CN: discussion of 45, Brock turner, Kavanaugh, sexual assault, erasure of Native American history, racism, ableism, poverty, the manifestations of oppression. Mention of sexism, genocide, police corruption, and rape culture.
Have you ever thought something like, Why am I so frustrated that this guy on the internet who I’ve never met doesn’t think that sexism exists? Why didn’t he listen to me when I told him about the time someone was sexist to me? Did I not communicate clearly enough?
The existence of power imbalances in our relationships between us and the people we work with, our friends, family, romantic partners, or even strangers on the street, is something that impacts us every day but we’re frequently completely unaware that it’s happening. That lack of awareness can make these interactions harder to navigate or harder to understand our own emotional responses to them as they happen. Why does it get under my skin so much whenever grandma says something critical about my career choice?
When that power imbalance is due to oppression, it can be even harder to verbalize why a conflict went the way that it did.
In, “Power Dynamics Part 1: What Happens When Someone Has More Power Than You Do?” I I outlined a set of traits and patterns that occur when a person has power over an individual or over a group of people:
Top 4 Traits
the ability to enact consequences on the less powerful person
the ability to give rewards, including bestowing power on someone else
access to additional resources or people with higher positions of power
the ability to evaluate/judge/give feedback to the person with less power
control over the dominating narrative of the interaction
generally more options/ choices available to you
control over what options are available to the person with less power
the ability to withstand consequences from the less powerful person
control over the physical safety of the less powerful person
receiving special treatment to try to "buy" your favor
What Does an Unbalanced Power Dynamic Look Like?
If you have less power in an interaction, you usually know that. We’ve all had to bite our tongue when a teacher or a parent or a boss said something we disagreed with but would get us in trouble if we spoke our mind. But it’s quite common for the more powerful person in an interaction to be unaware of the extent to which their power is influencing the interaction.
The larger the discrepancy in your relative levels of power, the more impact your actions will have on them, and the less impact their actions will have on you. For that reason, it’s incredibly important for people with various forms of social, financial, and institutional power to be aware of how much and what kinds of influence their behavior has on other people.
Here are some specific examples of uneven power dynamics categorized by the three main types of power. The party with the greater amount of power is listed first in all examples:
A rich donor vs. the organization dependent on his funding
Parents/guardians vs. the kid they financially support
Customers vs. the service workers assisting them
A student backed by rich parents vs. a student with no external financial support
A member of law enforcement vs. a civilian
A manager/owner vs. an employee
A politician vs. a civilian
A landlord vs. tenant
A teacher vs. a student
A doctor vs. a patient
A celebrity vs. a fan
A person with a large social media following vs. an individual
A bully vs. an outcast
Adult family members such as parents, aunts/uncles, grandparents, older siblings vs. a younger family member
A person from a privileged group vs. a person from the corresponding marginalized group
How the Traits of Power are Used Against Marginalized Groups
It’s possible that you’re surprised by that last bullet point. Regardless of your intentions in the matter, on average, a privileged person will have the greater amount of power in an interaction with a marginalized person. This example covers a huge range of power dynamic pairings: a man and a woman, a cis person and a trans person, a white person and a person of color, an abled person and a disabled person, a Christian person and a Muslim person, etc.
But to understand why that is, let’s review some important points from the Explaining Privilege series.
A Review of Privilege
We already know that privilege both offers unearned opportunities for certain types of success in life and also removes roadblocks from the path of success. We also know that oppression causes the opposite: You receive less in the way of automatic resources or success, and demotions/punishments without cause result in many additional hurdles just moving through life, let alone in attaining success.
We know that as a result of these two cycles, the more privilege you have, the more likely you are to hold higher amounts of social, financial, and/or institutional power. White male abled Christian cis men make up the majority of our politicians, our talk show hosts, and our billionaires because on average they will have the fewest obstacles and the most external boosts of any other demographic, regardless of their merit.
But in addition to privilege making it easier to acquire power, privilege is also a source of power in and of itself. In this article, I’m going to look at ways the traits of an uneven power dynamic listed above manifest in relationships between privileged and marginalized groups.
