T1.2 Examine and address power and privilege as they show up in the classroom

Highlander Institute Spotlight Series


Power and privilege are inequitably distributed within education institutions, resulting in vastly different student experiences and outcomes. Our system fundamentally privileges Whiteness, first and foremost, along with other dominant identities (i.e., English-speaking, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, neurotypical, etc.). Individuals with these identities hold disproportionately high levels of power in distributing education resources, developing policies, determining instructional priorities, and making decisions within schools. Consequently, some student groups have the privilege of operating within settings that closely match and affirm their identities — with conditions that are more conducive to their success. It is important for all students to become aware of the power structures that exist within schools as a reflection of our wider society. By exploring how the status quo reinforces beliefs about the perceived superiority of certain identities, investigating how power and privilege impact the opportunities available to marginalized populations, and determining how to act in ways that promote justice, teachers emphasize how everyone can advocate for more equitable systems.


  • Students from higher socioeconomic status households are often unaware of their privilege. They believe that their success is based on their own merits and that the benefits they receive are normal and available to all, which ignores the parts of the system slanted in their favor. Conversely, many students from households with lower socioeconomics status believe that their lower class position is of their own making, a result of some individual deficit (Mantsios, 2007). Busting this myth is necessary for highlighting the systemic — not individual — nature of inequity.
  • There is ample evidence of the impact of power and privilege within education. For example: 
    • Identifying gifted students has less to do with student performance or ability than race and ethnicity. Black and Latino/a/x students are persistently underrepresented in gifted programs due to deficit thinking and prior assumptions made by educators (Grissom & Redding, 2016; Ford et al., 2002).
    • Black youth are significantly more likely than White youth to be suspended for the same behaviors, and the discipline gap starts as early as preschool (Gregory & Fergus, 2017). 
    • Students of color — both in “predominantly minority” schools and in integrated schools — experience lower-track classes with larger class sizes, less-qualified teachers, and lower-quality curriculum than their White peers (Darling-Hammond, 1998; Orfield & Lee, 2005; McCardle, 2020).
  • Engaging in self-reflection and discussions about privilege is an essential step toward addressing inequities in our society (NASP, 2016). Confronting how privilege and unintentional bias impact our experiences helps build greater self-awareness and empathy and illuminates systemic barriers that create inequity.



Ford, D.Y., Harris III, J.J.H., Tyson, C.A., & Trotman, M.F. (2002). Beyond deficit thinking: Providing access for gifted African American students. Roeper Review, 24(2), 52-58. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02783190209554129

Darling-Hammond, L. (1998, March 1). Unequal opportunity: Race and education. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/unequal-opportunity-race-and-education/

Gregory, A. & Fergus, E. (2017). Social and emotional learning and equity in school discipline. Future of Children, 27(1), 117-136. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1144814.pdf

Grissom, J. A., & Redding, C. (2016). Discretion and disproportionality: Explaining the underrepresentation of high-achieving students of color in gifted programs. AERA Open. https://doi.org/10.1177/2332858415622175

Mantsios, G. (2007). Class in America: Myths and realities. In G. Colombo, R. Cullen & B. Lisle (Eds.),  Rereading America: Cultural contexts for critical thinking and writing (7th ed.). New York: Bedford Books. (Original work published in 2003).

McCardle, T. (2020). A critical historical examination of tracking as a method for maintaining racial segregation. Education Considerations, 45(2). https://doi.org/10.4148/0146-9282.2186

National Association of School Psychologists. (2016). Understanding race and privilege [handout]. Bethesda, MD: Author. Retrieved from ​​https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/diversity-and-social-justice/social-justice/understanding-race-and-privilege

Okonofua, J.A., Paunesku, D., Walton, G.M. (2016). Brief intervention cuts suspension rates in half. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(19), 5221-5226. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1523698113

Orfield, G., & Lee, C. (2005). Why segregation matters: Poverty and educational inequality. UCLA: The Civil Rights Project. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/4xr8z4wb