Estimated reading time: 10 minutes, 36 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Unpacking Terms Around Equity, Power and Privilege


Estimated reading time: 10 minutes, 36 seconds

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


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