This is in response to: Johnson, A. G. (2001). Power, privilege, and difference. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.
Johnson is a sociologist who travels all over the United States, working with people and corporations to understand the significant social issues that our culture/society continues to allow to happen. His book Privilege, power, and difference (2001) presents his thoughts on how the systems present in our culture continue to keep white people in positions of power and privilege. He discusses two different short-term approaches, the tin cup and the business case, that people and businesses use to move into eliminating inequality. The tin cup appeals to a persons decency, you should do the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do. The business case is where corporations try to keep talent by having quick hitting programs designed to entice people into staying. He indicates that these are not ideal and the lasting impact is minimal (p. 75). Johnson frequently talks about how the “individual system” and the “social system” when making his arguments about privilege and power. The individualistic system has the view that if a person is not intentionally hurting someone, they are not part of the problem. The social system is created by the individuals and the choices that people make as they move through multiple layers and paths in their lives. Johnson argues that these two systems work in concert with several other systems to create class systems and through these, oppression of those on the bottom by those on the top.
We learn how to behave in these systems from popular culture and limited views of reality. He points out on several occasions that “not knowing” or “remaining silent” is the same thing as condoning terrible acts of oppression and racism. Humor and brushing off situations that are sexist or controlling are just as bad as being silent. Having the courage to take an “alternative path,” (p. 134) not laughing at insensitive humor, or standing with someone in a time of need are suggestions for change. Johnson believes that the type of change needed will be slow in coming, but through everyone contributing what they can where they can, positive change will happen.
In several places Johnson talks about the individualistic view that most people take when they are asked about oppression and privilege. If you are not hurting others or showing prejudice you are part of the problem (p. 85), telling us that sitting on the sideline or standing in the crowd is not an excuse. We all need to be aware of the divides of our society and how to close those divides in our own ways. As consumers we continue the cycle of oppression and privilege, buying food, clothing, or cars – often manufactured by individuals who are paid such a small amount that they are bound to a class that will never break out of oppression. This is something that is going to happen, we need clothes and cars, but is there a way to show that we disapprove of the manufacturing process? Johnson ties these types of examples all through his writing – situations that we encounter everyday where the dominant group does small things to remain dominant. Our culture is full of images that show white men with privilege and power. White people do not have their “own” movies and white artists not being identified as white, are examples of norms for our society that allow the dominance of one group over another.
Everything in our society is perceived as so normal, that when something different happens in relation to diversity, it is a big deal. When people being oppressed march and point out the injustices that they are living through, those with privilege become defensive. They don’t want to lose what they have. There are also the little things that happen in everyday life that promote oppression and privilege of one group at the expense of another. Brushing an incident off like it is not a big deal (to those in power), laughing at an insensitive remark, or opening the door for women (p. 116) are all different ways to subtly demonstrate power. I struggled with the opening the door for women part – isn’t this an act of kindness and generosity? I certainly do not mind when someone holds a door open for me, it doesn’t matter to me if that person is a male or female. However when you look at how Johnson describes his “tin cup” (p. 72) it fits right in. Showing that women need men to open the door for them because they are unable to do so for themselves.
There were several places that Johnson showed me where my place in society was and how I had done nothing to earn it. I was born a white male, I am married to a woman, I am a Christian, and I am not disabled (at the moment). I had never spent any time thinking about these things and how ignorant I was about oppression and privilege. I considered myself a good guy, I don’t intentionally try and humiliate anyone, I try very hard to get along with all people I come across and I don’t say much. Johnson has challenged my thinking with this book, by telling me these attitudes support the current status quo. In the final chapter where he gives such practical advice for creating positive change, he gives me hope for self-improvement. Johnson gives several ideas that are strikingly simple to start using every day. The easiest one for me is by setting the example (p. 134), I can let others see my behavior and actions and through consistency, have a positive impact on those around me. He also shares that looking for new paths to take will help. This can be difficult to do because I so naturally look for the path of least resistance. I can work on listening better, this class has me trying to pay attention to talking over people. I can start to withdraw from some of those places where I am unnecessarily silent. Those times when there is an off color joke, or outright racism, to speak up and to notice those aspects of my life. I can also support those who step off of the path of least resistance and recognize how difficult it is for them to do that.