Privilege, Power, and Difference

Study Guide


Chapters 1-5

1.Alan Johnson states in the Introduction that “All of us are a part of the problem”, (p. vii). Do you perceive that you are a part of the problem? In what ways?


2. Johnson refutes the idea that prejudice and oppression are a part of human nature or the natural order of things (pp. 3-4) What evidence from your life can you think of to back up or deny this claim?


3.Why is it so important for dominant groups to “break the silence” (p. 11) about their own privilege in order to create the possibility for change?


4. What does Johnson mean when he says that, “Oppression and dominance name social realities that we can participate in without being oppressive or dominating people.” (p. 13)?


5. How does Johnson define the relationship among the concepts of power, privilege, and difference? Is our inability to “get along” merely the fact that we are diverse, or is it something else?


6. How do you describe yourself based on the categories in the Diversity Wheel (p. 18)? Choose a category in the center of the wheel to hypothetically change for yourself. What impact would these changes have on your life?


7. What is a “socially constructed reality” (p.22)? What examples does Johnson give to illustrate this concept? Why are socially constructed realities so powerful?


8. What is privilege, and the two types described by Johnson? (p.33) Johnson cites several examples to illustrate his definition. What are two examples from your experience that also illustrate the role that privilege has played in your own life?


9. What was your reaction to the three lists of everyday examples of the playing out of privilege as you read them (pp. 27-33)? Did you find yourself reacting similarly or differently to each category? Why?


10. What does Johnson mean by the “paradox of privilege” (p. 34-39)? What are some examples and their consequences?


11. On pg. 45, Johnson describes the consequences of an unequal distribution of resources that capitalism sets up. In your experience, does this sound true? Give an example of why you agree or disagree.

What does Johnson define as the relationship between economic systems and social institutions? (capitalism and racism, p. 50) Which example of Johnson’s do you feel is the most useful?


12.What are some examples of ways that capitalism is directly connected to racism? What are some examples of indirect connections? (ch. 4)


13. Why is a “point system” of privilege ineffective in terms of defining one person’s privilege over another (p. 54)? Explain what you mean by developing an example using your own experience.


14. How does the matrix model (p. 55)clarify the relationship between privilege and domination for you?


15. On page 58, Johnson expands on his definition of privilege. What does it add to his earlier definitions?


16. On pp. 59-60, Johnson gives individual and societal examples of racism. Add to these with several examples from your own life.


17. On p. 63, Johnson uses statistical evidence to support his argument. In what other ways could you present this information to have a greater impact on the reader?


18. Now that you have read half of the book, how do you define the terms that comprise the title of the book—privilege, power and difference? How are they related to form systems of oppression?


Chapters 6-10

19. Johnson states that appealing to people’s good intentions, “the do-the-right-thing approach”, p.78, is not a good approach in the long run. Why not? What are importgant elements missing in this approach?


20.  On p. 81, Johnson states that “Short-term, competitive thinking make that goal (ending racism, sexism and oppression) almost impossible to achieve, because effecting that kind of change is inherently a long-term project.” What do you think he means? What changes would have to happen to end the “isms”, and why are they long term?


21. On p. 86, Johnson uses the analogy of a game of Monopoly to illustrate the individual’s relationship to the system. Describe that relationship in your own words and then give an example of a system in your own life and how you relate to it as an individual.


22. What does Johnson mean by the “path of least resistance”? (p. 87-89) What examples does he give that are personal? What examples have broader societal implications?


23. On p. 91-92, Johnson expands on his Monopoly analogy and the consequences of “playing the game”. How does he recommend that we change the game (system) itself? How could you individually make an impact?


24. On pp. 93-95, Johnson writes about his shirts, and then the efforts of people to stop a flood. How do these analogies relate to his argument? What is some behavior that you could change in your own life to become involved in changing a system you are a part of?


25. What are the three key characteristics of a system organized around privilege, according to Johnson? What does he mean by dominated, identified, and centered, and how are these concepts related in systems of privilege? What impact does all of this have on your own life, both as a member of some privileged groups and not others?


26.  Johnson states “Male dominance does mean …that every man can identify with power…which makes it easier for any man to assume and use power in relation to others.” (p. 97) How does this male power structure affect women who assume power?


27.  “Patterns of domination and the paths of least resistance that sustain them show up in every system of privilege.” (p. 101) Analyze a system of privilege that you are familiar with or a part of (a school, a course, a club, church, etc.) and describe how that system privileges certain groups (whites, males, heterosexuals, etc.). How do paths of least resistance apply in your scenario?


28. How do people become invisible in systems of privilege? What assumptions are at play? (p. 102-3, 110-111)


29. Why is what people don’t do a powerful force in preserving systems of privilege? Give some examples from the text and your life.


30. Give two examples from the text of the “invisibility of whiteness.”(p.131) How does this contribute to inequality?


31. What are some of the ways that privileged groups get themselves “off the hook”? What argument does Johnson make for the necessity of privileged groups to live on the hook?


32. Johnson begins chapter 10 by summarizing the tools that we have to start with to think about and challenge systems of privilege in new ways. What tools that he lists do you think are the most effective? Which do you or could you start to apply in your life? Are the most effective tools and the ones you can use the same tools?


33. In your own words, describe the two myths about how change happens that Johnson writes about.


34. In the second myth, Johnson describes a central paradox through a quote from Ghandi. (p. 146) Has this paradox ever played a role in your own decision-making?


35. How do these myths blind us to our own power? Give an example of how this blindness or denial affects other people.


36. How do societal paradigms shift, according to Johnson? (p. 149-51)


37. How is unawareness or knowledge of oppression help maintain its existence?


38. On page 154, Johnson states, “By itself, however, changing how we think won’t be enough to solve the problem.” Why not? What else needs to change?



What does all of this have to do with art?