“Higher education has a responsibility not only to search for the truth regardless of where it may lead, but also to educate students to make authority and power politically and morally accountable.” — Henry A. Giroux
Power is everywhere, and it’s connected.
It took me nine months to find those six words describing the core ideas of my capstone project. I started 13 months ago with little more than a project title—”The Political Is Personal”—and an essay idea that showed how the recession of ’08 and ’09 (the political) impacted the course of my life (the personal). After that, it took me four months to realize that the entries I was writing in my journals were all connected through the idea of power. I spent the weeks after that trying to figure out my thoughts about power and what I hoped to demonstrate about it through my writing. In the “Path To ‘The Political Is Personal’” I go into more depth about the process of my project’s evolution.
All the essays and stories that resulted from 13 months of ruminating about power structures can be found on the Collected Works page. Each piece has its own introduction that explains how its subject matter relates to the concept of power. What follows is a more in-depth look at what I’ve learned about power.
What is Power?
Power: 1) the ability to act or produce an effect 2) possession of control, authority, or influence over others. What power really comes down to is agency. When you have agency over your life and when you can impact a situation, you have some power. The more agency you have in shaping the conditions and circumstances of your life, the more powerful you are. The less agency and fewer freedoms you have, the less powerful you are. When you can shape the lives of others, you’re really powerful, and in order for you to be that powerful, others have to be less powerful and have less agency. The more power you have, the more privilege you have and vice versa. Power is constantly in flux, always transitioning, moving from one side of the scale to the other.
Power operates visibly in our lives. We see our W-2 on the table and know the IRS is waiting for us to file our taxes. We see our boss at work marking something on a clipboard during our performance evaluation. We see the president issuing an executive order that bans people like us from the country, and now we can’t leave or we’ll never be able to come back. Power also operates invisibly. We don’t see the silent but powerful way that the free market has shaped the course of our lives or the traditions that we value. We don’t see systemic racism that cordons black neighborhoods off from white ones. We don’t see how the mass media influences us and shapes our understanding and beliefs about the world.
To understand power, one must also understand the relationships that we form with power. There are four basic power relationships: “power over,” “power to,” “power with,” and “power within.” “Power over” is one of the most common ways of thinking about power. Super villains in Disney movies seek to have power over everyone else, just as dictators do in real life. “Power over” relationships can also be less obvious, however. A schoolyard bully seeks to have power over other kids in order to feel less vulnerable themselves. Corporations seek to have power over members of Congress when they sponsor their campaigns. Our mother exerts power over us when she sends us to our room to think about our actions.
“Power to” is a way of using your power to empower or help someone who often, but not always has less power than you. The popular phrase “power to the people” represents a movement of power away from Congressional chambers and out to ordinary people who generally have very limited influence on statewide or national politics. “Power to” operates in other ways as well. Teachers give power to their students when they help them feel valued and important. A friend gives power to another friend when she offers a hand to help them off the ground after falling or being pushed. A parent can give power to their child by allowing them to pick any treat from the beckoning aisles of the grocery store.
“Power with” is a way to harness collective power to achieve something, like when a community works together toward a common interest. A recent example of “power with” on a global scale was the Women’s March on Washington D.C., where women around the world filled cities in protest of the continued inequality and misogyny that prevails. The number of marchers sent a message to the new administration in the U.S., but it also served to show those who marched how many people share the same values. Being part of a collective can be invigorating and affirming. Social movements often succeed when they capitalize on the collective spirit created by sharing individual power with one another to make a much more powerful force, as happened during the Civil Rights movement.
“Power within” means to empower oneself. So much happens inside our minds and bodies; it’s where we process all our emotions, expectations from others, and responses to all forms of stimuli. We have the ability to beat ourselves up or to be kind to ourselves, and the results of both differ. Feelings of powerlessness are often exacerbated when we tell ourselves that we deserve to feel bad, or that our situation is our own fault even when there were other factors at play. We can combat feelings of powerlessness by building our confidence, by forgiving ourselves when we make mistakes, and believing the kind words that others speak about us. Sometimes we can be one of our own greatest obstacles, and so it becomes a radical act of resistance to get out of the way and allow ourselves to feel power within. We can even use power within as a way to take control over our attitudes, beliefs, actions, outlooks, and our sense of self-worth in a world where many of these things are defined for us by expectations and learned behaviors.
For the purposes of my project, I have come to think about power as a series of forms, levels, and expressions which come together to create power structures, or systems of power. Forms of power can be cultural/social, governmental, and economic. Examples of each follow.
- Cultural/social power structure: religion
- Governmental power structure: legislation
- Economic power structure: currency
Power also operates on levels, including national/global, local/state, outer-personal, and inner-personal. Outer-personal is a level of power that’s experienced immediately outside of the body; inner-personal is power experienced in the deepest, most private part of your internal self. Examples of each follow (Note: we all experience these examples of power on different levels; the examples below are through the lens of my own experience. Additionally, power can operate on multiple levels at the same time.).
- National/global power structure: capitalism
- Local/state power structure: state government or city council
- Outer-personal power structure: gender and sexuality performance
- Inner-personal power structure: true gender and sexual identities
As you can see, forms and levels of power overlap because they are two different ways to organize the same power structures. The third and final way to visualize power structures is through expressions of power. An expression of power is essentially a way in which power is experienced. An example of ways power can be expressed—or experienced—for each form and level follows.
- Cultural/social expression of power: the pressure to accept the same religion your family has
- Governmental expression of power: legislation that eliminates funding for all birth control services
- Economic expression of power: the ability or inability to pay rent
- National/global expression of power: trade agreements that send American jobs overseas, weakening the national economy
- Local/state expression of power: scholarship fund set up by the governor to send the state’s poorest students to college
- Outer-personal expression of power: choosing to stop wearing your favorite shoes because someone at school made fun of them
- Inner-personal expression of power: contemplating your own mortality
Just because you experience an expression of power on one level, it doesn’t mean that you will always experience that particular power on that level. For example, trade agreements that send American jobs overseas might be an expression of power that shapes the national landscape far more than your personal one. But when it’s your job that goes overseas, suddenly you’re feeling that expression of power on an outer-personal level, which will certainly affect your inner-personal wellness.
Similarly, nearly all expressions of power—depending on how a person experiences them—have simultaneous cultural/social, governmental, and economic implications. Take the example of the governmental expression of power above. Congress passing a bill that limits access to birth control is legislative, and therefore, a form of governmental power. But limiting access to birth control also has cultural/social implications by telling women they can’t make choices about their own bodies, and it will likely trigger some form of social protest. Limiting birth control access also has economic implications in that, without it, some women will have unwanted pregnancies that cost money and time off work that puts those women behind their male counterparts in the workplace. All power is linked through the cultural/social, governmental, and economic realms; anything that has an economic impact will have a governmental and cultural/social impact as well. All three forms of power can be seen working at all four levels all of the time.
Thinking about power in terms of levels, forms, and expressions is not the only way to think about power, but I find it useful because it highlights the way all power is connected. For more examples of the way power works on levels and across forms, visit the Power Chart Explained page.
