Allan G. Johnson Speaks to Community


By James Fishbeck

Last Tuesday and Wednesday, Antioch College was privileged to have Allan G. Johnson visit to give a series of discussions covering a wide variety of topics including white privilege, gender issues, and coalition building. He has written many books including The Gender Knot, and Privilege, Power, and Difference. What becomes evident in his speaking is that he comes from a background of intense contemplation and inquiry into the structures of power and the people that perpetuate them. His discussions provided a constructive background of where we are as a society and what we can do to change these systems through constructive dialogue.

On Tuesday, he spoke during the time that would usually be reserved for community meeting. In this lecture, he talked about systems of power and how they are responsible for perpetuating white privilege. According to Allan, “The problem is the way in which systems of privilege get organized around the differences that would otherwise have little if any significance in our lives.? He started his lecture talking about how human beings are not inherently scared of difference that it is curiosity that brought about interactions between different groups of people in the first place. He stated, “In the early decades of white Europeans settling in the North American continent, there were all kinds of communities in which Native Americans and Europeans intermarried and it wasn’t an issue.? He also mentioned that in the relations between Africans and Europeans, difference was not a large factor until the start of the African slave trade. Then, a perceived racial divide was built into the system so that the triangle trade could perpetuate economic power. He explained that “the economic payoff from the long history of racism in the U.S., of slavery, conquest, and genocide is not simply in the past, it is embodied in the wealth held by the white population.? This legacy that was passed to us as an inheritance the moment we were born no matter what our racial background, gender, or anything else is. “We are not the legacy and it is not us.?

To quote Allan, “We have been socialized to see difference as a problem, it is a very powerful way of distracting our attention from the systems of power.? He also made the distinction that “systems are not people and people are not systems.? When you make the distinction between systems of privilege on the one hand and us as human beings on the other hand, an important thing that comes out of that is that people that have access to privilege aren’t truly aware of it. A problem noted by Allan is that “we are stuck in [paralysis] because we don’t know how to talk about these issues with relation to your life.? Dialogue is essential to creating change, even when it doesn’t fall under the path of least resistance. Because it is hard and painful, it is our collective responsibility to be part of the solution. “When one person can dismiss other points of view by saying it doesn’t matter or that they are making a big deal out of it, that is an expression of privilege.?

In later sessions, he continued talking about gender issues and the fact that “We are living in a patriarchal society and it provides a template for all forms of oppression.? This is a difficult concept to come to terms with and once again, Allan made the point that we have to confront these issues. Not because of guilt, but because our involvement in these systems of power directly affects how this legacy is passed down to our children and grandchildren.

Below are some of the important questions that he addressed directly that I really like. Enjoy.

What is the issue with racial misappropriation? “I don’t think borrowing from other cultures is in itself a problem, what makes it a problem is the relationship between those who take and those it is taken from…When one society conquers another society, they see themselves as superior, and they see themselves as having the right to take what they want from other cultures…When white people appropriate from people of color, they are acting out a history of domination and subordination based on conquest and genocide.?

What is your impression of Antioch College? “This is very unusual in my experience, this is the first campus I’ve ever been to where students have been confrontational around these issues. Getting students to think about the issues is the problem in most places. This is the first place that I have ever been where that has actually been an issue that is openly discussed.?

Is there any hope for society with the amount of chaos that you see? “Creativity comes out of chaos, when things get blown up, very awful and very wonderful things can come out of that, sometimes the worst thing that happens to you in your life is the best thing that has ever happened to you because it shakes you out of all kinds of preconceptions and patterns and everything and there is an opportunity there. And it can go in lots of directions, you can go down, and you have the potential to put your life back together in a way that is extraordinary and I think that works for organizations like colleges as well, so to me the struggle, the chaos, the confusion, the pain that is evident to me here is difficult and a tremendous opportunity. The question then becomes: How do we respond to that chaos??

“I travel around the country not because I have the answers to these issues, but I think we’re in a whole lot of trouble and we need all the help we can get and my work is about providing some portion of that help?