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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Privilege, Power, and Difference - Johnson

After reading Alan Johnson's article Privilege, Power, and Difference, I am struck primarily at how "out of date" his claims and anecdotal evidence seems to me.  Life is about perception, and therefore different for each individual.  My evaluation of the article, is that the perceptions and experiences Mr. Johnson has been through personally and professionally have shaped his outlook and claims in a way that is fundamentally different than the experiences and perceptions that have shaped my outlook.

To begin with, Johnson claims (in 2001) to have been working in the field of sociology and teaching courses with a female African-American colleague for over 30 years.  He goes on to describe his white, middle/upper-class, heterosexual, male perspective, yet denies to include his generation, and the prevailing majority of thought that belonged to it.  Johnson backs up his claims throughout the article with arguments that seemingly are incontrovertible, such as "just because you don't feel privileged, does not mean that you aren't," while using phrases such as "people of color" and "lesbians and gay me cannot casually reveal their sexual orientation without putting themselves at risk."  While I can suffer that this might have been the reality from his perception during the generation when he matured, it is simply not true in my experience.  As a 42 year-old white, heterosexual, middle-class male, the overwhelming majority of the people I have known (male/female/transgendered, straight/gay/bisexual/transvestite, black/asian/white/hispanic) would be outraged at the suggestion that a person was more or less valued because of their place on the wheel, rather than their character.  On the contrary, someone who implied such would be considered ignorant, and disregarded.

I am not suggesting that society has reached the same level of enlightenment.  Salaries and average household incomes are not equal across differences.  Representation in government and high-paying powerful positions do not reflect the population.  Interest rates have been proven to suggest preferential treatment, as have arrests/convictions/sentencing.  Johnson points to these inequalities and states that it is the result of privilege, I would contend that it is rather, a contingency of ignorance among the aging group of people who currently make such decisions, and that we are on the precipice of the changing of the guards.  Johnson would point out that my "denial of the problem is a serious barrier to change" and I would argue that I do not deny that there is a problem, but that it is largely generational, and therefore as the current generation of those who perpetuate the privilege continues to age, a newer generation, who generally value character and performance over stereotypes and tradition will affect continued and proper change.  My response to Johnson, is that the conversations and shift of paradox has already happened, and passed him by.  The world is a different place than it was in the 1970's when he was afraid to talk to a black woman about race, and in 2001 when homosexuals were afraid to let it be known what their orientation was, and that I feel privileged to have come up in a society that says you are a person first, that your character and accomplishments speak much louder than your skin color, gender or orientation, and that differences are not something to be tolerated, but celebrated, because that is what makes individuals interesting.


  1. I believe that we are moving forward in this way that you speak, but that we have a long way to go. My friend and her boyfriend are a mixed racial couple and they still get the looks and sometimes even comments about their relationship. I think that living in New England, a place that has historically been more excepting of differences can affect our judgement. I think that in the US there are still very wide gaps for male vs. female, white vs. non-white and so on. I would like to thing that we have made some improvements since 2001, but that this problem is not just generational. Previous generations continue to place their ideals on younger generations, and this cycle of inequality is still very present in our society today.

  2. Brian and Jenny,

    You both make some very interesting, valid points here. I think it's important to realize where we all draw our personal experiences and opinions from. Brian, you work at a high school in Central Falls, which is (if I'm not mistaken) extremely diverse, especially compared to where Jenny and I teach (Newport and Burrillville). Perhaps for that reason you might feel more strongly that this new generation of students "generally value character and performance over stereotypes and tradition." I'm not saying that the students in our schools don't, but I also know the way my students' families feel and talk about people who are different, especially their skin color and sexual orientation.

    In reading Brittany's blog earlier this week, I was struck with the thought of where it was more difficult to have conversations with our students about privilege and power - a classroom that is diverse in many ways is more likely to voluntarily have a tolerant, respectful discussion about their differences, while a classroom that is filled with primarily white students might have a more difficult time sharing (and understanding) opinions and situations of people unlike themselves. That's where we come in. As educators, it is up to us to ensure that no matter where we are teaching, who our students are and what they have grown up listening to, they are taught to have these discussions out loud.

    Like Jenny, I think that while we may have made some advances since the time Johnson wrote this book, we still (as a society) have a long way to go. I can't wait to talk about this more tomorrow and how we can bring up such fruitful discussions with our students!