The Intersectionality of Power
Before I had any ideas about forms, levels, and expressions of power, I was chasing an abstract understanding that the world is more complicated than most people recognize, and that the people around us and the conditions we are born into have a profound effect on who we become. Once I realized that I was writing about power structures, I set about trying to sketch my ideas on paper. I created a large circle with one smaller circle inside of it. From there, I divided my thinking of power structures into the levels previously outlined. My ideas about forms and expressions, though present in the abstract, wouldn’t become concrete until later.
Creating the levels was enough to help me begin putting words to the idea that different forms of power operate at different levels. More than that, they are all at play all of the time even if we’re not aware of them. For example, while I’m busy arguing with my mom on the phone, I may not be thinking about how the electricity company is threatening to shut my power off because I’m behind on payments, or that there are over 2 million people in prison, or that 25 civilians were killed in a drone strike last week, but it doesn’t mean that those truths—all of which are examples of power operating at global, national, local, and outer-personal levels—aren’t present. The existence of these expressions of power (particularly from the lens of my own relationship to each one) shape my understanding of the world I live in. They don’t stop existing just because I stop consciously thinking about them. Our lives are shaped by far more than we could ever be conscious of.
In making my power chart I was echoing ideas that were part of the theory of intersectionality. This theory holds that different forms of oppression are not separate, but are instead connected. For example, a black woman feels her blackness and her femininity—both oppressed identities—not separately one by one, but always together. She is never just a woman or just black, but always a black woman. Those two identities, as well as all her other identities, form an inextricable lens through which she sees and experiences the world. Similarly, we don’t experience one source of power and then the next and then the next. Our focus may shift from one source of power to the next, but we walk through life experiencing many of those powers at the same time, whether directly or in the way those power structures shape our understanding of the world.
Power doesn’t have to be oppressive, but there’s always the possibility for it to be. And when it feels oppressive for some and not for others, we have to talk about the privilege at work and who that power structure was designed to benefit. Usually, when we think about oppression, we picture racism, sexism, ableism, and other obvious examples of systemic inequality. These are oppressive forces because they pit dominant groups against subordinate ones, but they aren’t the only oppressive forces. What if, for example, we think of the IRS or the media as an oppressive force? These things may not feel oppressive for some people; the more privilege a person has and the less aware of that privilege they are, the less likely power structures are going to operate in an oppressive way in their lives. Power structures that don’t feel oppressive, more than likely, seem to or do benefit those people.
But for someone who is poor, the IRS feels oppressive when it withholds tax refunds to pay off other debts. To someone who is an undocumented immigrant, the media feels oppressive because of the way it portrays them as criminal when they know they’re not. When we begin to think of just how many ways our power structures can feel oppressive in different ways to different people and not oppressive at all to others, we can see that intersectionality theory speaks to one basic way in which we all experience power—with the cushion of privilege or without it. When someone is privileged, they’re often privileged in numerous ways. When someone isn’t privileged, they’re often disadvantaged in numerous ways. There’s a reason for that, and it’s because power structures are connected. Privilege begets more privilege because power protects power.
As I continued thinking about the way power can be found everywhere and in everything, I decided it was time to make a larger, more comprehensive sketch of how power structures operate in my life specifically. What I hoped to illustrate through this chart was that separate levels and expressions of power are anything but separate: they interact, compound, repel, and compete. Since nearly every expression of power has governmental, cultural/social, and economic implications, I didn’t visually represent forms within my power chart even though they exist within each level.
To think about these connections metaphorically, picture a pond in your mind and then picture the clouds opening up to release rain drops. In this scenario, you are the pond and the raindrops are the different expressions of power that you would include in your own version of my chart. Each raindrop, or expression of power, is its own entity as it falls from the sky, but something different happens when it hits the surface: it ripples outward. When thousands of raindrops are hitting the surface of the pond at the same time and rippling outward, those raindrops interact with one another and their impacts are changed by the impacts of other raindrops. Power works in a similar way.
Structural racism provides a good illustration of this connection. Take, for example, a black man who has just been arrested for selling crack. If his life is the pond, the raindrops hitting the surface include all the obstacles he’s faced in his life because of his skin color. There’s a raindrop for the segregated school he went to and neighborhood he lived in. There’s a raindrop for the decreased federal and state funding that resulted in a lower quality education for him and fewer school services. There’s a raindrop for the War on Drugs, which resulted in his father being sentenced to life in prison when his son was only 10. There’s a raindrop for the school-to-prison pipeline, which funneled the boy into prison when he was 16 for defending himself in a fight. There’s a raindrop for his inability to get a job with no diploma and a criminal record, which drove him to start selling drugs. These raindrops may fall individually and we may think of these different circumstances and events as separate, but when they hit the surface of the pond, their impacts combine to create devastation in this black man’s life.
While this essay documents all that I’ve learned about power, most of the writing in this project connects back to one major idea: power is everywhere, and it’s connected. One of the ways power is connected is the through the economic, governmental, and social forms of power that I previously discussed, which work together to shape our reality. To illustrate how I made those connections within this project, below are three essays that I wrote that each demonstrate how economic, governmental, and cultural/social power structures can impact our lives.
- When The Recession Comes Home is a personal essay that weaves together the stories of what was happening on Wall Street leading up to and during the recession of ’08 and ’09 and what was occurring in my own home. Through the story’s structure, it becomes apparent how decisions that bankers on Wall Street were making directly altered the course of my family’s lives. This essay is just one example of how economic power structures impact us.
- The Colonial Legacy is an academic essay that bears witness to the U.S. government’s sponsorship of genocide against Native Americans. The piece also discusses the Standing Rock protests and how the Sioux were collectively rising up to demand justice from the government, asking them to reroute the Dakota Access Pipeline in a way that wouldn’t endanger their water supply. It looked like they would get justice too, until Donald Trump was elected and pushed the pipeline through. Already the Sioux’s water supply has been contaminated by oil. This is an extreme and overt example of how governmental power structures impact us.
- The Elephant In The Room is an election essay that talks about how socially-constructed expectations shape our lens of the world. The piece focuses on gender, which is a performance that we enact and enforce on one another. If we didn’t perpetuate the male/female binary, it would cease to exist. Gender is an integral part of how we view our identities, and they form the lens through which we look at and perceive the identities of one another. We understand our world through the framework of gender, and in that way, this essay demonstrates how cultural/social power structures impact us.
Taken together, these essays illustrate just a few of the ways that economic, governmental, and cultural/social power structures impact our lives. Even if a particular expression of power—like the protests at Standing Rock—don’t directly impact your life, it still forms part of your understanding of the world and your own place in it. Economic, governmental, and cultural/social power structures are operating all of the time in our lives to shape our identities, our physical realities, and our perception of the world. All of the pieces that comprise this project speak back to this idea of interconnection between all power structures, which work together to create the world as we see it.
