Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Unpacking Terms Around Equity, Power and Privilege


Reading Time: 8 minutes

The main thrust of this post has been brewing in my head for months now. Basically, it’s that a lot of times, discourses whose end goals are equity, social justice, fighting against oppression, sometimes use terms that don’t exactly achieve their intended purpose. Including my own posts on these topics. Lots of terms we use are loaded beyond what we might mean by them when we actually say them. Terms like diversity, inclusivity, marginality, marginalization, subaltern, dominant, coloniality, colonizing, decolonizing, postcolonial, disadvantaged, privilege, even intersectionality (or what I sometimes termed semi-privilege, before I knew it was called intersectionality). These terms can get really really tricky to use. And sometimes when I’m arguing for something, I’m stuck with which term to use and am unsure if I’m using the right term in the right place. I have a feeling there might be a book (or many) that unpack these terms well. The reason this post is so late is that I haven’t had time to search for that book, and when I try, I get overwhelmed. If you know one, please tell me in the comments (not on Twitter, it’ll get lost on Twitter and not everyone reading this post will benefit).

I can’t, for the life of me, found the post by Tressie McMillan Cottom where she talks about how she asks students to stop using words like “privilege” and instead talk directly about “power”. It makes me think of a really good article by Nicholas Burbules, where he unpacks all the different theories on power in education. It’s awesome.

I’m going to mention the triggers for today later, but for now, let me talk about each term on its own.

Diversity I’ve read in several spaces that the term diversity implies neutrality, that it’s a “nice” term for the dominant to use, and it implies that just having different people with different backgrounds is a desirable thing, because it benefits everyone, including the dominant. The problem with the term diversity, is that it removes power from the equation, really. In my view, you can look at diversity as a good thing from two, very different, perspectives:

  1. Diversity is good because exposure to diversity gives you a better view of things from different perspectives. Because women think differently than men, in some things, because democrats think differently from republicans, in political matters. Because Palestinians think differently from Israelis. Also, because engineers think differently from humanists. The latter is an example of how something can seem neutral and not power-charged, even though there are possibly some power issues there. The gender and Palestine/Israel example is a different level of power altogether that is more obvious.
  2. Diversity is good when we realize that not all views are EQUALLY represented UNLESS we make an effort to represent them, and that the DOMINANT views suppress/oppress the marginal/subaltern views in ways that are oppressive/inequitable. This all seems repetitive. But look at how underrepresented women’s voices have historically been in religious discourse, and how it makes most religions (that I know of, where I mean the monotheistic ones) appear pretty patriarchal if not outright misogynistic. When I took a course on Women in the Quran, I learned about how feminist scholars interpreted Islam in ways more aligned to how I interpret it – and recognized directly why having all-male-scholars is problematic. Note that I said feminist not female scholars – because very often, for a woman to survive in a man’s world, she needs to talk their talk and walk their walk, to conform and repeat back to them what they’re saying, to be accepted in that world. I’m talking feminist scholars who challenge inequity and injustice. And that’s an important distinction. Not diversity of someone who just looks different, but  of someone who has a different perspective and can challenge the dominant one. Usually, one person among many won’t be able to achieve that. Unless superwoman or such.