Evaluate and Judge
As we learned in Explaining Privilege Part 3, privileged groups are socialized to undermine the relative competence of marginalized people, assume the worst of their behavior even if it’s a neutral or logical action, and judge the actions of marginalized people without inside information. We are socialized to believe not just that we should have the freedom to evaluate and judge the behavior of marginalized groups, but that it is our responsibility to do so.
In late 2018, Corey Lewis, a man of color who runs a youth mentor program, was babysitting two white children when a white woman stopped him at Walmart. Seeing a black man with two white children, the woman had assessed and evaluated the situation and concluded (wrongly) that these children may have been kidnapped. She approached them multiple times, attempting to get information about the kids, trying to speak to them unsupervised. When Lewis didn’t indulge her, she followed them home and then called the police. The police questioned the children and then called their parents to confirm the situation before letting Lewis and the kids go.
To recap: A stranger repeatedly attempted to get two children alone with her and then she followed them home, but the babysitter’s behavior was questioned and investigated. It wasn’t this woman’s job to assess the safety of Lewis as a babysitter, nor did she have any information to indicate that the children were in danger. But she called the police and they investigated anyway.
Amber Gillett was born with a medical condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta which necessitates her using accessible parking spots; however, it does not present as a visible disability. She was interviewed back in 2016 because as a result of her invisible disability, despite her valid accessible parking pass, she regularly received nasty notes left on her car if it was parked in an accessible spot, including a fully designed sticker that said “Stupidity is not a disability! Park elsewhere.” Someone somewhere was so dedicated to their “responsibility” of evaluating who was and wasn’t disabled that they printed out stickers on the off-chance that they spotted a “faker.” These people were not members of law enforcement, parking attendants, or doctors but they still considered it their job to assess the bodies of strangers. (It’s also worth noting that “Stupid” is considered an ableist slur against cognitive disabilities in many disability communities.)
In an everyday social context, we’re taught to be comfortable with this process of decision making on the behalf of the marginalized, and with openly expressing what we think of their actions. But we don’t have to be dramatic about it in order for it to occur. It might just be as simple as questioning a fat person’s choice of food or responding, “you can’t afford that?” when your friend talks about their financial decisions. I once had a woman I had never met inform me I was wearing one of my physical therapy braces incorrectly. (I was not.)
More Choices and More Resources
As a white person, while I have been very poor at times, I’ve always had friends with money who could offer me financial assistance, a place for me to stay, generous gifts, etc, which many times has prevented me from slipping into dangerous levels of poverty. Privilege means that not only are you more likely to have access to financial and institutional resources, but you’re more likely to be friends with other people who do.
In Part 1 we also learned how this stacking of resources translates into having more choices available to you in a given circumstance. For example, supported by the monetary resources of their family, a stable and enriching home life, and access to school counselors/tutors, a student that comes from a wealthy background is going to have far more colleges to pick from than a low-income student that lacks those resources when it comes time to choose what source of education would best support the life they envision for themselves. More choices mean a higher likelihood of success than someone who has access to fewer choices.
The idea of “success” can be defined a lot of different ways, like reaching certain career goals or leading a happy life, but generally, our culture defines it as acquisition of various types of power such as the acquisition of money, working in a position of authority, or popularity in your social circles. In other words, receiving the privileges of choice and resources, to begin with, make you more likely to acquire power, which in turn gives you even more access to resources and choices.
Controlling the Narrative
Looking at Explaining Privilege Part 4, I talked about how privilege brings you things like assumed competence and benefit of the doubt, regardless of your behavior. This increased social trust means that in a conflict with a marginalized person, people are more likely to believe you know what you’re talking about, that you don’t mean harm, and that any alarming or illogical statements from you were likely motivated by a good reason. If your account of how the conflict has unfolded differs from that of the marginalized person, people are more likely to believe your version of the story and you’ll control the dominant narrative.
