positive experience, generating feelings of belonging, power and safety. This can be true even when members of that group are not socially powerful, and joining the group does not enhance your social status. Because of the power and strength many people derive from identifying with their social group, it is important to facilitate that process for young people by recognizing, acknowledging and embracing differences in our schools. (see Ruby and David)

Recognizing and embracing differences

As teachers, when we look around our classrooms, we can see many differences reflected in our students’ identities. Depending on where we live – in the north or south, in a rural or an urban setting – we may find more or less diversity among the groups represented in our schools and classrooms. But we will always find some differences, for example:

  • Learning styles
  • Different physical and intellectual abilities
  • Different genders, gender identities and sexual orientations
  • Different ethnocultural origins (including Aboriginal peoples)
  • Different immigration status
  • Different socioeconomic status
  • Different faith groups (including those with no faith).

There is a developing awareness of our society’s rich diversity and the significant contributions of different groups of citizens. In contrast, the idea that we must “tolerate” difference implies one group representing a centralized norm “putting up with” another group outside of that norm. Rather than tolerance, our students’, colleagues’ and citizens’ many differences need to be recognized, encouraged and fully included in daily school life.

Reflecting on power and identity in our lives:

Here are a few questions to think about:

  • What differences can I see among my students?
  • What differences do I know about, even though I cannot see them?
  • What differences might there be, even though I cannot see them and do not know about them?
  • What do I know about identities that are important to individual students in my class?
  • Have I made any assumptions about my students’ identities?