So if we’re talking about diversity, both of these are important, but the latter is more important as a reason for doing it. The trickier thing is recognizing that diversity is HARD WORK if you wanna do it right. Because integrating people who are different from the dominant majority/perspective is not a matter of plunging them in and expecting it all to work out. There will be tension. There needs to be intentional effort to make this work. To make the voices exist alongside each other, when in reality, having a couple of “diverse” voices in a sea of dominance does nothing to challenge the status quo. This article by Brookfield highlights his pedagogical practice built on the ideas of Marcuse – basically, Brookfield, in his teaching, REMOVES the dominant view in the classroom in order to create space for truly engaging with the alternative perspectives. Giving them EQUAL voice to the dominant, treating them as all equally valid, often serves to reinforce students’ already-held beliefs, since theirs is just one among several. Why should they seriously engage the alternative viewpoint? It’s helpful to recognize how well our percentage diversities reflect the percentage diversity of the population we’re trying to represent. Women are half the world’s population, and they’re clearly underrepresented in almost every professional field; women may be higher in fields like teaching, but that makes it more important  to look at conferences and literature on education and check if women are as highly represented there (I got a hunch they’re not, for the most part). I don’t seek diversity in African American studies. I’m not looking for the white folks who are teaching about race. That’s not necessarily going to help that field. And it’s good to have men who are feminist, it’s important, but I’m not gonna call it a diversity issue if all the people on a feminist panel are women. Because the power issue, in my view, is the important one. And another thing? It’s never good to tell someone in their face that they’re the “diversity hire” or whatever. It’s demeaning and insulting, even if that’s really what you’re doing in a well-intentioned way. I’ve been people’s “token international” for a long time. It’s gotta end somewhere. Hopefully, it ends when you read me closely and find other internationals to follow (except I’m that person who somehow fits in with the misfits so I’m not entirely free of that ideology, but anyway…)

Inclusivity: this is SUCH a problematic term, because it implies there is a thing that belongs to certain people, and they’re being generous by including others into it, by letting others in. You hear inclusion used a lot with reference to people with disabilities. If we’re talking about schooling, this is literally true: schools already exist, and when we talk about “inclusion”, we mean for schools to make efforts to find ways to integrate children with disabilities, to fully include them rather than marginalize or reject them. But when we talk about inclusivity elsewhere… it implies borders and barriers. The thing is, those borders and barriers exist, so there’s no point ignoring them. But it implies also, in a way, “on someone’s terms”, and that’s problematic. When I “include” someone, I include them on my own terms, and that’s not the epitome of empowerment. Inclusivity is better than not inclusivity, right? But inclusivity is not empowerment. When we invite undergraduate students to present at conferences, do they still have to adhere to our formats, our schedules, our discourses? That’s including but not necessarily empowering. Gosh, even empowering is a problematic term. Let’s say that it isn’t fostering agency. (it’s so hard to use a good very before agency because you don’t want to say “give” agency).

Marginalization/Marginality. I feel like marginality implies a center against which a person finds themselves on the margin; whereas marginalization implies a center which actively pushes certain others to margins. It’s a slight difference. I mean, marginality still implies some kind of systemic oppression, but in a more passive way, if that makes sense? For example, I accept my geographic marginality which makes it difficult for me to attend conferences. It’s not that this isn’t a systemic problem (that most conferences in my field take place in the US/Europe), it’s just an unfair fact of life. Marginalization would be if these conference organizers intentionally didn’t allow me to present virtually (this has only ever happened to me once). And the opposite of marginalization is allowing Virtually Connecting in with open arms, or inviting someone like me to keynote, bearing the cost of my travel, instead of pushing that responsibility on me (or my institution) to get me there. I can go to two events a year as a keynote; I could go to one big event (outside the very nearby countries) maximum a year on my institutional funds. Anyway.

Back to this term. You know how writing in the margins looks different? How it’s not as neat as the writing in the center? How it’s squeezed and barely trying to find room to exist? Putting that smack in the center is not at all going to solve any problems. I’ve seen situations where women are used to taking up less space in a classroom than men, and trying to seat the women closer to the front and giving them more space isn’t going to help them take up that space comfortably. If someone isn’t used to speaking, “giving them voice” is not necessarily what they’re looking for, what’s good for them, or even if it is, it’s not something they’ll necessarily know how to take advantage of well… obvious, right?

