Competency A: Systems of Privilege and Oppression

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.

6 Responses to “Competency A: Systems of Privilege and Oppression”

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  2. Melissa Yamamoto says:

    I’d like to take this section a bit further. Give some specific examples of how this knowledge will impact your practice as a student affairs professional. For example, how will you “consistently negotiate how students interact with systems of privilege and oppression ?” How will you teach students to resist the “isms” inherent in them?

    • I apply this knowledge about systems of oppression in the ways that I interact with students. When I meet with a student who holds a systemically oppressed identity, I know that there may be an underlying power dynamic, simply by virtue of our races or national origins or ethnicities or religions. So, my strategy is to be careful in those conversations to play against that power dynamic, by assuring the student that they have ownership in their decisions, that they are empowered to make those choices, and that they know all they need to know to do well. I am just a guide or a facilitator. I use these strategies with all students, but I am particularly aware of this extra element of my privilege when working with students with historically underrepresented identities. It is even more vital that they maintain ownership of their choices with a sense of empowerment to make those choices.
      I also apply this knowledge in the ways that I interact with the institution. When I see something that inherently discriminates, I speak up about it, even when speaking up is uncomfortable and unpopular. For instance, last year we were redesigning our senior survey in Career Services, and we were asking for demographic information. However, I took a look at our categories and saw several places where I felt we were not being inclusive of all students, in terms of ethnicity and gender identity. These small acts of resistance add up if we all take them on.
      Teaching students to take these on for me is about awareness. Students cannot be forced to become actively anti-racist, anti-sexist, etc., but the more they are aware of the inequities, the more likely they will be to take those on for themselves. When something emerges in the institutional culture that I see as discriminatory, I will bring these issues up to my student staff for discussion. Or if I’m working with a student in an advising setting, and I hear something from a student that I sense might stem from a lack of knowledge about a particular group, I will say something to bring awareness to them. For instance, I was working with a student in a mock interview appointment, and I asked her about a time she worked with diverse others. She spoke about a community service trip to San Francisco and used some language for people who identify as transgender that was not appropriate. So we talked about why the word transgender is used, why is it more respectful, and whether she thought about her own privilege in that situation. These small conversations, I believe, can have a huge impact.

  3. Melissa Yamamoto says:

    Great addition, Jessica. I appreciate your thoughtful approaches.

  4. Anne was wondering about more institutional examples. Earlier, I posted, “I also apply this knowledge in the ways that I interact with the institution. When I see something that inherently discriminates, I speak up about it, even when speaking up is uncomfortable and unpopular.” The institution can discriminate or oppress through policy and procedure, through admissions criteria, through merit-based aid, through teaching style and curriculum, and through marketing and imagery. The one that is especially egregious to me is to base a large portion of admission decisions on standardized testing. Research shows that those from historically underrepresented backgrounds tend not to do as well on standardized tests, not because they are not capable, but because they have often not been trained well in the ways to take those tests. Students with privilege will take courses outside of school to help them achieve on the test. They are more likely to be in high schools where the teachers are teaching toward those tests and encouraging students to take the test multiple times. So, basing admissions decisions on those scores inherently discriminates against those students who did not have access to the resources to help them do well on the test. I hope to work at institutions that take multiple factors into consideration, including essays and recommendation letters, when deciding on acceptance for a particular student.

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