About Dissecting Intent: Power, Privilege, and Oppression
I got nervous sitting down to write this entry even though I’ve been drafting it in my head for more than a week. But when I opened the document and typed out its working title, my throat started to close up and my heart started to race. I feel like someone is sitting on my chest.
As a quick aside, I’ve been doing community education around various topics related to privilege and oppression for a long time, and every time, it’s uncomfortable. When I train about LGBTQIA stuff, I’m uncomfortable because often the things that come up are very similar to painful parts of my experience as a queer person. And when I train about other aspects of privilege and oppression, I’m aware of all the other viewpoints and the chosen discomfort in the room. This work isn’t fun. It’s incredibly hard. I think for me, that’s the point. Briefly, the discomfort keeps me connected to and reflective about my intent and my impact.
Before we begin, some disclaimers. It is a privilege that I get to write about power, privilege and oppression. These are concepts I learned about when I was in graduate school. Graduate school. Let’s break that down. I graduated from high school. I went on to a four-year liberal arts university. And then I went on to EVEN MORE COLLEGE. Education has always been my safe haven, and here are some bigger picture reasons why: my entire academic life, I went to school with people who looked like me; I was taught by people with my skin tone and who shared a similar culture; I was educated in a system that was established for my benefit and that taught the history and culture of my people. College was a given. Even grad school was like, yeah, that makes sense. I never, in my life, heard my parents or teachers say “maybe you shouldn’t try that” or “that’s not for you” or “you can’t do that, you’re _______.” I was given the message that if I worked hard enough, persevered through hardship and failure, I could achieve anything because the only thing holding me back was me. These are all benefits I experienced because of my White Skin Social Status Package. Which is to say that I’m aware of my race and that it has benefited me in ways that allow me to have this conversation outside of some of the tropes we put on people with different identities, and so (be warned) there will be times that I may racialize myself to make a point.
A few other tidbits of housekeeping before we get started:
1. This conversation is a marathon, not a sprint. As we continue dissecting intent and impact, the topics will narrow as the weeks progress. Next time we will talk specifically about culture, then interpersonal experiences, and intrapersonal/internal experience with intent and impact.
2. About halfway through this piece, there are some activities that are meant to challenge you to be reflective about your own experiences and to think about your life and context. While it’s possible to wade through this piece and be thoughtful about the concepts, the activities really are what drive the point home.
Now that my blood pressure has settled, we can get to it. Privilege! What is it? Basically, it’s having access to more rights, resources, and protections than other groups of people without having to earn them. And when we hear that – that not earning piece – we automatically get defensive because we live in a society that values the timeless rags to riches bootstrap story. Privilege doesn’t mean you don’t work hard. Privilege doesn’t mean you haven’t faced and overcome adversity. Privilege doesn’t mean that your life has been easy. Privilege is not an attack on your morals or values. Let me say that again for the people in the back: PRIVILEGE IS NOT AN ATTACK ON YOUR MORALS OR VALUES.
When I think of an extreme example of privilege, I think of Cher from the movie Clueless – able to bop around making decisions and impacting other people’s lives without real consequence for her; she has people and money to fall back on when things go awry, and she has enough extra resources to undertake a misguided act of charity for another human. Simply, privilege means that we have access to a myriad of options that others with less privilege don’t and that we don’t have to consider as many factors or angles in decision-making as folks with different life experience because we have some sort of social cushion to pad our fall.
This makes a difference in the conversation around intent versus impact because if we’ve benefited from privilege, then often we don’t know what we don’t know.
But once confronted – and I use that word intentionally – but once confronted, we have to make a decision about how we respond: do we continue on as we are, knowing that our interactions and behaviors cause harm to others, or do we learn from our discomfort, take responsibility for the harm we’ve caused, and begin to make change in ourselves to mitigate future harm?
And with what or by whom are we confronted? The answer is oppression. Either we are confronted by a single person who has experienced oppression and who is bringing it our attention, or we witness the oppression of a group of people and have a lightbulb moment, or we realize that there are systems of oppression that stratify our society in significant and often violent ways. No matter the moment, confrontation is uncomfortable and often leads us to evaluate our own ways of navigating the world and interacting with people.
