This is Part 4 of a series of posts designed to help us explore our work and leadership through the lenses of dominant power and liberatory power.

How does dominant power keep reproducing itself?

When we look at our history critically we can see that many of these false hierarchies of identity emerged from times when those with power needed reasons to justify extreme forms of oppression and exploitation over others. For example, the ideology of white supremacy emerged from the need of Western European nations to justify occupation, exploitation and enslavement. This was done through the construction of false ‘racial hierarchies’ that positioned the ‘white race’ as biologically and spiritually superior over everyone else.

This dehumanizing ideology corroded empathy, desensitizing Western Europeans to the violence inflicted on colonized populations, and allowed a perverse narrative to emerge in which the Imperialists saw themselves as ‘saviors civilizing the ”savages” for their own good’.

This pattern remains true today. When we have been taught to see somebody else as less than human or as an inferior kind, it makes it possible to exploit, abuse and enact violence upon them without feeling strong moral conflict. Likewise, if we have learnt to see ourselves as inferior we are much more likely to accept exploitation, violence and abuse against us because we have been taught that it is what we deserve. 

However, it has become less common to hear the rulers of the world (with notable exceptions) openly expressing that some identities are inferior to others, now the language of dominance is coded in more subtle ways. This is in response to a long history of progressive movements led by oppressed groups who have demanded that their humanity be recognised and respected. However, despite significant progress, our societies are still producing many of the same disparities in opportunities and life outcomes.

This is because prejudice does not just go away, it evolves and becomes more complex. Trauma does not just heal on its own, it gets passed down through generations. Oppressive systems don’t dismantle themselves, they just learn to operate in more sophisticated ways. And so as we are socialised into this world, passing through systems designed to maintain the current social order, we internalise this prejudice and trauma and learn how to reproduce it for the generations to come. This is known as social reproduction

What is the role of education in reproducing dynamics of dominance?

In the last few centuries education has increasingly become one of the primary mechanisms of socialization and social reproduction in our societies. By critically observing how the system educates our children (and ourselves) we can identify patterns that reveal how these dynamics of dominance are protected and reproduced.  

Read: Inequity by design: Historical roots of educational inequity

At its core, education inequity is..  

  • When a system is biased in the distribution of resources and opportunities, privileging families and communities with more wealth and power while disadvantaging marginalised families and communities.  
  • When a system teaches a child (implicitly or explicitly) that they are worth less than others, and in order to ‘close the gap’ they will need to become more like the people who are ‘worth something’. 
  • When a system teaches children that hard work and talent lead to success and they are responsible for their own failure, while at the same time maintaining a structural and cultural bias that makes it much harder for children from marginalised communities to succeed, especially without rejecting or hiding parts of who they are in the process. 
  • When a system rewards unquestioning compliance and conformity while punishing critical perspectives on the knowledge, culture, values and narratives that have been prescribed. Encouraging children to just accept the world as it is and their place within it. 
  • When a system reduces a child’s full humanity into narrow,  restrictive and biased models of ‘success’, ‘achievement’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘intelligence,  excluding the creative, intuitive, expressive, embodied, emotional, cultural and spiritual expressions of who they are. 

When systems function in this way they inevitably end up protecting, normalizing and reproducing dynamics of dominant power.

Jeff Duncan Andrade Systems of social reproduction Hector Aristizabal Learning to consume the world Kayla Begay  How schools reproduce inequities

*Videos produced for Teach For All


Take a moment to consider these questions..

  • What different expressions of inequity have you experienced or witnessed within the education system in your context? 
  • How might these function to reproduce dynamics of dominant power? 

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