Our history books are filled with examples of this trait because, as the famous quotation goes, “History is always written by the winners.” A specific children’s book from Canada, meant to offer supplementary material to young children, claimed that, “When the European settlers arrived, they needed land to live on. The First Nations peoples agreed to move to different areas to make room for the new settlements.”
This is a far cry from what actually happened: the widespread theft of land, broken promises, and genocide that the native population in the US has suffered at the hands of the Us government for decades. Even our history books that don’t blatantly lie about the events in this part of history usually leave huge chunks of information out, but because white people have always had more power, we’ve had control over which version of history gets written, distributed, and taught to the next generation.
The Power Necessary to Enforce Consequences
Because from a societal perspective, it is both normal for you, the privileged person, to receive the benefit of the doubt, and it is also completely normal for you to judge and undermine the oppressed, people won’t question you if you declare that x person’s behavior was unreasonable and how they should be dealt with-- even though public evaluation of a person’s behavior is not necessarily your responsibility. People are likely to follow your lead to enact those consequences, even if you don’t have any official power in the situation.
With social power, enforcement often looks like mob mentality, pressure or rejection from a large number of people ganging up on just one. Or your social power means you have a wider reach and likely will know and be able to influence someone who has more power than you do with the ability to directly enforce an issue.
When an individual citizen is vocal in their criticisms of a well-known politician, even if their criticisms are harsh or crude, the politician won’t receive any negative impact (unless that criticism is manifested into action by another source of power). When a politician with a large platform criticizes an individual citizen or a group of people, their opinion will be heard by millions of people. The social trust from their power and privilege gives their opinion weight, encouraging and empowering their followers to enforce that opinion, to the danger and detriment of the individual they were targeting.
If you’re on the receiving end of these consequences, this social cycle is incredibly difficult to break out of. Marginalized people simply don’t have the same ability to control the narrative or enforce consequences the way privileged people do, which is in turn reinforced by the socialization that marginalized people receive from our culture. Marginalized people are taught to accept unfair punishments from their privileged counterparts, to just be quiet and not push back.
They are also discouraged from reporting the problems or otherwise bringing authority into the problem in part because the scrutiny and judgment of a marginalized person is not exclusive to this one person harassing them. Those same patterns are likely present (often unconsciously, sometimes not) in any authority figure the marginalized person may seek out for support. Escaping ill-treatment isn’t as simple as reporting the problem to an authority or just avoiding that one toxic person. The oppressive treatment is so normal, marginalized people are likely to encounter it on some level anywhere they go, and their authority figures are more likely to have a background of privilege and therefore identify with the privileged person’s position more than with the marginalized person, making it extremely difficult to get control over your own narrative.
This is compounded when the marginalization also means that you are a minority, meaning there are fewer people like you than there are of the privileged people. Facing an individual with more power than you is challenging. Facing a group of people who all individually have more power than you, that power is compounded as a joint effort.
Controlling the Design of the System
As we’ve already covered, the more privilege and social/financial power you have, the more likely you’ll find yourself in positions of institutional power. In, “What Does It Mean When a Group Has Power?” I went over some examples of the kind of choices this type of power enables:
“As the head manager of a grocery store, you write up the story policies, rules employees need to follow, decide who to hire, fire, or promote and why.
As a judge, you have power over which cases move forward, what the punishment is, and whether the punishment is on the mild or harsh side depending on the crime or the criminal.
As a politician in power, you write legislation that adds funding to the needs of an underrepresented group, thereby granting them more financial power.
When a police officer is investigated, his own department investigates him, including his close friends, and he is found blameless. He does not face consequences for his actions.”
These examples perfectly demonstrate how a person with more privilege would have the ability to choose who receives rewards or who they share their power with, and how they control what choices are available to the people they have power over. If you get to decide how a system, or even how a society, gets designed, you also control who gets an easy pathway to power and who encounters obstacles. If people with more privilege are on average more likely to be in positions that give you this kind of power, that means it’s the people with privilege-- the people who are the least aware of the problems that they don’t have-- who make the decisions about how society is structured.
