How can we transcend the dynamics of privilege and power to move toward equality? How do we break the cycles of dominance and systemic social oppression we are immersed in as a result of reckless uses of privilege and power? How do we accelerate the call to equality?
Over the past few years, I have been an accidental, somewhat unwilling participant in professional development work, dialogues, research and writings on power and privilege and the resulting impacts of dominance and oppression. In an era when human development professionals are trying to make sense of what is occurring around us and how we can make a difference in it, this work has become an occupational hazard for me. I have done work on Beyond inclusion, Beyond Empowerment; the dynamics of rank and power when consulting in organizations and communities; the role of dominant narratives in shaping worldviews and the way we live; and most recently, Barry Oshry’s work on When Cultures Meet. Sparked by the theme of the 2016 Transformative Learning Network conference – Engaging at the Intersections – I did a research paper on Engaging at the intersections of Identity and Society. The paper and conference talk: Where are you from? has become my most requested talk or workshop, as people try to make sense of what our new rules of engagement to achieve social equality might be.
I say I have been an unwilling participant and this work an occupational hazard, because I live in the pacific northwest. In the rooms I have been in this dialogue, I am usually among the few representing multiple of the ‘target’ or ‘other’ or ‘minority’ categories in the social ranking scale: black, woman, immigrant, refugee. I have thus been in that unfortunate position of not only having to hold my own, but also speak for or attempt to describe the experience of being a social ‘other’; a task that is not only impossible, but also then becomes a direct replica of the social phenomenon and minority experience itself. It has been a worthwhile and illuminating journey, but it has been raw and painful too. In the past few months, I have had many déjà vu moments of that time when I first became aware of my social classification, circa sometime in the year 2000, in a sociology undergrad class at Simon Fraser University. It was the class on race relations, when the projected screen announced my so-called social identity as among the lowest ‘oppressed minorities.’ Having grown up in predominantly black West Africa, this was news to me. In the moments afterwards, the heightened awareness combined with the discomfort of the classified majority made the air awkward and suffocating. Suddenly, no one, not even my small group members, could look me in the eyes. I was the only black student in the class.
I have come to a few reflections from my recent experiences that I am still musing over and working through, and that I offer as food for thought in navigating the dynamics of privilege and power.
You don’t always choose to have privilege but you can choose to use the power it gives you responsibly: In the process of uncovering the dynamics of cycles of oppression, the reality of privilege is hard to swallow. The idea that just because of access to certain conditions I have better social status, quality of life and access to things that continue to improve my life relative to others can cause feelings of guilt and shame. That is understandable. The dissonance that all of us with privilege need to get over once we become aware of it is accepting that we have it, and therefore inadvertently have systemic dominance over others. Sometimes we have privilege because of where we are born or the family we inherit. This is a luck of the draw and part of the mystery of life. Other times, we earn privilege through hard work. And for those in the middle ranks of social stratification, privilege is relative and contextual where I sometimes have it and other times don’t. For example, while I am socially disadvantaged because of who I am, I have relative privilege because of my education, where I live and because I have always had access to my basic needs. Whatever your privilege situation, apologizing for it is only useful in contexts where it helps social healing. Otherwise, the issue, once you become aware of it, is making the choice to live and enact privilege responsibly. You can either continue to enact the dominance and oppression your privilege naturally perpetuates, or you can consciously choose to use your power and rank to re-balance the playing field, increase access for all and work towards social equality wherever you find yourself.
Awareness and heightened consciousness is step 1…but it is also perilous: Awareness of privilege comes with the conundrum of knowing just enough to be dangerous. That is because cognitive knowledge about oppression is not the same as having lived experience of it. It works kind of like grief or life stage experiences like becoming a teenager, or aging or birthing a baby or becoming a parent. You can never fully understand these experiences until you go through them and then too, you realize that one size does not fit all. The peril in the heightened consciousness of privilege and power dynamics is the trap of assuming that simple because we ‘see’ it, we ‘understand’ it fully. This leads to attempts to empathize with those in less privileged positions than ourselves, by sharing our own stories and reasons that illustrate that we ‘get it.’ This however, usually has the opposite effect than the comfort and allyship often intended, and leads to frustrations on all sides. As an older white male colleague said to me: “I feel powerless in these conversations. I don’t have a voice because I don’t get it. I feel stripped of my status and I don’t know what to do to make a difference.” On the other hand, a black woman colleague said to me: “I don’t want to hear the dominants’ guilt – all I’ve heard all my life is their side and their story.” This has led me to these conclusions:
- The struggle of the classified majority who want to make a difference is overcoming blind spots and feelings of guilt, shame or defensiveness to learn how to engage differently, share power and actively use that same power to open access for others.
- The struggle of the classified minority is learning to rebound from ongoing injustices and find sources of personal and psychological power to claim equality, rather than succumb to the vicious cycle of oppression.
- The struggle for all of us, is breaking the cycle of oppression that comes with privilege and power, because we are all in it together.
So how do we break the cycle? I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that our humanities are intertwined and we must find ways forward together. To evoke a biblical adage, if one part of the body hurts, the whole body is affected. Equality in place of social and systemic oppression is about our humanity – our shared needs for survival, safety, acceptance, belonging, and thriving. The more we stay in the cycle of oppression and deny each other these things, the more polarized we will become. In my current thinking, I am proposing three levels to consider for all interested in breaking the cycle of oppression:
- Work on your Mindset: Educate yourselves and your families about the dynamics of power and privilege and the assumptions that reinforce systemic oppression.
- Work on your Skillset: Learn how to meaningfully engage with others from interpersonal interactions and communications to community dialogues, in ways that break the cycle and divides of systemic oppression rather than reinforce them.
- Work on your Action-set: This is about doing things differently and taking actions that break bridge divides and oppressive cycles no matter where you find yourself.
I dare to hope and dream of a world of social equals, not tokenism or inclusion. Needless to say, this work will continue to take time. But isn’t time the gift we humanity have been given to make the world a better place for ourselves and future generations?
See this simple Privilege illustration from Buzzfeed