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Stop, Collaborate, and Listen: Talking About Power and Privilege

Posted By Michael King, Ball State University, Monday, March 16, 2015

Supporting student dialogue through national events, movements, and protests. Creating safe spaces for students of all gender identities on our campuses. Promoting a culture of bystander intervention as it relates to sexual assault. Understanding the identity process for students who are bi-/multiracial. Supporting students of differing sexual orientations, racial/ethnic identities, ability levels, religions, national citizenship statuses.

As the Inclusion and Equity committee worked to hone in on a committee scope, one thing became clear: We – residence life professionals – have quite a bit of work to do. In the past year, all the aforementioned topic areas brushed with the work we've been doing on our campuses. That said, the decision to commit to each of these topics runs the risk of doing many things but doing none of them well. How does a handful of residence life professionals go about deciding which of these topic areas is important, which ones can be moved aside for today?

Then, as though the clouds parted and innovation fell over us like rain, an idea was put forth: "All of these topic areas fall under the ideas of power and privilege. Could we make that our committee focus?" And so it was born: The Inclusion and Equity committee identified a committee scope related to power and privilege, and – through that lens – committee members could focus their efforts in the direction of whichever topic area they felt pertinent.

Let's talk about power and privilege in 2015: The word "privilege" is no longer a vocabulary word exclusively known and utilized by alumni of university diversity and multiculturalism courses. In today's click-and-share social media climate, it is far from uncommon to see an Upworthy video or Jezebel article related to privilege as it relates to gender equality, differing ability level, LGBT identity, or any other social justice area. In many ways, this is a sign of remarkable progress; college students are engaging in out-of-the-classroom discussions of power and privilege. As we well know, however, not all education is positive education.

Here's an example from my experience: While I was in graduate school, I noticed one day that many of my students were sharing the results of a Buzzfeed quiz entitled "How Privileged Are You?" Happy to see them discussing notions of privilege, I decided to investigate the quiz and see what it had to say about my own experience with privilege. As I moved through the process, a series of boxes to be checked if the listed statements were true for me, I began to realize something: In some ways, I am privileged. In other ways, I am not. As I finished out the quiz, I realized that I am often focused on ways in which I am not privileged, but – in the vast majority of ways – I experience quite a bit of privilege. When I finished the quiz, I was a bit startled by the response: You're not privileged!


What a feel-good conclusion, Buzzfeed. In a mere fifteen minutes, despite my momentary realization of privilege, I had been granted permission by the Internet to absolve myself of the burden of working toward a more equal society. Privilege, according to this undoubtedly well-intended quiz, is a yes/no concept. Were these students truly benefiting from this contribution to the power and privilege discussion?

Thinking over the past year, the national news is bringing plenty of opportunities for college students to grapple with power and privilege in society. The Ferguson verdict and ensuing protests. Bill Cosby and the women stepping forward to share their stories. Michael Sam and other athletes who are stepping forward to speak themselves into existence in a historically "LGBT-free" terrain. Reading the comments section on any article, Facebook post, or YouTube video, reminds all of us that the discussion on power and privilege is not always productive.

For people of privilege, the accusation of privilege can bring about a lot of progress-halting emotions: Shame. Defensiveness. Denial. When these emotions fuel a response, the conversation becomes a mud-flinging contest. "The Ferguson riots are evidence that these people are dangerous." "These women speaking out against Bill Cosby are just money-/attention-hungry liars defacing the image of a good man." "Enough about Michael Sam and his boyfriend kissing on national television." Not all conversation is good conversation.

And so here we are, working to promote a simple strategy once brilliantly articulated by the illustrious Vanilla Ice: "Stop, collaborate, and listen." In a culture of megaphones, we often forget to set aside our own feelings and empathize. We have plenty of work to do, residence life professionals, and it begins with the role modeling and promotion of listening, empathy, willingness to learn. 

Let's begin the discussion. For its 2014-2015 year, the Inclusion and Equity committee has honed in on a committee focus on power and privilege.

Tags:  inclusion and equity  power  privilege 

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