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What is Power and Privilege?

According to
Safe@School, Safe@School (n.d.). Power and Identity. Safe@School.
“power gives people options, so they can make choices and decisions. It gives [people] the ability to take action, to do things, [and] to make things happen in the way they want”. Power is often talked about in tandem with privilege because
“having more power than others may confer certain privileges”. Safe@School (n.d.). Power and Identity. Safe@School.
Privilege Black, L., & Stone, D. (2005). Expanding the definition of privilege: the concept of social privilege. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 33(4), 243–255.
is “any entitlement, sanction, power, and advantage or right granted to a person or group solely by birthright membership in a prescribed group or groups”. Traditionally, power and privilege have only been talked about in the context of race/ethnicity and gender but, in the last decade, researchers have acknowledged that an individual’s power and privilege in society also depends on
other socially constructed categories Black, L., & Stone, D. (2005). Expanding the definition of privilege: the concept of social privilege. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 33(4), 243–255.
such as “sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, differing degrees of ableness, and religious affiliation”. People with power and privilege generally find themselves living in a society that has been constructed to reflect their experiences. They see their values, beliefs, and ideas reflected back at them. For example, when people with power and privilege watch movies or read books they usually see people who think, act, look and live like them.

What factors influence Power and Privilege?

When you look around your classroom you will see many differences reflected in students’ identities. This diversity in your school and broader community
is known to enhance Milem, J. F. (2003). The educational benefits of diversity: Evidence from multiple sectors. Compelling interest: Examining the evidence on racial dynamics in higher education, 126-169.
“student growth and development in the cognitive, affective, and interpersonal domains” and is especially important for developing
critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Wells, A., Fox, L., Cordova-Cobo, D., & Kahlenberg, R. (2016). How racially diverse schools and classrooms can benefit all students. The Education Digest, 82(1), 17.
However, diversity also presents challenges, many of which are associated with power and privilege. Minority, lower power groups
often report Fine, E., & Handelsman, J. (2010). Benefits and Challenges of Diversity in Academic Settings. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.
feeling isolated and unwelcome in environments dominated by majority, higher power groups and many of these individuals report experiencing oppression or discrimination. In fact, within any given conflict, a power imbalance is almost always at play.

Recognizing and embracing our differences, as well as understanding how these differences influence power and privilege, is essential to creating a healthy, safe and connected school community. People differ from each other in any number of areas but some of the
most commonly recognized differences Safe@School (n.d.). Power and Identity. Safe@School.
that contribute to power and privilege include physical and intellectual abilities; gender, gender identities, and sexual orientations; ethnocultural origins; immigration status; socioeconomic status; as well as religious affiliation. The following chart reviews some of the most common factors influencing power and privilege and identifies high and low power groups for each factor.

Factors
High Power
Low Power
Gender
Male
Female
Gender Identity  
Same as a person’s assigned sex at birth.
Different from a person’s assigned sex at birth.
Sexual Orientation
Heterosexual
LGBTQ+
Physical Ability
Able
LGBTQ+
Intellectual Ability
Able
Disabled
Ethnicity
Caucasian
Ethnic Minority
Immigration Status
Canadian  
Non-Canadian or First-Generation Canadian
Socioeconomic Status
High SES
Low SES
Religious Affiliation
Christian
Other religions
Age
20s – 50s
Children and Elderly Adults
Education
University Degree
No Degree

What is intersectionality?

Intersectionality is a framework for conceptualizing how a person, group of people, or social problem can be simultaneously affected by a number of different discriminations or disadvantages. The theory of intersectionality was popularized by Kimberlé Crenshaw, in her 1991 article “Mapping the Margins”. In the video below, Kimberlé explains what intersectionality is and why it’s important.

What does it mean to be an Ally?

Being an ally means using your privilege to help support people who are facing oppressions that you may not be experiencing yourself. For example, you may be an ally for LGBTQ+, Indigenous, or Black people, despite not personally identifying as LGBTQ+, Indigenous, or Black, respectively. However, being an ally is about more than just adopting a title. Allyship is hard work and requires a lot of time, dedication, and commitment.

Here are some different things to consider if you want to contribute to a cause as an ally:

  1. Listen – Take the time to listen to people who are experiencing the oppression. This may require you to question your own beliefs and biases and change your mind about things that you have previously believed. Listening can be awkward, uncomfortable, and emotional, but it is always necessary. Ask respectful questions and make space for them to speak more than you.
  2. Learn – although it is important to learn from people who are experiencing oppression, you cannot expect them to teach you everything. It’s your responsibility to consult reliable resources (ex. books, documentaries, blogs) and learn as much as you can on your own time.
  3. Speak up – speak up when you hear people say things that are oppressive, disrespectful, or prejudiced. Start the conversation by saying something like, “That’s not cool” or “Why did you say that?” and try to help the person understand why their words might be oppressive or disrespectful.
  4. Educate others – Educate others within your own community. Being a member of a privileged group means that your voice is heard more when you speak about an issue, so use your knowledge wisely. Start with talking to your family, friends, and peers.
  5. Create space – create and maintain safe spaces for people of all different backgrounds and experiences by being inclusive, respectful, and accepting.

Where can I learn more?

The MSW@USC Diversity Toolkit: A Guide to Discussing Identity, Power and Privilege

Safe@School – Professional Learning and Teacher Resources about Diversity, Identity, Power and Privilege

Teaching For Diversity – Resources and Strategies to teach for and about diversity

University of Michigan Inclusive Teaching – An Instructor’s Guide to Understanding Privilege

Teaching Tolerance – Anatomy of an Ally

Teaching Tolerance – Teaching at the Intersections

Teaching Tolerance – Intersectional Identities: Do Educators Empower or Oppress?

What will students learn?

By the end of this lesson, students will be able to…

  • Recognize different types of power, the relationship between power and privilege, as well as the factors that influence power and privilege
  • Understand how power imbalances affect relationships and contribute to conflict or competition
  • Articulate and experience what it feels like to be in a position of higher and lower power
  • Identify where power and privilege may be contributing to conflict or injustice within Canadian communities and abroad
  • Acknowledge effective strategies for addressing power and privilege
References
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Black, L., & Stone, D. (2005). Expanding the definition of privilege: the concept of social privilege. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 33(4), 243–255.

Coleman, A. (2019, March 28). What’s Intersectionality? Let These Scholars Explain the Theory and Its History. TIME.

Fine, E., & Handelsman, J. (2010). Benefits and Challenges of Diversity in Academic Settings. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.

Milem, J. F. (2003). The educational benefits of diversity: Evidence from multiple sectors. Compelling interest: Examining the evidence on racial dynamics in higher education, 126-169.

Safe@School (n.d.). Power and Identity. Safe@School.

Wells, A., Fox, L., Cordova-Cobo, D., & Kahlenberg, R. (2016). How racially diverse schools and classrooms can benefit all students. The Education Digest, 82(1), 17.

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