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Review: Privilege, Power, and Difference (Second Edition) by Allan G. Johnson

August 21, 2009

Allan G. Johnson has written a very accessible introduction to the concept of privilege: the notion that certain members of society benefit from institutionalized assumptions and beliefs about what is normal.  Conversely, attention is also given to various groups that are harmed by these same institutionalized assumptions.   People of color, women, homosexuals, and those with disabilities are all included in his discussion; however, one group that I noticed was not addressed was the growing and increasingly visible transgender community.   Perhaps if Professor Johnson updates the text into a third addition, this group, including or perhaps along with those who are intersex, will be included, similarly to how he added attention to the community of those with disabilities in this second edition.

Important criticisms like that aside, this text is not only a wonderful introduction to the concept of privilege, but it also delves into how and why various systems of privilege are perpetuated in society.  Johnson is adept at shifting the focus from an individual level, where feelings of defensiveness and guilt arise, to the societal level, where the systems of privilege truly operate and are maintained.   By looking at social systems and the way that individuals participate in them, he challenges his readers to act responsibly as agents of change, while suggesting that individual guilt or innocence is a moot point when it comes to dealing with these systems of privilege.  This is an important skill that Johnson wields, because American society traditionally celebrates the myth of the rugged individual.   Johnson acknowledges and discusses this tendency of the U.S. citizen to think individualistically, and then redirects his discussion to the societal level, effectively re-framing the concept of individual guilt or innocence as a discussion of social systems and institutionalized biases.

Highly readable, with the main text of the book running 153 pages, Privilege, Power, and Difference is not only an excellent introduction to the concept of privilege, but is also an outstanding discussion of how social systems work to perpetuate privilege, how individuals choose to interact with those systems, and how we as responsible people can change our ways of being in and interacting with those systems to create positive change.

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