Using Our Power

Some people may derive privileges from their identity as members of a socially dominant group. The levels and forms of an individual's power and privilege are constantly shifting, along with their identity, depending on the context and their interactions.

Shifting configurations of power, privilege and identity

No one is all-powerful in all contexts all the time, just as no one is absolutely powerless in all situations all the time. We all have a certain degree of personal agency: some measure of ability to choose and to act. Varying circumstances and situations may either augment or diminish this ability (see Miyanda).

People's identities are fluid. Depending on the context, others may see us differently or we may feel differently about who we are and where we belong. We may also make choices about our identity based on context (see Calvin).

Identity as a choice

In different contexts, we may choose to express one identity over another. Identity is an individual choice.

For example, an individual whose dual identity connects them to both a dominant and a more marginalized ethnocultural group may experience pleasure and a sense of belonging when they participate in community gatherings with the more marginalized group. In another context, when they find themselves in the minority surrounded by members of the dominant group, they may prefer to identify with that culture. Their shifting identity is in part a reaction to their minority status in certain specific contexts and is synchronized with the corresponding shift in their social status. Nonetheless, despite the larger social forces at play, the individual may actively make choices about their identities (see Calvin).

Identity as an imposition

When a person's identity is externally imposed upon them, it may be experienced as limiting and oppressive.

For example, in a classroom setting, if a student is singled out and (intentionally or unintentionally) pushed to publicly acknowledge his or her identity, the experience may be negative. This may be the case even when the identity is an important and positive part of the student’s life, because the stance he or she was forced to take was not a choice (see Calvin and Elizabeth).

Examining power and privilege

Those of us who gain power through our identity may be more or less conscious of our privilege. Because our way of seeing the world predominates, we may consider our ideas, values and lifestyle as simply "normal". We may not realize that we are in fact seeing the world through a particular lens that is not shared by everyone (see John).

Taking a look at who we are and where we learned our values and beliefs can help us become more aware of our assumptions. In fact, whenever we think something is right or good because it is "normal", it may be a red flag for us to take a second look and ask ourselves questions (see the section about Awareness).

Taking Responsibility

We can take responsibility for the ways we gain social status through our identity by seeking to reduce power imbalances and to use our power in a positive way. There are many things we can do to gradually develop classrooms, school environments and communities that are equitable and inclusive (see Becoming an Ally and Strategies for Positive Action).

Some "traps"

The workings of power, privilege and identity are as complex as our society. Even with the very best of intentions we can sometimes fall into traps that end up reinforcing power imbalances rather than reducing them.

  • We may declare that we are "colour blind", meaning that we see everyone as equal and do not discriminate. This may cause us to overlook or be unresponsive to the specific needs and experiences of individuals from marginalized groups.
  • In our efforts to achieve equity and to ensure that everyone is included, we may expect an individual from a marginalized group to "represent" the needs or perspectives of that group. This kind of gesture is considered to be tokenism if it creates an appearance of equity and inclusive education, without changing the underlying conditions that may exclude some groups.
  • With the intention of creating an environment where no one feels hurt or excluded, we may name a situation as "reverse discrimination" when someone who is in a social position of privilege is targeted in some way. Social problems such as racism, sexism and homophobia are systemic (see Racism, Sexism and Homophobia: Social Problems). If someone from a privileged group is hurt or targeted, it needs to be taken seriously and stopped. Nonetheless, it constitutes a different phenomenon than discrimination based on social marginalization and requires a different understanding and resolution.

Reflecting on the use of power

Take a few moments to jot down your answers to the following questions:

  • Who am I? Describe yourself and the different components of your social identity. With which social groups do you share things in common?
  • How do I identify? What aspects of yourself are important to you and why? Which are not so important and why?
  • What are my privileges? Imagine yourself outside of the group (or groups) where you currently belong. What would you lose if you no longer belonged to that group (those groups)? What would you gain?