Here is what I understand about systems of privilege and oppression: Certain identities confer privilege and power within US culture. The dominant identities here are white, male, heterosexual, non-disabled, gender-conforming, Christian, high socio-economic class, educated US citizens. Those who have these identities have power within systems that those who do not have these identities do not have. However, it is the system confers that power, not each individual person. How can a system give some people power and leave other people oppressed and dominated? This concept can be difficult for some to grasp, but Johnson (2006) explains it well in his book, Privilege, Power, and Difference, which I read for Multicultural Issues in Higher Education. “People make systems and their consequences happen through paths of least resistance that shape who people are and how they participate” (p. 90). So, people make systems, but they make them through not taking action because the status quo confers privilege on those with dominant identities.
Johnson (2006) goes on to list three characteristics of systems that confer privilege and oppress people, dependent on identity, “They are dominated by privileged groups, identified with privileged groups, and centered on privileged groups” (p. 90). Dominated refers to a system within which those who have power by virtue of their occupation or position of authority are members of a dominant group. Politicians, judges, and police officers are examples of occupations of power within the larger society. Within higher education institutions, executive positions like the President and Provost, as well as Directors of departments, are all considered positions of power. When these power positions also largely share specific identities, the institution is perpetuating a system of dominance and subordination. Johnson’s (2006) second characteristic, identified, refers to the ways in which a specific system is associated with a specific identity. For instance, the word American conjures an image of a white person for many people in the US and around the globe. The American system is identified with whiteness. The words college student conjure an image of a young person, between the ages of 18 and 24, leaving those who fall outside of this age range in a subordinated position with the system. Johnson’s (2006) third characteristic of systems of privilege and oppression, centered, speaks to who the system focuses attention on. In the movies, which groups are featured at the center of the narrative? In the news, whose stories are told? In advertisements, who is pictured? This centering within the larger culture of the US on dominant identities can cause students within higher education with subordinated identities to feel invisible in the classroom and on our campuses.
Because higher education systems exist within the US system, it is important to consistently negotiate how students interact with systems of privilege and oppression both in the institution and in the wider society. The way to overturn these systems is through teaching students and ourselves how to resist the isms inherent in them, including racism, sexism, ableism, and heterosexism. Johnson (2006) calls what can be done about privilege, power, and oppression, “stepping off the path of least resistance” (p. 143). Because of US cultural socialization and the early lessons I have been taught through media and schooling, l think in particular ways about particular subordinated groups. Therefore, I have to begin with myself in overturning the single stories I tell myself about oppressed groups I do not belong to. To change the system from within, I can also draw attention to it and make those around me aware of the privilege and power certain groups in our society have simply by virtue of their identities through taking little risks that might make others, and even myself, uncomfortable. I can stop supporting those who perpetuate these systems, whether they are corporations, businesses, media organizations, or my friends and neighbors. Finally, I can become active in overturning these systems by nurturing relationships with others who share my identities and across boundaries of difference to promote change.