I have always considered myself to be a progressive and open-minded person. I took pride in saying things such as, “I don’t really think of colour”, “Who someone goes to bed with is none of business” and “Saying I have privilege negates the hard work I put into all that I do”. I came to realize over the course of an intensive three-days, how much “unlearning” I had to do and how misguided (though well-intentioned) those statements were. (Not to worry Jeewan, I understand that intent often does not matter in relation to the impact of such statements or others).
I attended a three-day course on equity and inclusivity a few weeks ago and truly feel as though my view on such things as white-privilege and accessibility have been forever altered. I feel as though it is important to provide the following disclaimer: I am not an expert on the subject and thoughts posted here are my own. This post is reflective in nature and meant only to generate and promote discussion rather than, to teach, preach or judge. I have a lot of unlearning to do and would love and invite multiple perspectives on this issue particularly as it relates to educational practices, classroom interactions and family outreach.
We began our first day with an introduction to the power circle, an activity which listed: occupation, immigration status, education, religion, race, sexual identity, language, age, family status, class, ability/disability, gender identity, sex, ethnicity and urban/rural. We were tasked with deciding whether or not we were “in” a position of power or “out” of the circle of power for each of these respective categories, and whether or not the notion of power and privilege ever shift situationally.
Our discussion here ran very deep as we challenged attitudes and behaviours and shared experiences in which we felt ostracized or “out” of the system of power. What differentiates feeling “outside” of a circle from being oppressed or shut out from a system of power is the idea of the systemic “majority”. Meaning, when we look at those who are in positions of authority, or those responsible for making decision within a classroom, institution, agency or even lawmakers, who do we see filling those seats?
When we consider who “they” means, we start to see who the majority is. Over time, attitudes and behaviours move from bias and stereotypes to discriminatory actions and even state-sponsored, systemic inequity (laws or curriculum which negate the experiences of those who are not in positions of power), this is supported and even legalized by the “they”. Those who influence and make decisions are essentially those who decide what we have access to and how choices will be made.
The power circle exercise enabled us to challenge notions of equity in a post-colonial world, alongside systems which are rarely ever scrutinized or questioned. Let me explain how the exercise works; Each of these categories, allow for some to be “in” and others to be “out”, this is not earth shattering nor something that we have not heard before, so why did I feel so shocked?
When we start to look at the effects of colonialism on the way that society is structured and the impact of those “power shifters” listed above on our accessibility to positions of power, the disparities between the “haves” and the “have nots” really begin to take shape. What we have access to purchasing, teaching, eating and to some extent even believing is historically shaped by, in most cases, middle-aged white males.
The problem with this is that is limits the experiences and options we, as a society, have available to us as well as the impact that those who are not seated in positions of power can make. Worst still, is how unaware of this legacy we are and how far-reaching these ideologies are in the system in which we exist.
The course moved into the evolution of oppression and its entrenchment, formalization, systemic evolution and perpetuation by way of the step tool (Adapted from: An Educator’s Guide for Changing the World). The step tool looks at how biases and selective information (informed by upbringing and the legacy of colonialism) begins as a stereotype perpetuated into a prejudice, which strengthen into discrimination, isms and ideological, manufactured realities sponsored by laws and institutions.
At each successive level, attitudes and actions escalate and strengthen, if this goes unchallenged by those around us, beliefs become legitimized and solidified allowing them to become ingrained in society. What was particularly illuminating about this process was how intentional these entrenchments are, and how simultaneously unaware of them we are, if we exist within the power dynamic.
At this point you may find yourself asking – what does this have to do with education?
Paul Kivel, The Culture of Power
“Those inside the culture of power rarely notice it, while those excluded are often acutely sensitive to how they and others are being marginalized.”
Reflecting on my own classroom practice I came to realize that if I wanted to establish a collaborative space for my students and their families, I needed to truly have their voices, attitudes, opinions and backgrounds reflected in the material being delivered, as well as in the space itself. As I strengthen my ability to identify patterns of equity and inclusion, I effectively cultivate a space that is both accepting and inviting to all.
Paul Kivel, The Culture of Power
“We have a responsibility, as people who have had access to educational opportunities, not to let the fact of our being on the inside of a culture of power allow us to deny educational opportunity to those who are on the outside.”
Furthermore, we must be cognizant of those whose voices we are not hearing within our communities and open up opportunities for those people at the discussion table. (Think: parent-teacher interviews, parent councils, community night, class websites, locked doors). Finally, we must open this discussion up to families, students and colleagues even when it gets muddy and challenging, for it is in this way that we can begin to create change and use our power to support those who do not have it.
On the final day of the course we discussed allied ship, I will not delve into this on this post but will summarize this three-part post with becoming an ally and how I understand this complex notion.
For me the discussion and call to action in regards to equity, power and privilege has only just begun. Understanding that we attach value to various differences, and the impact that these value judgements make in how we understand the world around us will take a significant amount of time to unpack.
More so, learning how I operate in a power driven system and opening up the world I present to my students and their families as well as discussions I engage in (or chose not to engage in) with colleagues and friends will be a process of unlearning and re-educating. How do you understand power and equity in relation to the world around you?
The Evolving Educator