Sunday, September 8, 2013

Working Hard and Playing by the Rules: A Response to Allan Johnson's Privilege, Power and Difference

Quoting Relevance:

Allan Johnson is a white, heterosexual, American man. He is the epitome of power and privilege, and he knows it. Despite his fortunate and rather comfortable position in our society, Johnson has chosen to step outside of his comfort zone and investigate, make sense of, and teach others about the social constructs that define and constrict our modern American Society. He offers some challenging and thought provoking material. His writing serves as a warning to those who are in the most privileged circles of our society and may not even realize it, but also as the beginning of a solution to the problems of inequality and inequitably in our society. Here are a few of Johnson's most important points emphasized within his writing:

1. "We are prisoners of something."

Johnson argues that people feel that something is off in our society. We don't like it. We don't want it to be this way, but this "something" or "elephant in the room" seems beyond our control. Like trying to control the weather, it's not possible. According to the author, we easily point fingers or look at parts of a picture and place ourselves on the outside of it, but Johnson would argue that we are inside of this picture, we are the focal point. This "something" that we feel is "closer to our own making than we even realize." We are prisoners of history and a long series of events that have resulted in the "socially constructed society" in which we live today, and whether or not we like it, we are in it heart and soul. No one living in the United States today can separate themselves from the history and "legacy we all inherited."

2. We live in what sociologists might call a "social construction of reality."

So what is this legacy we inherited? This legacy is the ruling force behind the comings and goings of each and every individual and all of the things that happen in between in our day-to-day lives. It is a set of rules that say some people are more trustworthy, important, intelligent, and valuable than others. Men are more important than women. White people are more trustworthy than blacks. Heterosexuals are normal and homosexuals are not. Johnson provides evidence of these norms which can be witnessed within society in the section entitled "What Privilege Looks Like in Everyday Life." For example:"whites can succeed without other people's being surprised," and "men can reasonably expect that if they work hard and play by the rules, they'll get what they deserve." These norms amongst many others are all part of what we have accepted as the product of a "socially constructed idea of reality." The challenge for each of us is to question that reality, acknowledge that it is part of our world and rather than blindly accept it, become part of the solution.

3. Those who are privileged often don't realize it, it is a "legacy we (the privileged) all inherited."

Simply put, you are not exempt. Even though you may not have done anything to offend, harm, or condemn others, you live in the product of a society that has systematically done this for centuries. In order to start solving the problems of segregation and inequality in our country, everyone must realize that they play a role in the solution. 

4. People are not afraid of what they don't know. They are afraid of what they think they know. 

Johnson debunks this myth entirely and really hits the nail on the head. Think about it. Are you really afraid of what you don't know? Or are you afraid of what you think you know about a group or individual?  This is a critical part of Johnson's argument, in that we need to shut down or circumnavigate the conditioned reaction we have developed when meeting new people. As human beings we have the tendency to categorize people and put them in boxes. Each person must be treated as an individual, not as a statistic or representative for the group you may think they belong to.

5."Once you name it, you can think, talk, and write about it."  

In summary, Johnson asks readers to step outside of what is comfortable. Instead of talking about vague terms like "love," etc. We need to confront racism, sexism and homophobia head on. We can't act as if these realities don't exist. We cannot go on living as we have. That "something" needs to be dealt with directly. The sooner we "name it" the better off we all will be.


  1. Great way to organize and make sense of this longer text... I hope that we will spend most of this semester talking about all these "unnamed" things so that we can work through and past the "luxury of obliviousness." Great overview of complex themes.

  2. Brittany, I agree with Dr. Bogad. You succinctly spoke to the major points of the piece and your analysis of each point helped to me to further synthesize the text. Your fourth point was a quote that triggered many thoughts when I read Johnson as well. When we categorize people, which seems to come "natural" to most and is made via appearance, our natural inclination is to also put them into a "me/we" vs. "them" or "one of us" box. This tendency to judge further exacerbates true communication and thus, understanding. Also, the last point, the naming of issues, is a point that is probably the most difficult to confront; it isn't deemed "polite" and can easily appear confrontational. But, perhaps that's what Johnson is saying is needed at some level.

  3. Brittany, I agree we are all prisoners of something. No matter what race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and any other category that I may have missed we fall into, we become a prisoner in some way. Sometimes we are happy to be a prisoner of that specific camp because we chose it, and other times we are prisoners of things like gender, something that we can't control and are trapped by things like the wage gap that is still so prevalent in our society today.

  4. I would agree that everyone should play a role in the conversation about diversity. However; I do not believe that everyone has the ability nor the willingness to be a social advocate for a specific group. Sometimes it is the person who lives there life each day and promotes diversity by his or her actions. That person does not need to be a social activist to make positive change. When I hear stories on the news such as the Rodney King conflict it baffles me because I share the same thoughts when he says "Can't we just get along". Johnson is definitely that social advocate and I do admit that he makes you think. I have been thinking about this all week and it is uncomfortable.

    I would agree that is human nature to make assumptions and those assumptions about certain people make people nervous or scared. Like Johnson suggested, it is not what they don't know it is what they think they know that causes the problem.