If a politician in office uses their institutional power to redraw legislative district lines so that primarily the people that vote for their party are in their district, and the people who vote against them are avoided, then they are effectively controlling the system of voting to ensure the success of whoever they choose. This practice is called gerrymandering.
From Privilege Series Part 2: “Because of our blindspots, we believe that these privileges were given to us based on skill, dedication, merit, or some inherent value (which by implication, marginalized groups don’t have). ...We’re more likely to abuse our power because we believe our needs are more important than those with less privilege than us.”
A person in a position of institutional power is rightfully responsible for evaluating the behavior of others and enacting rewards and consequences. That’s their job. The problem is, thanks to our unconscious bias against marginalized groups and the cycles of socialization that keep us unaware of our bias, once we reach a position of institutional power, our decisions are likely to be influenced by that bias, regardless of whether the resulting consequences are intentional.
Because of this setup, your career options, your access to basic rights, or your overall level of success could be influenced if not be entirely dependent on traits that you have no control over, such as your race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
"When given institutional privilege, people frequently make decisions that benefit themselves and benefit people like them. Rich white able-bodied lawmakers write laws that benefit rich white able-bodied people and severely disadvantage people of color, poor people, and people with disabilities. White cis male managers promote and hire other white cis men above women, people of color, and trans folk.”
Regardless of whether this inequity is maintained to intentionally hoard power or as a result of our own lack of awareness that others lack the things we take for granted, the inequity is totally arbitrary and not based on merit or in anything other than self-serving purposes.
Avoiding Consequences and Enabling More Harm
In Privilege Part 4, I talked about how Brock Turner and Trump’s privilege has protected them from receiving appropriate consequences for their behavior. In a similar vein, as of February 19, 2019, we instated a Supreme Court Judge who not only had a credible accusation of sexual assault brought against him but who exhibited wildly inappropriate behavior and unbalanced judgment in response to his investigation. Note that his outrage wasn’t in response to a punishment, as he did not receive any kind of legal consequence for his alleged actions, but to being investigated as if just the act of having his behavior examined at all, was a punishment. He got the job-- one of the most powerful positions in the country-- anyway.
These three rich white men are incredibly used to avoiding consequences for their actions and to receiving special treatment. At the beginning of September 2019, Trump displayed an altered weather map, which, in what was apparently an attempt to soothe his ego, had been edited with nothing but a sharpie to match his previous inaccurate description of the progression of the hurricane. If a McDonald’s worker intentionally faked a price listing just to cover his ass because he had accidentally given the wrong amount earlier, he’d be fired. Trump’s action was likely illegal as well as wildly inappropriate, but he didn’t even admit he’d made a mistake, let alone receive punishment for it. The more power you have, the less scrutiny you are under, when truly it should be the other way around.
This pattern also sheds a lot of light on why women are so hesitant to report their experiences of sexual assault. Women know that the social cost to reporting is very high-- society scrutinizes the victims of sexual assault far more than the people accused of perpetrating it-- and they know that if their attacker was in any position of privilege, there’s a high chance they won’t face any prison time or receive any punishment at all. This culture means that repeat offenders are able to assault over and over again without consequence, giving them a great deal of power of our physical safety.
Different Power Level, Different Severity of Impact
When you understand the stark contrast in the choices available to a person with power/privilege vs. a vulnerable/marginalized person, it becomes clear that the same action has completely different effects on these two groups because of their differing amounts of power.
A person’s headlight is out, they are pulled over, and they receive a ticket. Though they may suffer an inconvenience, a financially stable person will be able to pay for the ticket and the headlight replacement in a short period of time, preventing any further tickets or escalation due to failure to pay the fine. A low-income person may not be able to pay for either. If they pay for the ticket, they may not be able to pay for the headlight replacement, ensuring that they would get more tickets. Too many tickets or failure to pay for the ticket would mean they could potentially have their license revoked, removing their ability to get to and from work, removing their ability to pay for anything, which could endanger their survival. Traffic violations are committed by rich people at far higher rates precisely because flat-rate fines have so little impact on them. The same punishment for the same traffic violation affects a poor person and a rich person completely differently.