The Human Element of Power
For much of my project, I thought about structures of power as being inhuman and inevitable, sort of like the stock market. But all forms and expressions of power are created and maintained by humans. We may think about racism, for example, as this inhuman concept that acts like chains around the legs of people of color. But in reality racism exists because people created it and we continue to maintain it. Power is never detached from this human element even though that’s often how it’s framed in our society. Power only exists through people—with exceptions, such as earth’s natural cycles, which humans can impact—and in dehumanizing power it’s easier to feel like we have no responsibility to address the problems it creates.
Power exists in everything and everyone. Governmental and economic forms of power are the most overt and visible, but culturally- and socially-derived power is perhaps even more influential in the lived experiences of our daily lives. That’s because it impacts us on the outer-and inner-personal levels, meaning it’s the way we most directly experience power. Every time we interact with another person, an exchange of power takes place. If a friend laughs at our joke, we feel a small rush of validation; we feel powerful, if only for the length of time their laugh lasts. When our mom tells us we’ll never amount to anything, she is stripping our self-worth away, and with it, she takes some of our power. Pretty much all power is human, but culturally- and socially-derived power is directly maintained and enforced by the people in our lives.
We don’t often think about norms and expectations, and yet we’re enacting and enforcing them all of the time. Norms are the behaviors, appearances, and attitudes that are considered socially acceptable. They are linked to the idea of cultural/social expectations, which are ideas about who we should be and what norms we should follow in order to fit into a cultural or social group. So while norms are the behaviors we need to have, for example, it’s other people’s expectations that drive us to learn and enact those behaviors when others are watching.
Gender, for example, is a behavior that we are expected to enact based on the classification of our sexual organs. If the expectation that girls shave their legs wasn’t there, I likely wouldn’t feel pressured to shave and the act of shaving itself wouldn’t be a norm for those who identify as female. Gender, for many people, isn’t something that they have to actively think about because they’ve known since they were young what behaviors are expected of them and what behaviors are unacceptable. Even so, it’s something they constantly enact and make decisions about throughout their lives. It becomes a massive part of their understanding of their own identity.
The social landscape we all live in is full of expectations and norms about how we need to behave. On a daily basis, I grapple with expectations that I be skinny, quiet, confident, soft, subservient, a leader, successful, not overly-ambitious, feminine, hygienic, beautiful, modest, religious/spiritual, heterosexual and in a relationship, gender-conforming, among others. Many of these expectations are contradictory, meaning it’s impossible to be society’s version of a perfect person. But we are expected to try, not because it’s what people are naturally destined to do, but because we enforce these expectations on one another. The only way that expectations and norms can exist is if we believe in them and hold each other accountable, isolating or ostracizing those who break them.
The frustrating thing about expectations and norms is that we don’t need to believe in them to actively perpetuate them. I, for example, think women should be able to wear whatever makes them feel comfortable without others judging them. But it’s been so driven into my head that women need to be modest and pure in order to be respected that my first instinct when I see a girl wearing a short skirt is to judge her. In this instance, I’m perpetuating an expectation and norm I don’t believe in. And that’s part of what makes norms and expectations powerful in our lives. They are so ingrained that we often don’t realize they’re shaping the way we view ourselves and other people. I can’t count the times I’ve thought badly of someone for not being society’s ideal size even though I hate feeling inadequate in my own body. I take that frustration out by enforcing expectations about body size on other people, making it a vicious cycle.
In addition to other factors such as my socioeconomic status and the places I’ve lived, the person I am is a result of the expectations and norms that have been pushed on me. Who would I be if I wasn’t expected to enact the behaviors associated with being female? Who would I be if I hadn’t spent years grappling with and feeling guilty about not believing in God? Who would I be if I didn’t have to worry about being so ambitious that I intimidate people? Who would I be if I didn’t feel the pressure to participate in our consumer culture? I have no clue. How could I? I’ve never known anything other than the expectations and norms that have had the power to shape every aspect of my life’s course right down to my own understanding of myself.
To understand the impact that other people have on your life, I recommend making two lists: one of all the things that make you feel powerful and one of all the things that make you feel powerless. Here’s my non-exhaustive list.
I feel powerful when:
- people compliment me
- I do well on a project
- I look nice and walk confidently
- my opinion is valued and respected
- I have the money to buy something I want without worrying
- my voice is heard and it makes a measurable difference
- I’ve had a really good session of writing
- I call someone out for saying something offensive or inaccurate
- I stand up for someone else
- I achieve a goal
I feel powerless when:
- I’m isolated from other people
- I’m not liked or welcomed
- I’m not allowed to be in certain spaces/being in those spaces endangers me
- my opinion is not valued or respected
- I’m called out for being wrong or offensive
- my voice is not heard
- the government takes away my rights
- I don’t have enough money to feel secure
- I’m cat-called or someone makes a rape joke
- I don’t accomplish enough tasks in a day
In nearly all of these examples, my sense of power has to do with how other people perceive or treat me. There’s a few bullet points about financial security and fear of the government taking rights away, but whether or not I feel powerful in my day-to-day life has more to do with feeling like I belong. I’m never separated from my economic circumstances or from the larger political landscape, but I don’t spend most of my time thinking about them. I’m thinking about whether people like me; whether I’ll be remembered as a successful person; whether I’m too blunt or not blunt enough, too skinny or not skinny enough, too smart or not smart enough. I’m looking at myself in comparison to everyone else and trying to figure out where I fit in the context of the social norms and rules that we enforce on one another.
All of this to say, the most powerful forces in our lives are other people, not only because they create the systems that shape our world, but also because they have the power to accept or reject us. As human beings who crave love and acceptance more than anything else, it’s other people who build us up or tear us down. It hurts when the military botches a mission and kills truckloads of civilians who exist in my mind only as abstract limbs strewn across a desert, but it will never hurt as much as the sting of a friend slamming a door in my face.
One of my most critical ideas about power is represented by the arrows you can see that point in both directions on my power chart. These arrows symbolize the way that power structures from the global/national, local/state, and outer-personal levels come together to impact the inner-personal. The most obvious example of this is how we internalize our understanding of what the world looks like, how it works, and what our role is within it. The picture we have of the world has been created for us by the various power structures on all levels that have not only created our reality, but have also told us stories about it. Our understanding of the world is limited and not entirely accurate, but it’s the information we use to make decisions and judgements. In this limitation and inaccuracy, we can find traces of power—the media, textbook writers, teachers, our parents, our government—that have hidden certain aspects of the true conditions of the world while emphasizing others, skewing our perception without us knowing any better.
But power isn’t a one-way street. The key to the arrows in my chart is that they move in both directions. Larger power structures can impact us on the deepest levels, but so too can we impact larger power structures. With that said, these impacts are not equal power exchanges. Larger power structures will always be able to impact us as individuals far more than we as individuals will be able to impact larger power structures. This imbalance is reflected in my project, wherein I focus much more on how larger power structures combine to impact people’s lives, but I also write about how we can resist and subvert power that is abusive, exclusive, or ineffective.
