Power and Privilege

Discussions about power and privilege may be emotionally challenging, triggering feelings of guilt or defensiveness. However, it is important to recognize that in our society, skin colour and culture are key factors in determining power and status, such that it can be an advantage to be white. As a result, those of us whose skin is white and whose ethnocultural origins are European have certain automatic, unearned advantages. These advantages tend to give white people greater access to certain social, political and cultural benefits, such as higher social status and income levels, positions of authority and greater control over decision-making. This privilege reinforces and perpetuates the power imbalance between white people and racialized groups. The advantages incurred may come to be seen as “normal”, thereby reinforcing beliefs in the superiority of white people of European origin.

The school environment is no exception. For example, the privileged group in a school may be native-born Canadians, while those who are excluded may be newcomers. The teaching staff may be largely white, native-born Canadians whose social status allows them to reinforce their dominant position by disseminating their own values as well as the visibility of their ethnocultural group.

Of course, power dynamics are never this simple and individuals wield power over others for a host of reasons (see Intersections: Power and Privilege). Nonetheless, the benefits of social power and privilege do confer certain advantages that increase an individual’s opportunities.

We are not to blame for privileges we have due to our ethnocultural origins and skin colour. Often there is nothing we can do to eliminate our privilege. As individuals and as teachers, we can take stock and responsibility for how we use them by attempting to offset the imbalance of power they reinforce. Gaining awareness of the ways in which we benefit from our privilege helps ensure that we do not perpetuate conscious or unconscious racist or ethnocentric beliefs.

Privileges that benefit white people in our society

To learn more about the privileges that benefit white people in our society, read “Adapted white privilege”.

For a few examples of how white privilege may play out for teachers, click here for 1-page document "White privilege in schools”