Or in a social context, when a person of color says that black people can’t be racist to white people, what they mean is that a white person discriminating against a black person is supported by an entire societal structure of social, financial, and institutional power that is designed to make things easier for white people and actively difficult for black people in all the ways outlined above. A black person discriminating against a white person is only supported by individual opinions, not entire systems. The potential impact of the same act on the two groups can be as different as having your life put in danger vs. feeling hurt and rejected.
Determining Who Has the Power
In an oversimplified and straight forward world, you could look at my article “Who Is Marginalized?” and categorize everyone in the “default” category as having power and everyone in “the other” category as having less power. But when it comes to the dynamics between privileged and marginalized groups, there are many complicating factors that make determining who has more power in an interaction difficult. It is rare that we are only marginalized or only privileged or that we are marginalized or privileged in only one way. Our different sources of oppression and societal benefits are going to balance out differently depending on a million different factors.
As a white disabled person, I still gain a great deal of privilege from being white, making it a complicated dynamic if a black person were to discriminate against me based on my disability. Similarly, even though I experience discrimination and inferior treatment because I am a woman, I still have privilege and power over trans women because I am cisgender. If you are used to being “the oppressed one” in a dynamic, it can be disorienting to encounter a person who experiences both privileges that you don’t have access to AND manifestations of oppression that you’ve gotten to avoid.
Some marginalizations can overpower certain privileges: The famous story of how Oprah was denied a viewing of a highly expensive purse because the storekeeper assumed she couldn’t afford it is a perfect example of the way oppression from race typically outpaces even large amounts of financial privilege. But many times, the mix of benefits and obstacles is too complicated to have a literally black and white answer. There is no tried and true solution to this issue, but it helps to know there could always be societal struggles that you haven’t learned about yet because you haven’t experienced them, and your actions could always be impacting someone in a way you didn’t anticipate. It is entirely possible for both parties an interaction to feel the pressures of being the person with less power, in different ways, and for both of them to be right.
How You Can Use This Information
If you are the person with less power in an interaction, you don’t need to feel guilty about holding a powerful person accountable, if it’s safe for you to pursue that. The standard of behavior should be higher for the person with more power, and if given the opportunity, you can choose to defy your societal conditioning and do what you know is right, even if pursuing that path is a much harder one. But you also shouldn’t feel guilty if you need to lean into your role as the less powerful person and accept unfair treatment in order to protect yourself from retribution or physical danger.
Those of us who occupy positions of power should be in the habit of taking other people’s power level into consideration when we make decisions about how to asses, enforce consequences, bestow rewards, and utilize additional resources to make these things happen.
If you find yourself in a conflict with someone who has less power than you, try to remember that they are not nearly as much of a threat to you as you are to them. Even if the less powerful person attacks you back, you are likely to sustain far less damage from that attack than they are.
The person with less power will likely follow your lead and choose the path of least resistance. If you ask leading questions, it will be easiest for them to give you the answers they think you want to hear. If you refuse to listen or budge and make the conversation intolerable for the person with less power, the path of least resistance might be for them to give up and back off. Using your power to socially bulldoze a person with less power than you is unethical and unnecessary.
Choose what you say carefully, especially if the conflict is visible to the public because your words will carry more weight. Practice offering the things you give privileged groups-- like the benefit of the doubt and assumed competence-- to the person with less power, and notice if you are assigning them more scrutiny and distrust than they have earned. Monitor your own internal biases and pull back on any impulses you notice originating from them. I’d also recommend you check out my piece on Socialization for some ideas on how you can use your power to impact social conditioning for good.
Depending, you may not be able to resolve every conflict and you may have a good reason not to resolve it, but by offering the marginalized the treatment you give the privileged, you will reduce the severity of the power dynamic and lessen the potential unintended damage on the less powerful person. Reducing the negative impact of a power dynamic that serves no practical purpose is the goal here.