Even if most of our acts of resistance are small, we have the ability—especially when we rise up together—to shape the systems of power that shape our lives with and without our permission. We can resist power structures on a global level, as women did for the Women’s March on Washington D.C., but it’s hard to say what, if any, systemic changes will result from it. We can resist on a national and local level by calling our government officials and demanding they take a certain action, though they won’t always do as we ask, as evidenced by the Republican senators who confirmed Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary despite the protest communications they received.
While it’s true that effecting global or national change is hard, it becomes more manageable when looking at the local, outer-personal, and inner-personal levels. We can resist on a local level by withdrawing all of our money from TD Bank because they support the Dakota Access Pipeline, and if enough people join in, the impact can put a franchise out of business. The physical act of voting can be a form of resistance, especially for those who might feel like others are trying to intimidate them away from the polls or suppress their ability to vote. On an outer-personal level, creating art, writing, making music, and other forms of creative expression are excellent venues for resistance, and have historically been used for such purposes. Much of my writing for this project has been in the interest of subverting power by bringing light to the power structures that negatively impact our lives. We usually have the most control over the inner-personal, and resistance on this level can take many forms. It could be as small correcting yourself silently when you mislabel or judge somebody. It could be as big as accepting that you don’t fit the gender classification you were born with.
In most instances, resistance is born at a personal level. No matter how you resist, it’s going to be personal especially if it involves putting your body in a vulnerable position. During the Civil Rights era, people—mostly people of color—came to believe strongly that black folks deserved equal rights. The passion necessary to carry the movement nationally began with the frustration and feelings of powerlessness that black people were experiencing every day, and had been since the beginning of America. When enough decided that something had to be done and that the cause was worth the risk, the movement began to pick up steam. Incarceration has always been the black man’s plague, and the Civil Rights movement created a political statement by offering up black bodies for arrest. In order to become more powerful, people first were willing to be made powerless because in that choice—in that agency—there was power. And that power ultimately lead to important changes, even if not quite on the level required to eliminate systemic racism from our governing structures.
But resistance isn’t always easy. In fact, it rarely is when it matters most. It wasn’t easy for black folks during the Civil Rights movement to put themselves in situations that invited the use of force against them. Depending on how threatening the resistance is perceived to be by those in power, the response can be deadly. The Civil Rights movement was considered to be incredibly dangerous not only by white folks who didn’t want to lose their privileges, but also by the U.S. government, which didn’t want to grant equal rights to black folks. They’d engineered Jim Crow and segregation as a way to avoid it.
When the resistance began to build, the government suppressed it in a way they likely wouldn’t have if the movement had been a white one rather than a black one. Martin Luther King Jr. was named one of the most dangerous people in the country by the head of the FBI. Malcolm X was surrounded by under-cover police officers all of the time. The Black Panthers were named the biggest threat to American democracy. Fred Hampton, a young leader who brought together people of all colors and ethnicities in support of the movement, was murdered by the Chicago police while he was sleeping. The entire Civil Rights movement was criminalized, and nearly all of the leaders of the movement were either run out of the country, put in prison, or killed. This wiped out an entire generation of black leadership, and even though they were successful in getting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, it made black people vulnerable to the next form of Jim Crow that developed once segregation was no longer legal: mass incarceration. And in the absence of leadership prepared to rise up against unfair, racialized policing and imprisonment, communities of color have been devastated. But for those of us who don’t see the devastation happening in those communities, there’s often no sense that something is wrong.
With a system like mass incarceration, it’s not clear where a resistance movement should begin dismantling it. There are so many power structures interacting to make it a reality. There’s the history of forced labor that follows people of color back to slavery, taking on different forms like the original mass incarceration boom after the Civil War, and later, Jim Crow. How do you dismantle a power structure that built this country? Other structures at play in mass incarceration include the various forms of media that disproportionately show black people as threats, speeches by national leaders calling them “super-predators,” and crime legislation by Congress. These three powers have effectively worked together to criminalize an entire race of people. That doesn’t begin to cover the private prison industry, however, which makes money off of keeping people of color in prison; or the corporations that utilize forced prison labor to make bigger profits; or the school-to-prison pipeline, which forces kids of color into prisons for low-level infractions; or the lack of opportunities for people living in communities of color to secure high-paying jobs outside of the drug trade. The list of power structures that contribute to mass incarceration goes on and on.
In most cases, for someone or a group to become powerful enough to implement systemic change, someone else or another group must become less powerful, and in a civilized society they must always choose to give up that power rather than being forced; this is why large-scale resistance movements are rare. The challenges we face are pervasive and their roots tangle much deeper than can be seen from above ground. Resistance isn’t always about changing the system. Not every act of resistance is designed or capable of having a massive impact. But every time we engage in individual or group acts of resistance, we take a tiny eraser to a portrait the size of New York City. The work is daunting, but erasing pencil lines one by one is measurable over time. So are acts of resistance. If all of us were to reject society’s expectations about who we are supposed to be and we stopped policing one another to ensure conformity, we’d live in a very different world. We’d trade in our tiny eraser for a new canvas (or at least a partial one since many other problems would remain, and all of them, since they are connected, share the same canvas).
We all participate in subverting power in our own ways. We subvert power when we back-talk our parent or teacher; make a conscious decision to appear or behave in a way that is different than what is expected; refuse to fall for advertisements that want us to purchase something we don’t need; call Donald Trump out for his lies; take a misogynistic statement by a political figure and turn it into a movement; wear a bikini even when we feel self-conscious; ask our friend to stop using an offensive word; feel empathy for a homeless person rather than disgust or anger; come out of the closet and accept our queer sexuality in a heteronormative world. We even subvert power just by recognizing the power structures at play in our lives. We subvert power again when we question those structures.
Some of these acts are going to do more to shape the systems of power around us, but all of them are essential in helping us reclaim a sense of power when we otherwise feel powerless. Resistance is important to any democracy, otherwise power structures have the chance to become more abusive and controlling than the ones that govern our lives now. Even when it’s hard to resist or easy to let a problem be someone else’s responsibility, one of the best things we can do as engaged citizens is strive to make this country the best, most just and inclusive place that it can be. And in order for that to happen, we’ll have to resist many of the power structures in place that actively encourage selective justice and inclusivity. Keep subverting power in your own life. Subvert it when you want to be someone society says you can’t be. Subvert it when people you care about are in trouble. Subvert it when the survival of our democracy depends on it.
The pieces in this collection that offer commentary on resistance are plenty, but Saved, To Be A Woman, The Elephant In The Room, and The Colonial Legacy are four that each offer their own perspectives on subverting power.
Why it’s Important to Study Power
Why did I spend my last year of college thinking about the often depressing reality that is power structures?
Because I think studying power is an important and useful way to understand the world. And because making use of that information may be our best hope of creating a more just, equitable world.
Understanding Power = Understanding Solutions
First of all, it’s important to study how power operates in our society because, in order to fix something, you have to understand how it’s broken. All of what’s broken in our society can be traced back to power in some way. A useful way of looking at American history, for example, is to pick any given period of time and take stock of what was happening politically, economically, and socially. Ask yourself: who had power and who didn’t? That will tell you a lot about the power structures that were at work, and if you ask this question throughout history, you’ll find that in most cases, there’s a pattern surrounding who has had power and who hasn’t. Power becomes ingrained, and the longer a particular group or ideology has control, the deeper they entrench their power through the creation of governing systems, economic structures, and cultural/social norms and expectations.