It’s important to note that people with power and privilege witness the oppression of others everyday, but because that oppression hasn’t been our lived experience, we often lack understanding and empathy. Again, we don’t know what we don’t know, and we can’t empathize with something we haven’t experienced.
So what do we do once we’re confronted? We sit down, we listen, and we learn. It in no way is anybody’s responsibility to educate us about their experience. Putting the onus on another human to educate us about their experiences with oppression perpetuates those same oppressive systems and dynamics and may even retraumatize that individual. Although our intent may be deferential and to learn from another person, our impact may be extremely harmful if we don’t consider whether it’s appropriate the ask someone to share their experience or if we don’t temper our responses once they’re willing to share.
A tangential part of this conversation is an assumption that power is a limited resource and that if we empower someone else by honoring their experience and by creating space for their story, we forfeit some of our own social capital, making us less powerful i.e. less valuable. This argument is false says Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Institute at UC Berkley, “We are negotiating power every waking instant of our social lives (and in our dreams as well, Freud argued). When we seek equality, we are seeking an effective balance of power, not the absence of power. We use it to win consent and social cohesion, not just compliance. To be human is to be immersed in power dynamics.” Keltner also argues that the very skills we use to get us to a place of power often immediately erode that power because they objectify people instead of humanizing them. “In psychological science, power is defined as one’s capacity to alter another person’s condition or state of mind by providing or withholding resources—such as food, money, knowledge, and affection—or administering punishments, such as physical harm, job termination, or social ostracism. This definition de-emphasizes how a person actually acts, and instead stresses the individual’s capacity to affect others.” And here we are, having a cyclical conversation about intent versus impact. Our intent is to gain power, but at what cost and at whose expense and will those people we’ve harmed honor or help us maintain our power? Not likely.
Regardless, we as Americans mostly still approach power through a Machiavellan lens, which means that folks with power (and often privilege) seek to keep that status by limiting the opportunities of others. This is a very basic definition of oppression.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary provides three extremely accurate definitions of oppression, and I think if we combine them all, we get an accurate picture.
1a : unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power
E.g.: the continuing oppression of the … underclasses — H. A. Daniels
1b : something that oppresses especially in being an unjust or excessive exercise of power
E.g. unfair taxes and other oppressions
2 : a sense of being weighed down in body or mind : DEPRESSION
E.g. an oppression of spirits
Oppression happens on four different levels: ideological, institutional, interpersonal, and internalized, and it usually is tied to our social identities. And as our definitions above indicate, oppression is insidious, and the more exposure we have to it, the more it can impact our physical and mental health: oppressed spirits can be the direct result of exposure to ideological, institutional, and interpersonal oppression. According to a 2016 article by Good Therapy, “statistics repeatedly indicate that racial minorities, impoverished people, and women are more likely to experience mental health challenges than members of powerful groups such as white men. Oppression lowers self-esteem, reduces life opportunities, and can even put people in danger of rape, abuse, and other forms of violence.” If we consider the outcomes of the Adverse Childhood Experiences study divided by demographics, we’ll notice that many of the risk factors are tied to social identities and various forms of oppression experienced by people outside of the dominant culture.
And in America, what is the dominant culture? White, of European descent, male, cisgender, heterosexual, Christian, middle class, English-speaking, and able-bodied for starters. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the types of legislation we’ve had to create to give folks not of the dominant culture legal protections or “equal rights”:
- 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery. It didn’t even grant Black folks full citizenship. That’s why we needed the 14th Amendment.
- 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives full citizenship to anyone born or naturalized in the United States; it also provides the right to life, liberty, property as well as full due process under the law. But the 14th Amendment doesn’t provide those new citizens with the right to vote, which is why we needed the 15th Amendment!
- 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides voting rights to folks of color regardless of color, race, or previous enslavement.
- 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (WHICH WAS PASSED IN 1920 – less than 100 years ago) gives women the right to vote and prohibits state and federal governments from prohibiting the right to vote based on sex.
- Civil Rights Act of 1964 ends public segregation and bans employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, or national origin.
- Americans with Disabilities Act “prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas, including employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications and access to state and local government’ programs and services.”
- Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 “provides funding and technical assistance to state, local, and tribal jurisdictions to help them to more effectively investigate and prosecute hate crimes.” Hate crimes are defined as “willfully causing bodily injury (or attempting to do so with fire, firearm, or other dangerous weapon) when:
(1) the crime was committed because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion,
national origin of any person or
(2) the crime was committed because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin,
gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person and the crime
affected interstate or foreign commerce or occurred within federal special maritime and
This list is by no means exhaustive. It simply is a smattering of examples to answer the question, if we didn’t have a dominant culture interested in maintaining its power through use of force, why would we need all these legal protections?
Which leads us to our first exercise! This wouldn’t be an I’m Having a Thought without at least one reflection activity. The graphic below is a Social Identities Wheel. The identities listed are some of the primary ways we (or the government) categorize ourselves. Your first task is to complete the wheel for yourself and to answer the questions in the middle.
All of these questions get to my next point: our identities are complicated and they don’t function in a vacuum. I am not only a White person. I’m not only a gay person. I’m not only a non-binary person. I’m not only in the middle class. All of these – and all of my other identities past and present – intersect to create my own unique life experience. Similarly, the types of discrimination I’ve experienced as a result of not falling within dominant culture intersect. Intersectionality is a “term used to refer to the complex and cumulative way that the effects of different forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, and yes, intersect—especially in the experiences of marginalized people or groups.” Again, research tells us that the more marginalized (i.e. oppressed) identities we have, the more likely we are to struggle with physical and mental health challenges.
- Using your Social Identity Wheel, choose an identity that has experienced oppression at some point in your life.
- How do people with that identity – and you – experience ideological oppression?
- How do people with that identity – and you – experience institutional oppression?
- How do you experience interpersonal oppression?
- How have you internalized oppressive ideas about that identity?
Next, we are going to do last time’s activity, but specifically related to an experience of oppression. Again, choose one of your identities that has experience oppression. It can be the same as or different from the identity you used for the previous exercise.
- Think of a time someone you loved or respected said or did something specifically related to this identity that was hurtful or harmful.
- What happened? Describe the situation. Think through all the details.
- Because of what happened, what did you think or feel at the time? What do you still think or feel as a result of that interaction? How are you different as a result of that interaction?
This is a great example of how the four Is of Oppression interact.
- Ideological: Odds are, the person you’re thinking of said or did something that was related to their ideology or beliefs about your specific identity – even if those biases are implicit or invisible and their intent was actually good.
- Institutional: If the person you’re thinking of was a teacher, mentor, pastor, or protector of any kind, they likely work or participate in institutions that often perpetuate many types of oppression and that perpetuate the aforementioned ideologies.
- Interpersonal: That’s what we’re thinking about…
- Internalized: Your interaction may have validated some internalized negative thoughts/feelings/beliefs that you have about yourself or folks with that particular identity and suddenly, you’re wading through a treacherous sea of the feels.
Internalized racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, etc. are real and again, often are connected to higher mental and physical health issues. But if we didn’t have systems and ideologies and people in power telling us to feel this way, would we?
This is a lot of information and a lot to sit with, and for me, sometimes it can feel really overwhelming and really big and really debilitating. Like I’m just this one tiny human, what can I do to change all this? Well, I may be one tiny human, but the things I do and say have impact, and the people I impact do and say things that also have impact, and so on and so forth, so there’s a ripple that’s happening all the time – and the impact I make on one person likely will impact the next. The six degrees of impact, if you will.
So now what? Now we figure out how to slog forward in this messy and confusing process. And to do that, we need a starting point. I’ve found that the implicit bias tests from Harvard University are a great place to start. There is an array of subject areas to explore and the tests themselves are statistically reliable. Chances are you won’t get the outcomes you think you’ll have or that you want (I certainly didn’t), but again, these are helpful in indicating where your true starting point for navigating the space between intent and impact with people of different life experiences lies.
Acknowledge that race is the first thing we see about another person, and whether we like it or not, we have internalized beliefs about their character, ability, lifestyle, upbringing, etc. based on their skin color. We do harm when we say we are color blind because we live in a society that is stratified based on skin color. We live in a country that has abducted, tortured, enslaved, murdered, and imprisoned based on skin color (and continues to do these things in various ways). If we say that we don’t see color, we erase a person’s entire lived experience and perpetuate the invalidation of their humanity.
