The Power of Positionality in Social Justice Efforts

Updated: Jan 26

It is important for advocates and allies to recognize and dissect their own positionality in social justice work. Recognizing one’s positionality allows parties of different power relationships to work together to achieve the same goal. It allows people of different power dynamics to reflect on how their actions influence and impact other parties. It is difficult, if not impossible, for a heterosexual white male to put themselves in the shoes of a gay woman of color. While both parties may not be able to fully understand one another’s experiences, recognition of positionality and having uncomfortable or difficult conversations on power and privilege can open pathways to fostering mutual respect and culturally appropriate strategies to tackle social injustices.


This is a graphic of identity labels written on a woman's silhouette

What is positionality?

Positionality: the advantages and disadvantages a person holds based on their perceived social identity and the social groups in which they belong, such as their education level, gender, ethnicity/race, and class. The power these identities hold are not fixed but can change based on the time and location of each unique individual and the extent to which those identities are valued in society.

According to Misawa (2010), “all parts of our identities are shaped by socially constructed positions and memberships to which we belong. Such automatic categorization is embedded in our society as a system and is pervasive in education and at the workplace.” Race, sexual orientation, religion, gender, and class are some common social constructs that have a particularly high impact on one’s positionality. These lead to generalizations and stereotyping of certain groups that can impact daily lived experiences.


Example:

In Asian societies, pale or white skin is a standard of beauty and wealth. Those who meet these standards have higher chances of being favored for employment and marriage, among other things. In contrast, individuals with darker skin are criminalized and generalized as poor and unattractive. Those with darker skin tones are assumed to work as manual laborers outdoors while lighter skin toned individuals are assumed to have the luxury of staying indoors, thereby avoiding sun exposure or tanning. In this case, skin tone is associated with one’s level of wealth.


Positionality and Social Justice

Social justice is a vast network of interrelated and intersectional relationships that work together to heal and move forward. These relationships typically utilize their own unique power to do social justice work. However, one cannot effectively and efficiently do social justice work without realizing and recognizing their own positionality.

For example, in the women’s rights and women’s empowerment movement, women and girls are the main agents of change. The work of women and girls in advocating for their human rights has motivated a global response to the rights of women and girls in a variety of sectors, including health, religion, politics, and education. This work has led communities and organizations to have conversations on gender and feminism, leading some — regardless of their gender identity — to become allies to the movement. These conversations can dismantle systems of oppression and promote social justice in doing the following:

  • Allows groups to have uncomfortable or difficult conversations about privilege, oppression, and white supremacy

  • Acknowledges different experiences based on perceived social identities and facilitates mutual understanding and respect for those differences

  • Promotes reflexivity of one’s own prejudices or biases

Advocates and allies can reflect on their own positionality using the following questions:

  1. How do my social identities fit/not fit with the norms of this particular society or movement?

  2. What advantages do my identities bring to realizing social justice?

  3. How might my identities do harm to social justice efforts?

  4. Beyond recognizing my own positionality, what actions can I take to remain mindful of positionality? How can I show support without “speaking for” marginalized groups?


 

Resources:

Misawa, M. (2010). Queer race pedagogy for educators in higher education: Dealing with power dynamics and positionality of LGBTQ students of color. The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 5(1). DOI: http://libjournal.uncg.edu/ijcp/article/view/68/53