Module 2 - Power & Privilege

Privilege within Group Dynamics

Privilege, power, and culture are all terms that can be used in different ways and can, therefore, be confusing to people. One of the easiest ways to start a discussion about these issues is to look at how society has been divided into what Beverly Tatum (1997) describes as "agent" and "target" groups.

The people who are in the agent group are those who have been systematically advantaged by society because of certain attributes they possess. Conversely, those who are in target groups have been systematically disadvantaged. Tatum (1997) also discusses seven categories of otherness that have historically been used to place people in a target group:

  • Race or ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Age
  • Physical or mental ability (p.18)

When it comes to power and privilege, sometimes it is not easy to see how the two are interrelated. Peggy McIntosh (1989) writes about the concept of privilege in her essay Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. While she primarily discusses white privilege, this concept can be extrapolated to other areas of "otherness" as well.

These groups, based on identifiable markers, find themselves in a constant interplay of dominance (agency) and subordination (target). In addition to this, members of a dominant group are set up as the norm of society and those in the subordinate or target group are then 'deficient' or 'substandard.' Those in the target group often feel oppressed and at times internalize that oppression, and may even come to believe the stereotype to some degree.

While oppression is part of the interplay between groups, it is important to remember that there is no hierarchy of oppression as many of us a both dominant and subordinate, depending on the context.

Click on each example to learn more.

Example of Oppression of a Target Group

Being able to enter and exit a building with ease is something that most people take for granted. However, if you have limited mobility and the only way to get into a building is by using a door that is both distant from the nearest handicapped parking spot and also placed toward the back of the building, this may make someone feel devalued. This isn't a direct attack on a person with limited mobility, but is a sign of 'able-ism' nonetheless.

Example of Group Dynamics

Groups are divided not only along lines of race, gender, and/or socioeconomic status. If you think about the many things that make you unique, you may find that those differences are also ways in which people are grouped into categories with a value attached to each of them.

For example, you may identify yourself as an athlete. As a student athlete you may feel that there are certain times when being an athlete has an advantage in society, and you may also believe that there are people who will judge you because of your athlete status, without even knowing you.

In one instance you may be part of the dominant group (because you are with people who value student athletes) and in the next you may be part of the target group. Society is divided into a series of groups, and dominance is fluid and contingent upon context.


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