In that vein, understand that reverse racism isn’t real. Racism equals power plus prejudice, so while it certainly is possible for people of color or with darker skin tones to be prejudiced, hateful, or even discriminatory against Whites or folks with lighter skin tones, it is impossible for them to be racist.
Learn about language. By now, most folks know the primary race-related and LGBT terms to avoid, but language and intent and impact are so much more nuanced than avoiding the N-word and not calling people ‘gay’ unless they actually identify that way (and even then, you need their consent to use it). Learn about things like microaggressions, ableist language, and in-group/out-group language. Think before you speak. Ask how people identify and what their pronouns are – and then ask again whether you can use those terms. Consent consent consent is so important when navigating the dynamics of power, privilege, and oppression.
Build empathy by learning about experiences that are different from yours. Studies show that reading genre-fiction increases empathy – as does reading stories written by people of different races, colors, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, etc. Similarly, curate your social media so that it exposes you to the narratives, perspectives, challenges, and experiences of others. I’m not suggesting that we delete all the cute puppy memes or calligraphy videos or pop stars from our Instagram or Twitter accounts, but that we add the voices of others outside our comfortable bubble so that those social media spaces also become platforms for learning and deeper connection.
Humans are pack animals, and as I mentioned last time, we are more connected than ever. Interaction is inevitable and we need it to survive. Further, the only way we learn and grow as humans is to interact with each other; and all of this has been a precursor to discuss how we interact so that we build and support each other instead of harm and destroy. When we do have interactions, I’ve found it’s helpful to use some agreements and protocols from both Restorative Practices and Courageous Conversation.
From Restorative Practices:
- Step up and step back. Essentially, this means to be aware of the space we take up in conversations (do we dominate the conversation or talk over people or speak to the experience of others when we don’t really know?) and to know when to sit down and listen. Step up and step back encourages us to practice a healthy mix of self-reflection, respect, and humility.
- Listen from the heart. Sometimes hearing the experiences of others can be painful, and we might feel sadness, anger, or even guilt. Sometimes our first defense is shutting down and trying to negate the other person’s experience because our feelings are too big or confusing and we don’t know how to handle them. But when we do that – when we shut down and negate someone else’s experience – we decline them their humanity. Listening from the heart is about sitting in your own discomfort while offering another person space to speak their truth.
From Courageous Conversation:
- Stay engaged. Similar to listening from the heart, staying engaged asks us to challenge our inclination to tune out when we are confronted by difficult topics or conversations.
- Speak your truth. Speaking your truth encourages us to use “I” statements or affirmative statements and to speak only to our experience. For instance, I as a queer person am not a representative of the entire queer community nor do I or should I speak on behalf of the entire queer community because it contains a myriad of diverse voices, experiences, and perspectives: I can and should only speak to my specific lived experience.
- Experience discomfort. Knowledge that we’ve done harm is uncomfortable by itself. Knowledge we’ve done harm by being complicit in systems of oppression, by supporting oppressive institutions or policies, that we’ve said and done things that have caused interpersonal harm, and that we’ve said and done things that maybe validated someone else’s internalized oppression is uncomfortable – especially when the people we love are the people we inadvertently harm.
- Expect and accept non-closure. Growth is a process and no one is perfect. To harm is to be human. This agreement asks that we “hang out in uncertainty” and not try to fix harm or find solutions immediately. It also acknowledges that there may not be any “fixing” so much as an ongoing conversation about mutual understanding and improvement.
This is not a hopeless conversation. In fact, if you’ve made it to the end of this article, I have a great deal of hope. You sat in your discomfort. You’ve been reflective and thoughtful. You provided me with space. Thank you for your time; it is a gift.
I’d like to wrap up with a poem by Margaret Wheatley, because despite the intensity and the difficulty of the conversation, I have great hope – and because this poem gives me the warm fuzzies of great hope.
Turning to One Another
There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.
Ask: “What’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?” Keep asking.
Notice what you care about.
Assume that many others share your dreams.
Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.
Talk to people you know.
Talk to people you don’t know.
Talk to people you never talk to.
Be intrigued by the differences you hear. Expect to be surprised.
Treasure curiosity more than certainty.
Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.
Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.
Know that creative solutions come from new connections.
Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know.
Real listening always brings people closer together.
Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.
Rely on human goodness.