That means that when something in our society is broken, it can often be traced all the way back through our history and the power structures that were built, maintained, and dismantled over time. I’ve drawn on examples of race frequently in this essay because I think it’s one of the best examples of how power structures develop, become ingrained, and combine to systemically oppress an entire group of people. Racism is also one such structure that can be traced all the way back to the beginning of our country. At every turn, our government has worked to quietly and purposefully disadvantage people of color, which they’ve justified by creating several damaging and pervasive stereotypes that have come to define who all black people are and can be.
Historically, when people of color and their allies have pointed out these power structures that are in place to purposely disadvantage them, our government has responded by making a few concessions (often after concerted effort and bloodshed). The thirteenth amendment to the Constitution is a good example. Though it freed the slaves that were the backbone of the Southern economy, it didn’t spell the end of systemic racism. In fact, angry southerners who were living with a tattered economy began looking for ways to get their free labor back. They found it in a clause within the thirteenth amendment, which states that all Americans are free except for criminals. In the post–Civil War South, former slaves were arrested on petty charges such as loitering or vagrancy, forcing them back into a state of exploitative labor. This began the long trend—which we’re still seeing—of criminalizing people of color. Those who had hoped that abolishing slavery would spell the end of black people’s plight quickly learned that racism was not just an economic and governmental policy that justified forced enslavement. It had become a social policy as well, and because the thirteenth amendment didn’t begin to dismantle the social element of racism in addition to partially dismantling the economic and governmental elements, we’re still fighting to dismantle systemic racism today.
Why is this useful to understand? What this example of systemic, structurally-entrenched racism provides is proof that governmental, economic, and cultural/social issues are not separate. They are three sides of the same pyramid that makes up our reality. In Congress, however, governmental, economic, and cultural/social issues are often handled as separate entities. Healthcare is treated as a separate issue from public education, which is treated as a separate issue from systemic racism. I can’t think of a single issue that isn’t relevant to governmental, economics, and cultural/social issues in some way, and there’s a reason for that. It’s because all forms of power are connected, and many of the issues we face today are entrenched within multiple power structures that span our governmental, economic, and cultural/social systems.
This means that our current strategy of fixing problems from a one-dimensional perspective is only ever going to find limited success. You can reduce the number of children who are funneled through the school-to-prison pipeline by eliminating harsh zero tolerance policies, for example, but it’s not to going to change the fact that black people make less money than their white peers, or don’t make it as far up the career ladder, or have a smaller chance of climbing up into the next socioeconomic class. It helps divert children away from prison, keeping them in schools, but it’s not ultimately going to change the way structural racism operates within our society.
In many ways, it makes sense that we would try and separate problems into neat boxes and categories, since that makes everything seem more manageable. We like to simplify, to think of the mind and body as two separate things, to think of gender as a dichotomy, to differentiate people by skin color. But in truth, life is much more complicated than neat categories and dichotomies, and pretending this isn’t true only limits our ability to address complex problems that will always be complex no matter how hard we try to simplify them or address them one small piece at a time.
This is helpful to keep in mind as we move forward with legislative and other systemic-level changes. We should aim to close Guantanamo, but it won’t stop the U.S.’s unlawful detainment of prisoners. We need to close the wage gap, but it won’t change the fact that capitalism is an economic system that has historically discounted the work that women have done, leaving a legacy of subordination that won’t be undone overnight. We should allow transgender people to use whatever bathroom they feel most comfortable using, but it’s not going to change the fact that some people think being transgender is unnatural or even criminal.
Creating the kind of change that would transform our country and our world into a just and equitable one will require viewing every issue from multiple viewpoints and understanding that every decision has a personal impact. The decisions that Congress makes affect real human beings, and I think that is often forgotten. There’s a reason my project is called “The Political Is Personal.” If we give the word “political” the working definition of “struggle for power” and think of “personal” as anything pertaining to a person or a person’s body, then it becomes clear that any struggle for power has a personal impact, or an impact on people. Government, our economic system, our cultural/social lives: all of them involve constant and continuous struggles for power. (For more on this discussion of the relationship between the political and personal, read my title essay The Political Is Personal.)
The impact on people is often the last thing those with the power to make major decisions are thinking about. Government and the outside organizations that shape Congress aren’t always interested in the needs of the people who elected them. Government is a game of politics, a continuous struggle for the power to be able to achieve your agenda and that of your campaign funders. Congress members increasingly focus on how they can work toward their own agenda without losing the votes of those in their district or state, and this balance is often made easier by how few people pay close attention to the work the government is doing. Suffering is often the result of this political strategy.
For example, Michael Hough, a Republican senator from Maryland, spoke on behalf of the American Legislation Exchange Council (ALEC) in the documentary “13TH.” He discussed the organization’s financial relationship to the private prison industry, but denied ALEC’s role in perpetuating mass incarceration. In fact, ALEC wrote the legislation for mandatory minimums as well as the “three strikes you’re out” law, which have resulted in a massive incarceration boom, something that has been profitable for the private prison companies that fund ALEC. Hough denied that ALEC has any current or past role in mass incarceration, saying that ALEC focuses solely on economic issues rather than social ones. Yes, mass incarceration is a social issue, but it’s an economic issue too. Corporations make money off it and lobby behind legislation that encourages mass incarceration, and real people who have families they need to financially support are unable to do so inside prison and oftentimes, even when they get out.
All of this to say: governmental, economic, and cultural/social power structures are connected, as we can see from ALEC’s role in the creation of government legislation that benefits corporate funders but decimates communities of human beings. If we ignore this interconnection as we attempt to find solutions to our ongoing governmental, economic, and cultural/social problems (all of which are the same issues), we’ll never find the solution that will actually solve the problem. We’ll only continue pulling up stems when we really should be digging up the roots. As Henry Giroux wrote in America’s Addiction to Terrorism, “What has been produced by humans, however inhuman and powerful, can be undone.” But we have to understand what we’ve produced—really understand it in all its complexity—in order to understand how to undo it.
Power in the Everyday
Another important reason to study power is for what it can tell us about our relationships. The longer I worked on this project, the more I came to recognize power in my everyday interactions. In the classroom, I noticed how students who didn’t speak up and deflected eye contact deflated a teacher’s enthusiasm. In my residence hall, I noticed that every time I passed the cleaning staff as they mopped the stairs and spoke in a different language, my privilege weighed so heavily on me that my legs got more difficult to pull up with each step. During an interview—wherein I was one of two interviewers, the other being a professional staff member with the power to make the hiring decision—I noticed that the interviewee only made eye contact with me because I, as a fellow student, was less scary. These are fairly standard interactions all involving subtle power exchanges, which goes to show just how present power is in our lives if we start to pay attention to it.