Decolonizing I kinda love and hate this term. I love it because it recognizes that some issues are remnants of colonization. That’s different from coloniality, which is more like things that are still happening now, outside the political land-stealing that was colonial history. In any case, decolonizing is cool, except when I really think about it really hard and I realize what Homi Bhabha reminds us of: the current individual in Egypt or India isn’t someone who has a “pure” self to go back to that’s different from their “colonized” self. They’re already hybrid. It’s also pretty impossible to progress by completely decolonizing like detoxing. Can we let go completely of Western knowledge and live on local/indigenous knowledge, and really, how empowering is that anyway? I’m more a fan of what Shor and Freire recommed in a Pedagogy of Liberation – that critical pedagogy make work of teaching the dominant ideology/language/knowledge in critical ways, inviting the oppressed to learn it while questioning it (they need to learn it to survive economically at least) – and at the same time, make sure to make space for local/indigenous knowledge/language/ideology, but to still teach it critically (when beforehand, it was probably not taught at all). Edward Said made a big deal of not teaching in nationalistic ways – even in the face of oppression, even when it seems most needed, that’s not really the solution.

So I like the term decolonize in the sense of wrenching power back to the oppressed from the oppressor, but I don’t like it in the sense that it assumes there is some pure form of being that we will find ourselves in, a form that will necessarily be better… and I don’t know that that is the case. But maybe I’m getting it wrong.

Gosh, this article is so long and I haven’t even mentioned the triggers. I’ll leave those for another day, then!

Let me know if you have good references for any of these terms, or comparisons of the terms, or if you have any thoughts on this. I’m still working my way through it all.


Added later. I found this quote about decolonization, and I think it’s still missing something but I can’t put my finger on it. It’s the quote at the beginning of this book by bell hooks 

Decolonization … continues to be an act of confrontation with a hegemonic system of thought; it is hence a process of considerable historical and cultural liberation. As such, decolonization becomes the contestatton of all dominant forms and structures, whether they be linguisttc, disCursive, or ideological. Moreover, decolontzatton comes to be understood as em act of exorcism for both the colonized and the colonizer. For both parties it must be a process of liberatton:/rom dependency, in the case of the colonized, and.from imperialist, racist perceptions, representations, and institutions which, unfortunately, remain with us to this very day, in the case of the colonizer … Decolonizatton can only be complete when it is understood as a complex process that involves both the colonizer and the colonized. -Samia Nehrez


  1. Wow, Maha, you are rattling the foundations here! And part of me wants to say “be careful!” in that parental warning tone because while I can’t quite place it yet, I feel some sense of threat. At the same time, I hear you saying, “wait, let’s be more careful and thoughtful and critical when we use these terms.”
    So this is my very first gut response. I need to go think more and come back to this. You’ve caught me in a sensitive spot with these questions. So much more at stake than word choice as you illustrate in so many ways. Thank you for this jolt of inquiry.

    • I think I know what you mean about being careful. It’s probably why it took me so long to write the post…if i put it in context of the triggers it might help a little.

      I’m trying to figure out why, even though anyone trying to do these things, diversity, inclusivity…even though they should keep trying, the terms and their uses don’t always necessarily lead to lifting oppression or increasing equity. What is it we (ppl like u and me) would be calling for, what’s the right term or set of terms that express it in ways that don’t… I don’t know… Allow surface solutions that don’t really help solve the root of the problem. The systemic problem. And why does it matter? Why should it matter and why is it essential rather than a luxury?

  2. Hmm, I think it’s essential to think about these to develop a healthy habit of mind, essential for all of us (humanity) to go forward and exist. I hope people will post some good resources on Equity, Power and Privilege here. I’m going to check Nicholas Burbules now, thanks for this awesome post Maha.

    Note: Perhaps we need to frame our work on self as OER from this critical perspective, I’m thinking…:)

    • Woah that could be cool, Suzan! It’s definitely informing my thinking about open in general, so it would definitely make sense to think of it in self as OER context as well

  3. Looking at it from a design-thinking perspective, I wonder if the struggle or uncertainty has to do with a confusion between problems, solutions and steps in the right direction. What is the real goal, what are we really trying to achieve? For example, “including women in an event” is not an end-goal in itself: it’s a step towards a bigger goal (something like power, as you said, or having women’s point of view part of discussions and decisions, etc.). Perhaps we see diversity and inclusion as solutions that automatically solve whatever problem we had in mind. But they’re only steps on a bigger path; and if we see them as solutions, or as THE goal, we lose our focus on the real goal and on ways to get there.

