Voices in Education

Is Complicity in Oppression a Privilege? Toward Social Justice Education as Mutual Aid
“As a White person,” Peggy McIntosh (2017) once remarked, “I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, White privilege, which puts me at an advantage” (p. 28). Like McIntosh, many social justice educators have come to believe that it is crucial for students to discover how members of dominant groups are advantaged and subordinate groups are disadvantaged by oppressive relationships. Oppressive domination, in this picture of politics, is a zero-sum game. In it, some “win” by exploiting others. Yet if culpable complicity in oppression is a privilege, an advantage for those in dominant groups, why would those in positions of dominating power dismantle the oppressive systems they can maintain? It is irrational to pursue what is disadvantageous over what is advantageous. If members of dominant groups effectively embrace the conception of advantage taught in the discourse of privilege, we should be unsurprised if oppressive relationships persist or expand.  This is the problem of privilege.

Despite current hegemony, the framing of advantage that leads to this conclusion is optional. To be portrayed as advantaged through culpable complicity in the oppression of others, one’s conception of ethical advantage must be ethically atomistic, that is, one must see advantage defined by what an individual possesses. Only on such an atomistic view of advantage, where the acquisition of goods by an individual is prized above all other commitments, can culpable complicity in a serious moral and political wrong, like oppression, be seen as “advantageous” for members of dominant groups. If, however, one’s responsibilities to others were always higher in importance than one’s individual interest in possessing “goods” it would always be disadvantageous and irrational to remain complicit in an oppressive relationship. By definition, culpable complicity in oppression is a breach of one’s moral responsibilities to others, a vice to be avoided, not an advantage to be pursued.

In longstanding Indigenous ethical, legal, and political traditions, what is advantageous to pursue is defined not by how much one can extract and possess but by the reciprocity of renewing relations that one contributes to bringing about. Many are not aware of these traditions, in part because the American and Canadian settler states violently sought to displace these alternative conceptions of advantage through genocidal forms of residential schooling. In the United States, Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Oberly claimed that Indigenous students should learn the “exalting egotism of American civilization, so that he will say ‘I’ instead of ‘We,’ and ‘This is mine’ instead of ‘This is ours.’” (Adams, 1988, p. 6). These sentiments were echoed by Henry Dawes and Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald and motivated the construction of the boarding school system, which in the words of Richard Henry Pratt, sought to “kill the Indian, save the man” (Lomawaima and Ostler, 2018, p. 79).

The historical record of colonization makes the philosophical contingency of atomistic conceptions of ethics and politics clear. With this contingency in view, we can call the possessive individualism these schools sought to instill into question: Which of these conflicting conceptions of ethical advantage is correct? This normative philosophical question is irreducibly social: it is about how we are truly responsible for living together as fallible beings. Should we live as atomists or work to create institutions that support relational responsibility? Atomism’s view of advantage is incomplete insofar as it suppresses the fact that we have a fundamental interest and responsibility in answering this question together and revisiting it as fallible knowers over time. Instead, atomism asserts that advantage is defined by the mere individual possession of “goods”.

Social justice education as mutual aid calls educators to shift the conception of advantage they teach in a different direction: towards centering our capacities to relate to one another and to such questions as our chief responsibility. By seeking to co-create learning relationships and ecologies with others, as the joint responsibility of each, we discover that complicity in oppression is never truly an advantage; it is always a barrier to the solidarity we rightly pursue. Power, comfort, and wealth, in this alternative view, are mere means to better relationships, never ends in themselves.


Adams, D. W. (1988). Fundamental considerations: The deep meaning of native american schooling, 1880–1900. Harvard Educational Review, 58(1), 1–29.

Lomawaima, T. & Ostler, J. Reconsidering Richard Henry Pratt: Cultural genocide and native liberation in an era of racial oppression. Journal of American Indian Education, 57(1), 79-100.

McIntosh, P. (2017). White privilege and male privilege. In M. S. Kimmel & A. L. Ferber (Eds.), Privilege: A reader (4th ed., pp. 27–39). New York: Routledge.

About the Author: Nicolas Tanchuk (https://orcid.org/ 0000-0002-5187-8003) is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Winnipeg. He has an abiding interest in the relationship between ethical, political, and epistemic values in educational decision-making and in determining teachers’ professional responsibilities. Tanchuk’s work has appeared in the Journal of Philosophy of Education, Educational Theory, Philosophical Inquiry in Education, and Ethics and Education.

Tomas Rocha (https://orcid.org/0000-0002-1719-757) is an assistant professor in the Social and Cultural Foundations program in the College of Education at the University of Washington. He works broadly in the philosophy of education and has research projects and interests in ethics, social and political philosophy, social science methodology, ancient Greek philosophy, and Latin American philosophy. He is an associate editor of Lápiz, the journal of the Latin American Philosophy of Education Society.

Marc Kruse, JD, is an associate with Rees Dyck Rogala Law Offices, where he practices criminal defense representing youth and adult clients. His research interests focus on the relationship between philosophical ethics, political philosophy, and law, with special focus on the ways educational institutions can ameliorate or exacerbate legal problems. He has published work on the moral foundations of professional ethics, social justice education, and Indigenous educational ethics. Kruse completed his JD at the University of Manitoba and teaches Indigenous Course Requirement (ICR) courses at the University of Winnipeg on Indigenous people in Canada and the law. He is a member of Muscowpetung First Nation in Saskatchewan.

Nicolas Tanchuk, Tomas Rocha, and Marc Kruse are the authors of "Is Complicity in Oppression a Privilege?:  Toward Social Justice Education as Mutual Aid" in the Fall 2021 issue of Harvard Educational Review.