Toward the end of this project, I gave a presentation about power exchanges to a group of resident assistants (RAs). I hadn’t planned it, but right before I started, someone complimented my outfit. This perfectly demonstrated a subtle exchange of power because, in that compliment, she empowered me. Right after that, another RA—this one male—said he could rock my dress too, in a friendly attempt to swipe some of the power that she had just given me. So I told him, “You can rock it, but not as well as I can.” As I’d hoped, the whole room started buzzing with laughter and he was jokingly upset at my dis. Again, I was thrilled because our exchange was a perfect lead-in to my discussion, demonstrating how someone can take power from another as I did when I dissed him in front of a group of our peers (a dis made even more interesting because it involved wearing dresses, a traditionally female behavior).
The point of this presentation was to show my fellow RAs how we can utilize an understanding of power dynamics to help us in our roles. Since our main function is to build safe, close-knit communities in our residence halls, power can be a useful way to think about the communities we’re building and how our residents perceive us as peers in leadership positions. As an RA, we have to balance between being an authority figure who enforces campus rules and someone who is approachable so that our residents feel comfortable coming to us. If we’re too authoritative, our residents will likely feel scrutinized and unsafe in our presence, making them feel powerless. If we’re pushovers, letting our residents get away with violations, they will no longer respect us because they have a sense of being more powerful. So the key, it would seem, is to find that sweet spot where we can empower our residents and build trust, but not so much that they feel they can break rules or that we can be friends. Paying attention to power dynamics, taking cues from the way our residents react to us, can be a great way to find that sweet spot.
Nearly everyone interacts with people using both verbal and non-verbal communication. We exchange power through both, as demonstrated earlier when not making eye contact deflated a teacher’s self-confidence. There’s a reason why not making eye contact in an interview or a bad handshake can cost you a job offer, and it’s because obvious power imbalances or awkward dynamics like that make people uncomfortable. In thinking about the RA role, body language is incredibly important in making residents feel valued. For example, when having a difficult talk with a resident, it’s not good to sit or stand above them, for this can make them feel powerless and less willing to divulge any personal information. Sitting or standing below them can empower your residents during a conversation, which could be good if you want to make them feel comfortable, but bad if you’re trying to ask them to stop smoking weed in the showers. Likewise, if two roommates are feuding, you don’t want to stand closer to one than the other during a mediation, as that can come across as you taking sides.
Whether you’re an RA or not, paying attention to power dynamics and how others react to you can be an excellent way to develop as a professional and even as a friend. You can start to identity patterns in behaviors you have that might isolate or annoy people, like if you tend to lick your lips every five seconds or clap your hands awkwardly when there’s silence. When you recognize these behaviors as being detrimental to your ability to build relationships with others, insofar as it’s a behavior you can change, you have the opportunity to work on it. You can also pick up on tension between co-workers that can give you insight into a situation you may need to intervene in, or may want to stay miles away from. Picking up clues by examining how power is being exchanged will help you gather the information necessary to assess a situation and make a judgement call about it.
Understanding how others perceive you can also help you avoid or defuse conflicts. If you, for example, feel isolated from your friends, you can pinpoint particular behaviors or moments that made you feel that way, giving you an opportunity to talk to your friends about it and cite specific examples of behaviors they could change to make you feel more included. Speaking to the opposite, when you can recognize power dynamics, you can pinpoint moments when you’ve been the friend who excluded someone else, giving you the ability to change your behaviors. You can only do that, however, when you’re tuned in to the subtle shifts in the power dynamic between you and your friends.
Critically, power dynamics can help you save someone in a distressing situation, which is perhaps the best reason to pay close attention to the way power is being exchanged between people. If you’re at the bar, for example, and notice a guy pulling a very drunk girl out onto the street, you can identify a dangerous power imbalance that indicates a strong possibility for sexual assault. By intervening, you could save the girl from an emotional and physical trauma. In another horrifying scenario, you might pick up on a weird tension between a child and his older cousin. Rather than chocking it up to normal boy behavior, you might be able to pick up on specific clues in body or verbal language that lets you know something abusive might be happening. Power dynamics are subtle, but often the clues are there if you want to see them. And in seeing them, you could get help for someone who needs it.
Close-Up: Power Imbalances and Dynamics
Though I’ve mentioned power imbalances and dynamics, I think it’s worthwhile to break these concepts down a little further. A core concept of power dynamics is the idea of “in groups” and “out groups,” or those who have power and those who don’t. Returning once again to the example of racism in America, white people are the “in group” and people of color are the “out group.” These distinctions aren’t set in stone, however, and they shift based on the situation and the way that power is transferred between people. In America as a whole, people of color are relegated to an outsider status, but in certain contexts, they are the “in group” and white people are the “out group.” Consider the world of hip hop, which was born out of black resistance culture. White folks can rap, but they take on the outsider role when they do.
“In groups” and “out groups” can shift within a given situation. Consider a classroom led by a brand new teacher who’s nervous. Her students notice and join together to give her a hard time. In this moment, she is part of the “out group” and the students are the “in group.” But when she starts sending people to the principal’s office, the power dynamic shifts and suddenly she is the “in group” and her students—particularly the ones asked to leave the classroom—become the “out group.”
“In groups” and “out groups” can be helpful in figuring out what the power dynamic is in any given situation, and once you understand how power is being transferred or withheld between two or more people, you have all the information you need to spin the situation in a way that avoids or resolves conflict. Part of my role as an RA, for example, is helping students manage roommate conflicts, which are essentially power dynamics gone awry. If two roommates are feuding and I can tell that one is utilizing power over the other, I can ask that person to leave so I can create the space necessary for the second roommate to share their side of the story.
Even in situations where people are working toward the same goal, which could be as small as trying to figure out how to cohabitate or as big as organized social movements like Black Lives Matter, power dynamics can complicate things. People compete for leadership positions or to have their ideas heard and executed, sometimes losing sight of the big picture in the process. Office politics, or the power dynamics that create “in groups” and “out groups” within a particular business or company that often negatively affect morale, is an example of how people working toward the same goal can be impeded by their own complicated relationships to one another.
“In groups” and “out groups” also can provide us with an understanding of when it’s okay to use certain language or jokes that aren’t always appropriate. The key is to remember that when you’re in an “out group,” you can make jokes about people in the “in group,” but the opposite is not true. A woman who has been sexually assaulted could make fun of how most survivors don’t report their assaults, but it’s not cool for someone who hasn’t been in that situation to make a similar joke. That’s because, in the latter scenario, the person would be playing into the tradition of belittling sexual assault, but when the survivor makes the joke, she is drawing attention to the injustice of that tradition (assuming her joke is well-intended). Which isn’t to say that she should be joking about sexual assault at all; it’s a thin line to walk no matter who you are.
The same goes for key words such as “retard,” “faggot,” or the N-word. Someone who is of able-body and able-mind can’t use the word “retard” without it being offensive. Not in any case. But someone who isn’t of able-body or able-mind can reclaim that word for themselves. The same goes for the word “faggot.” Someone who is heterosexual can’t use the word without it speaking to the long tradition of straight people using queerness as an insult. But someone who is queer can call themselves a “faggot,” reclaiming the word. The same goes for the N-word. White people can’t use it. Period. But black people can and often do use it to describe themselves or to address another black person. This information is useful because it lets us know when it’s inappropriate to make a joke about someone. All we have to do is think about whether we’re part of the “in group” or the “out group” and whether our joke would be reinforcing abusive power or subverting it. Subverting power is okay. Reinforcing abusive power isn’t.
With any injustice, there is an imbalance of power that creates “in groups” and “out groups.” For example, Kalief Browder was arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. He couldn’t afford bail, and the criminal justice system is set up so that the majority of cases like his never see trial. Prosecutors offered him a plea bargain, which would have forced him to admit to a crime he didn’t do, strapping him with a criminal record and all the socioeconomic challenges associated with it. The courts got mad that he demanded a trial, however, and ended up holding him without a charge in Rikers Island for three years where he faced solitary confinement and regular beatings by other inmates and guards.
Two years after he was released, he killed himself because he couldn’t recover from the trauma he suffered. How could the criminal justice system fail so miserably? It’s because, as attorney and author Bryan Stevenson says in the documentary “13TH,” the system treats you better if you’re wealthy and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. The courts are a flawed human institution that reflect society’s prejudices, and therefore, they make space for a power imbalance that creates “in groups” and “out groups” that are largely divided on racial and socioeconomic lines. Tracing this power imbalance within the courts to its roots is helpful in identifying the problem and the pieces within the system that encourage the creation of those imbalances. Properly diagnosing a problem is always the first step to finding and implementing a solution.
Ultimately, it’s beneficial to understand power dynamics and imbalances because, if we understand how power is used and exchanged, we can better defend ourselves in situations where people are trying to use power over us. We can also empower ourselves and others when we can recognize power’s function in an interaction or structure. The best way to beat power that is abusive is to recognize it, firstly, and to understand where that power is deriving its power from. Only then can we try to cut off that power source, or redefine it, or create a movement or action that counters it.
Holding Power Accountable
Donald Trump has provided me with ample opportunities to study power dynamics and how people can utilize power to their benefit once they understand how it works. Though most people don’t consciously think about power, I wager that Trump constantly thinks about power—how he wants to collect as much of it as possible and specific ways that he can accomplish that.
One technique he’s mastered is harnessing the power of language to veil racialized messages that appeal to voters who are feeling economically and socially displaced. For example, when he calls Mexicans “rapists” and “murderers” he’s confirming what millions of people in this country want to believe about Mexicans (which presumably speaks to all Hispanics and Latinos). In her TED Talk about the danger of single stories, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” In telling this incomplete narrative about Mexicans, Trump is writing the defining story of who Mexicans are. The problem is, not all Mexicans are rapists and murderers. Not even close.
Another power technique Trump has mastered is gas-lighting, or sowing psychological distress and doubt in people so that they begin to question their sanity, perception, and memory. He does this every time he claims he didn’t say something he’s been caught on tape saying, or insists that alternative facts and truths are the ones that govern our reality. An example is when he said that no one respects women more than him, effectively redefining what it means to respect women to involve sexually violating them. This makes women all over the country more susceptible to sexual and domestic violence, as well as the isolating fear that their trauma won’t be taken seriously.
During the election, sexism was a major force working below and above the surface. Yet, many people don’t think sexism had anything to do with Trump’s win. When so many people don’t recognize a power that seems obvious to the rest of us, it’s easy to start questioning whether we really know what we’re talking about. It becomes nearly impossible to effectively argue how potent sexism really was in the election, so firm and unmovable is the belief against it. Likewise, when millions of people believe Donald Trump when he says that no one respects women more than him, the rest of us start to doubt that our understanding of respect is the truth.
Whoever defines what is true has the power to tell any story they want about the reality we live in, and it’s a power Donald Trump has taken to an extreme, especially in a democratic society. In defining what’s true, he has the ability to operate outside the realm of accountability. When all he has to say is that he didn’t have any involvement with Russia for Congress to decide not to thoroughly investigate Russia’s interference with our election, it means there’s no meaningful limit to what he can get away with. It’s how dictators operate. When we’re focused on sorting through the blitzkrieg of lies and alternative facts, we’re not paying close attention to what’s happening behind the closed doors of the White House and Capitol. Trump’s power is hard to hold accountable, and that’s entirely the point.
Yet, millions of people don’t recognize that this is the truth, too busy listening to Trump’s version of reality because it more closely aligns with the reality they want to live in. George W. Bush has warned Trump that power is corrosive and addictive, but this isn’t a genuine threat when millions of voters want that kind of aggressive and forceful power. What do people do when they feel powerless? They seek out people who help them feel powerful. And so, while millions of Americans continue to look to Trump and his administration for a boost of power and status, he will continue manufacturing and capitalizing on the power imbalances that divide us. He will continue representing our respective issues and priorities as being completely opposite of each other because relegating the more liberal and progressive wings of the country to a position of relative powerlessness benefits him. It feeds his corrosive, additive relationship to power.
But, as I discovered when I asked myself and others what makes us feel powerful and powerless, human beings all want the same essential things. We all feel powerful and powerless in the same situations. We all want recognition, affirmation, acceptance, to feel like we belong, and yes, to feel powerful. When our president is sowing division among us by making it seem like we have nothing in common, like we don’t all want and need the same essential things in life, it creates power imbalances that act like walls between us. For too long, our governmental leadership has emphasized the differences between us as a way to get votes and stimulate industries like private prisons that profit off our fear and hatred of each other. And when we’re divided, we can’t rise up and resist when power takes advantage of us. We can’t even see when we’re being taken advantage of, our eyes are so filled with manufactured hatred.
Just because power has been used to divide us, it doesn’t mean it’s ever been what’s best for our country. It doesn’t mean we should continue using power in that way. Perhaps the most important reason to study power is so that we can hold it accountable. We can question it when it’s used generation after generation to sow division and fear that teaches us to stop looking at one another as human beings. When we’re criminalizing homelessness, blackness, and the refugees who are fleeing awful situations (which the United States likely had a hand in creating), we’re not empathizing with their struggle as human beings. We’re not recognizing that their struggle is not their fault, that they don’t deserve to be punished, and that there are deeper power structures at work that have created their situations. We’re not seeing the reality that’s in front of us, but the version that justifies our inaction or our hatred. It’s a reality that dehumanizes us all so that a few among us can maintain power imbalances that benefit them. We pretend like we’re a civilized, moral people. But what kind of civilized, moral people care more about power than the well-being of other human beings?
