Intersections: Power and Privilege

Focused discussions about distinct forms of oppression are useful and important in order to help us develop an in-depth understanding of these realities. For example, if we have read or thought about racism, it can help us understand the particular ways in which a young, black man in our Grade 11 class has been wounded. However, we cannot then assume that we understand the ways he has suffered because of his learning disability. Nor can we necessarily understand (without asking and listening) how the two blend together within that individual to form his specific personal experience of his identities.

Compartmentalized thinking about issues of power and privilege can be misleading. Few people in our society are in perpetual positions of absolute power and privilege, or absolute powerlessness and oppression. People cannot generally be neatly divided into categories of having and not having power. For example:

  • Everyone finds themselves in a position of vulnerability at some point in their lives, if only during childhood or old age.
  • A racialized newcomer community that has been established for several years in Canada may be in a position of relative power over another ethnocultural group, whose members have more recently begun to arrive as refugees. These power dynamics play themselves out at school between groups of students from each community.

In reality, society is like a sea of power and privilege and we may find our position shifting from day to day or moment to moment, depending on the specific context in which we find ourselves.

The myth of normality

Many groups in our society fall outside of the tiny box of mythical “normality”. For example, teachers may find that many students do not live in so-called “normal” nuclear families comprised of two heterosexual parents. They may come from homes with one parent, a divorced parent, or same sex parents. They may live with adults from their extended family or other guardians. Many students may feel excluded by references to only one family model.

Other groups of people who live outside of the box are people with physical and intellectual disabilities (including learning disabilities), working class people and those living in poverty, and people whose first language is not English (for example, Francophones, many Aboriginal people and many immigrants). Elderly people and children may also experience inequity and exclusion because of their age.

Overlapping and multiple identities

Woven through many forms of inequity and exclusion is the issue of class, since economic exclusion is a primary form of injustice experienced by many marginalized groups (See Kevin). Homophobia overlaps with sexism due to the effects of misogyny and gender norms on both men and women (see Understanding Sexism, Racism and Homophobia). It is impossible to understand the experience of LGBT people without understanding the workings of misogyny. Understanding homophobia is crucial to untangling the ways in which sexism oppresses women.

(See Tadelesh, Adam.)

Many people juggle several identities that may sometimes blend seamlessly and other times may painfully conflict, depending upon many internal and external factors. The effects of inequity and exclusion are compounded when all aspects of an individual are not fully accepted. An individual’s feelings of invisibility and exclusion may be even greater when they are:

  • forced to choose between different identities: for example, a middle-class gay teacher who is working toward becoming a principal and is afraid to come out at his school;
  • rejected within different communities that form part of their identity: for example, they may feel that there is always someone who doesn’t like them, that there is nowhere they belong.

In order to cope with these kinds of situations, people may develop an internal disconnection, separating out different parts of themselves to try to belong in different settings.

(See Sabrina, Calvin.)

People may also be multiply-targeted, with more obstacles and negative messages to overcome, for instance:

  • a young woman is excluded because she is black and bullied because she is a lesbian;
  • a girl who is a newcomer is bullied because of her accent and the way she dresses, which is not “sexy” enough.

The accumulation of many levels of oppression can increase an individual’s vulnerability to many effects of exclusion. Teachers may observe an increased risk of low academic achievement and high drop out rates (though it is impossible to generalize these trends to all individuals). Individuals who experience oppression on many levels may have an increased risk of abuse, assault and discrimination, for example:

  • A young boy with a physical disability is sexually abused by his adult caregiver. Because he is so young, no one believes him when he tries to get help.

While it is impossible to make generalizations or assumptions about different people’s experiences of oppression, inequity and exclusion, there are certain commonalities. Shared experiences of powerlessness, of feeling voiceless, invisible, and left out, can help us connect as human beings. These shared experiences can also allow us to forge many inroads to conversations about inequity and exclusion in classrooms and schools as we enable students to make connections between issues. Each school will have a unique starting point that is relevant to their community.