The Intersection of Identity, Oppression and Pathways for Creating Change

Thinking Beyond Borders curricular units are designed to highlight the complexities of critical issues around the globe so our students understand them as the relevant, dynamic topics which they are.  Inevitably, these new understandings leave our students with a big question at the end of every unit: “What can I do to create change?”

That question is being asked by millions of people throughout the United States and world right now in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minnesota, just months after Ahmaud Arbery was pursued by three white men in Georgia and killed, and only weeks after Breonna Taylor was fatally shot by the police in Kentucky.

For many, this question is derived from a place of hurt, of despair and desperation.  It’s rooted in our common humanity, in our ability to empathize and love others. And while most of us are asking this question as a direct result of the shared pain we feel from the most recent tragedy, it’s worth pointing out that hope is born when enough people are asking this same question.  History tells us that change is born when people have decided that they’ve had enough of the status quo and want to take part in something larger than themselves.

So let’s break down that question of how to create change in order to explore the roles we as individuals, play in society.

The following exercise, adopted from the Toronto District School Board, is part of TBB’s “Who Am I?” identity development curriculum, and can be used as a guided reflection for anyone interested in reflecting on the intersection between identity, systems of oppression and pathways for creating change.

What is the Relationship between Power and Identity?

To start, make a list of your personal identities which you hold. These can include your race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, nationality, education, socioeconomic status, etc. Try to include identities which you believe are important, as well as identities which may be more apparent to others. Next, take some time to answer the following questions.  It can be helpful to share your answers and discuss with a partner.

  • How have these identities impacted your experiences?
  • How do these identities relate to power and privilege?

If you are with a group of people, this activity tends to be a strong demonstration of how identity impacts our lives. The most important part however, isn’t the activity itself, it’s the conversation afterwards.  Make sure you debrief as a group, discussing questions such as:

    • What did it feel like to step forward? To stay standing in the outer circle?
    • If there was a statement that no one stepped forward to, prompt a discussion. Also prompt discussion if only one person stepped forward.
    • What stood out to you? Did anything surprise people?
    • What do these statements have to do with power and privilege?

Here is one definition of privilege as it relates to identity and power, from “Everyday Feminist”.

How do Individual Acts fit into Societal Structures?

To the right is a diagram called a “power triangle”, which is a useful tool to visualize systems of power. When we look at this triangle, we see that acts of any type of discrimination happens on three distinct levels: individual acts, within our ideas and beliefs (which lead to the formation of stereotypes or prejudices) and within broader institutions and systems like government.

Take some time to brainstorm specific acts of discrimination which might fall into each of these three categories.  Why is it easier for us to think of examples in certain categories? How are these categories connected to one another?

All forms of discrimination (racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, etc) operate within all three categories. The triangle allows us to see that at times, the more visible forms of discrimination tend to be the acts of an individual rather than ideas and beliefs or the institutional discrimination that exist. It is similar to an iceberg, where all one sees is the tip, not what lies beneath the surface.

As we return to our guiding question, “What can I do to create change?”, we now see that this question can be separated into 3 distinct areas of actions:

  • What actions need to be taken in order to challenge ideas/beliefs?
  • What can be done to challenge individual acts of discrimination?
  • What can be done to challenge institutional discrimination present within our societies?

It’s usually around this stage that one might begin to feel a bit overwhelmed with their options and wonder where to even start this process.  Do we start with ideas, with the individual, or with systemic practices? Will working on one category exclusively and ignoring the others be effective in creating change?

We need to look at changing the way institutions work. Changes must be made to individual and institutional behavior in order to challenge racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, and ableist ideologies.  Because these areas are all interconnected, creating change takes daily, intentional work.  It is especially important to engage in this work if you are someone who has unearned advantages in life due to elements of your identity.  Whether it is the simple act of engaging in inquiry to learn more about identity and systems of oppression, or taking part in political action, advocacy or intervention, there is a first step which each of us can take to make the world we live in a more equitable, just place.

The staff at Thinking Beyond Borders is contributing to change by donating to related causes, participating in public protests and spending time reflecting and learning more about the roles we play in the world around us.

To access the full reflection activity, please follow this link.