    • Yes. I hadn’t thought of that but I think that’s exactly it. I think they’re possibly approaches to reaching a larger goal (unstated? Or understated) and are assumed to work when they don’t necessarily (partly because the terms themselves are problematic, though). Thinking of affirmative action, i think i have read that it reproduces privilege for the more privileged people of color, rather than helping the poorer POCs, for example. I don’t want anyone to stop doing this stuff but to consider how to do it better and keep the larger goal in mind. Even if thay goal evolves

  4. Pingback: Oppression? – Rebecca J. Hogue

  5. This is a big post Maha. I know we have talked about some of these things in regards to VC and I don’t want to conflate things in regards to larger issues.

    I want to take up inclusivity which comes to me as a paradox that flips on itself time and time again.

    I want to take up this idea of “giving voice” in terms of using the right vocabulary. To me, stages; microphones; or polish can be given… but not voices.

    However, I think Sherry is right about being careful – even in just considering how to respond I find myself starting and then stopping and then starting again. As I consider these things I find I’m sort of trapped in this strange negotiation between my own power and vulnerabilities – how I perceive those and how I imagine others could potentially perceive them. And so I pause to listen.

  6. You asked for my comments on this 4 or 5 days ago but Christmas and illness have intervened – viruses and crowded shops 🙁 Anyway my head is a bit fuzzy so I still may not make much sense – just ignore any rubbish I talk. Three concepts struck me from your post. Power, that some of the things you spoke were or weren’t binaries – inclusion/ exclusion marginalized/demarginalized diverse/? and lastly intersectionality. I have studied and written quite bit about power and binary oppositions (also polarisation) but I am still at the foothills of intersectionality. From my naive state of knowledge, I think that intersectionality as a perspective might be able to help us make sense of power and what sometimes look like binaries but all of these interrelated anyway. As I was reflecting on this, I thought about the challenges of exploring ideas in our online social conversational contexts. Who says what, who hears what, what and how the platform presents or hides and all of these happening across cultural and sociotechnical contexts. I had reread something I blogged nearly three years ago and the conversation around it. I could contrast how the writing helped my own thinking but its limitations as an aid to conversation with others. Thinking, talking and listening – they aren’t easy 🙂

  7. Thoughtful post, Maha, and thanks for posting again about it. Many my have missed it with Christmas and travel preparing for New Year’s.

    I was struck with that brief comment about the notion of privilege, something I have always struggled with. I think what most troubles me with that one is that it assumes a permanence in social systems, yet with complexities in experiences and life, there are often exceptions that get black boxed and oversimplified, with the term then speaking for power issues that may no longer exist.

    • Hmm trying to think about what u mean here Jeffrey.. Would you be willing to explain?

      • Privilege assumes an objective reality in life, often based on one or two criteria, yet our lives are much more complicated to have anything so permanent or objective imposed on us and maintained by everybody else. This reminds me of a structuralism that posits a permanence that really does not exist, even though everybody pretends it still does.

        • intersectionality and poststructuralism…where in one context someone’s whiteness is a privilege and in another their poverty puts them at a disadvantage. In one context a man has privilege coz male and same man in another context is marginalized because gay.

          I think almost everyone (except maybe Donald Trump and the poorest of the poor who are also of color and female and disabled and everything in one) is semi-privileged

        • I also struggle with the idea of privilege as an enduring label and I think that the concept of intersectionality helps to shed some light. There is a phenomenon though that does tend to show up the enduring yet hidden to beneficiary aspects of privilege and that is (white/ male) fragility Post-structuralism can also be a bit blind to ethics and power I think – anything does not go IMO

          • Elisabeth Ellsworth’s “Why Doesn’t this Feel Empowering” is my favorite critical pedagogy article and it tackles it from a feminist poststructuralist perspective. So she manages to unpack power while also looking at it from multiple perspectives (intersectionality) and remain critical and practical. Freire never did that for me. Nor did Giroux

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