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.
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)
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).
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).
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)
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 Tools for Equity and Strategies for Positive Action).
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.
Take a few moments to jot down your answers to the following questions: