This has been a disturbing month for racialized killings. Michael Brown, a Black teenager who was unarmed with his hands up, was shot and killed in Ferguson Missouri. Tina Fontaine, a 15-year old First Nations teenager, was mutilated and killed in Winnipeg. There is no denying that both of these deaths are intricately linked with deep, very real and very disturbing racism. As Andre Picard wrote in the Globe and Mail, “If non-native women were dying and disappearing at a proportionally similar rate, the number would exceed 20,000”. And it is well documented that young black men are stopped and carded by police at a much higher rate than the rest of the population. Amidst all of this, the most pointed comment that I read recently on Facebook was someone who wrote “the white people on my feed are all Robin Williams and the black/brown people are all Ferguson”. This comment stopped me in my tracks, because it is so true. And whether we like it or not, we are very much influenced by what messages and articles that we receive (or don’t receive) through our Facebook feeds (or Twitter for that matter). And racism is continues to be a conversation that primarily takes place within racialized communities.
I don’t think that is any different from the other ‘isms’. Homophobia is primarily discussed by those of us who experience it, sexism, ableism etc. Let’s be honest – when is the last time that we able-bodied individuals have talked about our privilege and the barriers that exist for people who aren’t able-bodied? However, all ‘ism’s’ can’t be rated the same. Let’s be real. When you are killed for being a young Black man out of your home after the sun goes down, then racism trumps the other isms. I think death trumps all of the other consequences of discrimination: being poor, denied a job promotion, laughed at, treated badly, social isolation etc.
Why don’t we openly talk about the ‘isms’ (except the ones that affect us personally)? Is it because we are afraid to confront our own privilege, the gains we implicitly make (whether we want these gains or not) because we’re on the winning side of the coin? Is it because we feel guilty, or we worry that we will offend? We don’t talk about privilege, because the defining factor of privilege is that it is invisible (unless we consciously expose it) so we don’t have to acknowledge this as a critical factor in our success Privilege is only maintained when it stays invisible, and those who benefit from privilege deny its power.
Amidst all of this, I am getting ready to teach my college class. For one of my classes, I facilitate the Power Flower exercise with my students, which introduces the concepts of power and privilege and personally mapping your own social factors of identity with levels of power. Students are given a flower, and they identify ‘social/identity factors’ that exist in society where some people hold power and some do not (for example – race, gender, age etc). In the exercise, the students work in small groups to identify for each ‘petal of power’, who has the most power and they write that down in the inner petal (for example – for gender – men, for race – white, etc). Then I ask them to locate themselves on the flower privately (because some of this is very personal and they may not be comfortable to share – for example, sexual orientation, class etc). We then talk about power and privilege in society and I teach about how that impacts on peoples access (or lack of access) to opportunities, resources and engagement in society. I give lots of examples and statistics about how power and privilege is played out again and again, how power positions (government, business CEOs etc) are 99% white males, and how the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.
I remember doing the Power Flower in my first year of university, and it was transformative in challenging me to acknowledge and recognize my privilege, so that I could be able to work for social change and social justice. This exercise, along with reading the “Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” article by Peggy McIntosh, fundamentally transformed my perspective. I continued to actively confront my privilege as I discovered the amazing writing of anti-racist, feminist writers – Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde, Dionne Brand, Beth Brant, and Himani Bannerji. These writers, and others, carried me through my undergrad and graduate studies, constantly challenging me to confront my privilege as a white, able-bodied, (relatively) economically secure woman.
However, my college class is filled with students who ‘rate low’ on the power flower – most of my students are non-white, English is their second language, low-income, juggling family responsibilities, and many struggling with health and mental health issues. While it is critical for students to understand the concepts of power and privilege and social location, I worry about the underlying message. My experience of doing the Power Flower was realizing my privilege, and this understanding is core to my how I approach my work and my daily life. However, I wonder about the students who do the Power Flower and realize that they have very little power in society. Does this make them angry, and motivate them to work for change? Or does my emphasis on power in society mean that they feel more powerless and not able to change their situation?
And the question always inevitably comes up: What about Oprah? Oprah Winfrey would rate low on the power flower before she became famous – she is a Black woman and grew up dirt poor in terrible family circumstances. Oprah beat the odds, and is now the richest, most powerful woman in the world. Oprah also tells a different story, starting with her own personal life. Her story is that you can beat the odds, live your best life, and she continuously has examples of individuals who are amazing in triumphing over their struggles. I worry about this story too – that it is ‘pie in the sky’ and individualistic, that Oprah-esque/The Secret “If you try hard enough, you can be anyone and accomplish your dreams”.
Where is the middle ground? How will I approach teaching the Power Flower this semester? I think that I need to be upfront with my students the next time that I teach this, to show the different perspectives, and to give examples of how they can beat the odds and triumph. I think I need to be open and honest about my own personal perspective and my relationship with the power flower based on my position of privilege. This is a very personal story. While I believe it is critical for all of my students to understand the concepts of social location and power and privilege, I don’t want this to dampen their spirits or take their autonomy away. I want them to walk away from the lesson knowing that they, and we all, have the potential to be agents of change.