The news of the death of Allan G. Johnson, path-breaking sociologist, was a punch to my gut. Most writing instructors have go-to authors whose foundational ideas become the central analytical lens of a course. For example, Mary Louise Pratt’s concept of “contact zones” shaped many semesters of my early teaching years in the 1990s, as did Gloria Anzaldúa’s theory of “new mestiza consciousness.” Similarly, Allan G. Johnson’s succinct definition of “systems of privilege” is a concept that can anchor an entire semester, providing a lens through which students can consider myriad issues. Johnson explains, “The concept of privilege refers to any advantage that is unearned, exclusive, and socially conferred” (455 in FIAW). It’s hard to imagine a topic in a writing class that would not benefit from this analytical lens.
For just this reason, my co-author, Stuart Greene, and I include Johnson’s helpfully clear and brief essay, “What is a ‘System of Privilege?’” in the 4th edition of our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing. While many students are familiar with the general concept of privilege, they sometimes react defensively. They might throw out challenges, either personal (“No one has ever given me a free ride!”) or drawn from the media (“What about Oprah?”) to critique anecdotally the claim that there is structural inequality in our culture. Anticipating these detractors, Johnson preemptively notes, “…privilege does not guarantee good outcomes for the privileged group or bad outcomes for everyone else” (456). Instead, privilege “load[s]the odds one way or another,” working like “rules in a game […] in which everyone participates” (456). Johnson’s point that we are all part of a system, whether we want to be or not, is a “click” moment for many students. We can’t opt out a structurally unequal society, but once we see that we are implicated in the system, we can begin to figure out how to maneuver, resist, and create change.
Johnson lays out categories of analysis that are easily graspable by students: “A system of privilege — a family, a workplace, a society — is organized around three basic principles: dominance, identification, and centeredness” (456). Each of these might offer analytical tools for in-class brainstorming that can form the basis of more developed student essays.
Dominance: Consider white privilege, in which “the default is for white people to occupy positions of power” (456) so that people of color are seen as exceptions to the rule. How many examples can your students generate, linked to your other readings, to consider the significance of phrases like “black director,” “Asian comedian,” “Latinx author,” or all the other ways whiteness is rendered “invisible” by being dominant?
Identification: Consider the way male bodies, for example, are seen as the standard for human beings. What examples might your students come up with, from medical testing, leadership in almost any industry, or films like Black Panther (since, despite strong women in the Black Panther plot, power moves are between men in this film about re-centering black identity)?
Centeredness: Johnson defines this as “the tendency to put white people and what they do at the center of attention” (456). How many examples can your students develop, based on looking at the front pages of newspapers, magazine covers, advertising, or, to return to our film example, the significance of black centeredness in Black Panther? (Students should discover that upending one system of privilege [racism] does not necessarily upend other systems of privilege [sexism]).
Once students grasp the multifaceted implications of “systems of privilege,” you can help them see how transferrable it is to almost any issue involving power, from the #MeToo movement, to #BlackLivesMatter, to the coverage of the Parkland high schoolers or to the many “evergreen” topics we often explore with our students, such as the meanings of identity, community, or inequality. Johnson’s insights have the power to become more than a tool for your classroom; the concept of “systems of privilege” can be a lens for understanding life.
Photo Courtesy of April Lidinsky