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Power and Privilege Unmasked: Navigating the DEIJ Pathway for Meaningful Change

By Juan Jacobs Sheblak
Power and Privilege Unmasked: Navigating the DEIJ Pathway for Meaningful Change

Recently, I found myself both outraged and deeply disheartened by an article that was splattered with expressions of transphobic views and anti-Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ) rhetoric. This article, unfortunately, further perpetuates a narrative that undermines the significance of power dynamics, positionality, and the historical context of oppression, which is detrimental to our students and adults who identify as members of the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and the LGBTQ+ community. Adopting a DEIJ lens that foregrounds the critical acknowledgment of systemic inequalities, along with the intricate dynamics of power and privilege, it becomes evident that grasping the nuanced roles of "oppressor" and "oppressed" is pivotal for enacting substantial change.

Although apprehensions regarding the establishment of a binary distinction between “oppressor” and “oppressed” are understandable, aiming to sidestep the oversimplification of intricate human identities, it's crucial to understand that these roles do not serve as judgments of personal character. Instead, they are about comprehending the systemic frameworks of inequality. DEIJ initiatives aim to illuminate how societal systems and institutions perpetuate disparities, not to label individuals as inherently oppressive or oppressed. Acknowledging the existence of systemic oppression is not about limiting dialogue or categorizing individuals in a binary manner; rather, it's about creating a foundation for genuine understanding and action.

By engaging with the concepts of “oppressor” and “oppressed” within a systemic context, DEIJ work facilitates a deeper comprehension of how power dynamics affect people differently based on their identities. This understanding is crucial for dismantling barriers and fostering an inclusive environment where all voices are heard and valued. It is through this lens that DEIJ seeks to promote equity and justice, encouraging individuals to reflect on their positions within these systems and to engage in collective efforts to address and rectify imbalances.

Recognizing these dynamics does not preclude the possibility of nuanced conversations or the acknowledgment of individual complexities. On the contrary, it enriches discussions by providing a critical framework that highlights the importance of context, history, and the multifaceted nature of identity. In doing so, DEIJ initiatives aim to bridge divides, not widen them, by fostering empathy, understanding, and a shared commitment to equity and justice. Thus, rather than dissociating DEIJ from the concepts of “oppressor” and “oppressed,” it is imperative to engage with these ideas thoughtfully and constructively, as they are integral to understanding and addressing the systemic inequalities that DEIJ efforts seek to overcome."

While the ideal of seamlessly integrating DEIJ principles into every aspect of educational institutions is commendable, it overlooks the current reality and the necessity of explicitly naming and addressing these efforts as "DEIJ work." This counterclaim explores why specifically identifying and undertaking DEIJ work is essential in today's educational landscape.

Avoiding the critical examination of the roles of "oppressor" and "oppressed" from a DEIJ perspective can significantly harm students of color by perpetuating systemic inequalities and obstructing the path to meaningful change. This approach can lead to several adverse outcomes:

Lack of Awareness and Understanding:

Not acknowledging the systemic structures of inequality and the dynamics of power and privilege prevents students from understanding the root causes of disparities. This lack of awareness hinders the development of empathy and the ability to recognize and challenge injustices.

Ineffective DEIJ Initiatives:

Without a clear recognition of the “oppressor-oppressed” dynamics within societal systems, DEIJ efforts may fail to address the underlying issues effectively. This can result in superficial solutions that do not tackle the core problems, leaving systemic inequalities intact.

Missed Opportunities for Inclusive Dialogue:

Ignoring these dynamics can limit the scope of conversations around identity, power, and privilege. It restricts the ability to engage in nuanced discussions that acknowledge individual complexities while also understanding systemic issues. This can stifle the growth of an inclusive environment where all voices are heard and valued. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that certain dialogues can be harmful and thus necessitate cautious consideration.

Barriers to Equity and Justice:

By not engaging with the concepts of "oppressor" and "oppressed," educational institutions may inadvertently maintain existing barriers to equity and justice. This can prevent the creation of equitable opportunities for students of color and hinder their success both within and outside the educational setting.

Reduced Collective Action:

Understanding and acknowledging systemic oppression is crucial for fostering a sense of collective responsibility and action. Without this foundation, it becomes challenging to mobilize students and faculty to work together to dismantle barriers and promote equity and inclusion.

Necessity of Explicit DEIJ Initiatives

Awareness and Recognition:

The call to not specifically label efforts as "DEIJ work" underestimates the importance of awareness and recognition of these issues. In many educational environments, systemic biases and inequalities are so ingrained that they become invisible to those not adversely affected by them. Explicitly naming DEIJ work is crucial for acknowledging the existence of these issues and the active efforts required to address them.

Accountability and Measurement:

By specifically identifying DEIJ initiatives, schools and institutions can set clear goals, measure progress, and hold themselves accountable. Without explicitly designating these efforts, it becomes challenging to track improvements, understand where gaps still exist, and allocate resources effectively. Accountability is key to making tangible progress in DEIJ objectives.

Focused Training and Development:

The assertion that DEIJ should be embedded in everything and not require specific mention may overlook the need for focused training and development for educators and administrators. Understanding and addressing one's biases, learning about different cultures and identities, and developing inclusive teaching practices are not innate skills. They require dedicated time, resources, and education—elements that are encapsulated within the framework of DEIJ work.

Historical and Systemic Inequities:

The idea of moving beyond the need to talk about "decolonizing the curriculum" suggests an end goal where such efforts are no longer necessary. However, this perspective may not fully account for the depth of historical and systemic inequities that have shaped educational content and practices. Explicitly focusing on decolonizing the curriculum is not just about diversifying perspectives but also about challenging and changing the fundamental ways in which knowledge is constructed and valued. This work is ongoing and requires specific attention and effort.

Creating Space for Marginalized Voices:

Finally, specifically focusing on DEIJ work is essential for creating spaces where marginalized voices are not only heard but are also integral to shaping educational environments. It's about more than just inclusion; it's about redefining power dynamics within educational institutions. This cannot be achieved through passive integration but requires active and deliberate efforts to dismantle existing hierarchies and biases.

While the aspiration to have DEIJ principles naturally embedded in all aspects of education is admirable, the reality of systemic inequities necessitates a more explicit and focused approach. DEIJ work must be identified, undertaken, and continually evolved with intentionality to create truly inclusive and equitable educational environments.


In critically assessing the perspective in the article on DEIJ, it becomes evident that while the author's intentions are commendable, the approach may inadvertently hinder the very objectives DEIJ initiatives aim to achieve. The author's perspective at aiming to foster a more inclusive and understanding environment runs the risk of undermining the effectiveness of DEIJ initiatives. By focusing too heavily on individualism and rejecting useful frameworks for understanding systemic oppression, the approach may fail to adequately address the structural inequalities at the heart of the DEIJ movement. A more critical examination and adaptation of the methods are necessary to ensure that DEIJ efforts are both inclusive and impactful, capable of achieving the systemic change they aspire to. What this article has resulted in, is an attack on DEIJ work under the guise of inclusion and dialogue.

Before we placate to a narrative in the DEIJ space, in which we want to deny racial inequalities, oppression and the oppressed, decolonization of the curriculum, positionality and power, we need to reflect on the harm that our claims create towards BIPOC students that experience this every day. And to which many of us BIPOC educators have to help these students navigate these structures and systems of inequalities.

Juan Jacobs Sheblak is the Deputy Secondary Principal at UNIS Hanoi.

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