To really hold power accountable, everyone needs to understand how it works. The millions of people who fell for Trump’s quiet appeals to white power must be able to recognize power’s quiet seductions, and must also have the moral and political education to understand why it’s wrong. To understand whether or not we can trust power, we must know the importance of questioning who is telling us what stories and what their motives are, for this is how we know when good or bad power structures are at work. When we understand the goal of power underneath the veil, we can make decisions about whether or not those power structures are compatible with the moral society we’ve always prided ourselves on being. It’s no longer enough to say we’re moral while we let millions rot in prison for drug abuse when what they need is rehabilitation and economic opportunity. We have to show up for one another, and when we understand power structures, we can pinpoint who isn’t honoring their part of the social contract. We can strip them of their power. We can elect leadership that seeks not profit or division or power for power’s sake, but to represent the needs of all the people to the best of their ability. Humans aren’t perfect, and therefore, our use of power will never be perfect and we can’t realistically expect it to be. But does that mean we’re incapable of using power to try and help everyone rather than just ourselves?
Of course, there’s a danger associated with studying power. When you understand how it works, as Donald Trump does, you can abuse it. And unfortunately, it’s a real possibility that more people would try to abuse power than use it to help their fellow human beings; after all, that’s how power has been used for as long as anyone alive can remember. Perhaps the most essential and difficult power structure to subvert is power itself. We need to stop looking at it as something we must harbor over one another rather than something we should share among each other. It was telling for me when my friends, every time we talked about power relationships, framed power as something people can’t help but abuse. In the hypothetical situation where I magically become the most powerful person in the world, they doubted my ability to use that power in a way that would empower others. They said this knowing that I understand how the greatest injustices in our world are results of abusive power. But I couldn’t take it personally: power has a bad rap, and for a justified reason.
That said, there’s also danger in not studying power because, even if we don’t encourage the masses to think critically about it, those who intend to abuse it will continue analyzing how they can use power structures to their benefit. This is representative of what’s currently happening. Every dictator who has ever existed has understood something about power that the rest of us haven’t, or they’ve had the nerve to use that knowledge selfishly. If people who are morally positioned to use power for good don’t have the understanding of it, they can’t use it in a way to combat or undo the damage done by people who are abusing power. So even though, in bringing power theory to the masses we risk introducing it to more people who want to abuse it, if we don’t we also risk keeping people from it who intend to use power to protect human rights.
Questioning Our Limitations
I began this project because I believed that the most important work any of us can do is to make the world a more just, equitable place. That’s what I’ve been writing toward this past year, arming myself with the knowledge and tools to understand what it would take to achieve this vision. I think it’s critical to ask ourselves, since power will always be abused in some way by some people, if we can realistically accomplish a just and equitable world. What would that even look like? Everything about our governmental, economic, and cultural/social systems are designed to encourage power imbalances. How do we uproot these systemic imbalances when they have become part of our self-identity? People will always use power to continue working toward the world they want to see, and not everyone wants to see a more just and equitable one. Some want to see the world burn, like Donald Trump, but only after they’re safe from the blaze themselves. That’s something we have to contend with.
What would happen if we reclaimed power as something that can lift everyone up? What if we looked at it as a force for good and not for evil? As human beings, are we capable of releasing our hold on power and privilege in order to make the world a more just and equitable place? Is that a goal most people have any interest in working toward? Is a just and equitable society even possible, knowing what we do about power imbalances and the corrosive and addictive nature of having more power than other people? Can we ever truly put the needs of the whole before our own desire for power and status? Are we incapable of being anything more than our history of controlling other people and devaluing the lives of those we deem dispensable?
It’ll be difficult to change power structures when we’ve so effectively demonized even the discussion of systemic reform that it’s political suicide. We can keep pretending that we can work within the system without needing to dismantle it and begin again, but this will never get at the root of the problems we face and they will just flare up again, likely with more heads. Can we dismantle the system realistically? In some ways, I believe that we can because we humans built the system and that means we humans should be able to unmake it.
But I think we must also consider the possibility that the system we have created has grown too large and has become too deeply entrenched in our understanding of ourselves and the world to ever fully dismantle. It would require every single person to be on the same page and want the same things, and that in itself is a pipedream. And even if we were all to agree that dismantling the system was a good idea, where would we begin to build a new one? How would we avoid our tendency to act with our own interest in mind? How would we ensure that no one abuses power or intentionally creates oppressive power structures? Who would get to make decisions, and who would choose those people? Do we know how to create a world different than our own, or would we just end up creating the same system again with slight modifications?
These are questions I can’t answer, but to fix any of the problems we face, they are questions that we should all be asking. If we don’t question our limitations, we can’t be realistic about the goals we’re striving toward. I don’t know how much of our tendency to use power over one another is our nature rather than a behavior we have learned. I don’t know if human beings have the capacity to wield empathy rather than hatred. I hope, in my heart of hearts, that we are more than our obsession with power, an obsession so few people recognize in themselves. Because if we’re not, I wonder if there’s any point in trying to fix the problems that plague our society. I wonder how successful we can be as a species, and whether or not, when we meet our nasty end thanks to our own disregard for earth’s limitations, the world will be better off without us. I wonder if life is as precious as we tell ourselves, or if it’s just a sentiment whispered from one privileged ear to another as we walk past a homeless man freezing to death on the curb.
I wouldn’t be writing these words if I’d given up hope in the good we are capable of as human beings who share a common humanity, even if it’s a humanity we often deny each other. Studying power is sobering, and while I’m not sure whether it’s something all people should engage with, I know I’m glad that I have. Because even if I feel powerless to change the oppressive reality many find themselves in, I know that powerlessness is not a definite. Like any power dynamic, it can be shifted if enough people resist and demand the creation of a new power structure. I don’t know what we’re capable of if we learn to look at power as something to share rather than harbor over one another. I can only hope and advocate for this just and equitable world I keep speaking of, trying to motivate as many people as possible to envision a world where stripping each other of our dignity is no longer written into government policy. I don’t know what I’m capable of either, as an advocate, an educator, and an imperfect but empathetic and striving human being.
I think it’s worth it to find out. To the future we look, never forgetting our past, and always remembering that power will never hold itself accountable. We must be the ones to do that. Luckily, I can think of nothing more important to do with my life.
Project Limitations & Other Ways of Looking at Power
To end this in-depth look at what I’ve learned about power structures, I must admit that my project has limitations. Most power analyses are done by groups of people who can bounce ideas off of one another and offer varied perspectives. Largely, I completed this project by myself. I read as widely as I could in the time I had, interviewed several people for different articles, and talked with people who were able to point me in the direction of valuable resources or concepts.
Even so, I have looked at power from a very one-sided perspective: my own. And that will always have limitations. Power structures shape my life in a particular way, and no one else experiences them quite the same. The way power impacts someone’s life in Saudi Arabia is going to be entirely different, with different considerations for how that power is culturally, economically, and politically defined and maintained. I recognize this, but don’t consider it too deeply. I intended for this project to be a personal, educationally-transformative journey, and that’s exactly what it’s been.
There’s also power in how I’ve framed my arguments within my essays, and by no means are my ideas about power structures meant to tell the full story. They tell one story limited by the scope of my own knowledge, experience, and privilege. An example of this is Line-Cutters: What’s Happening On The American Right. The essay contains numerous generalizations about conservative voters based on one sociologist’s field research, and so it tells a story with a limited view. It doesn’t speak to the full story—it can’t because I can’t—and it’s important when reading all of the works in my project to be aware of this limitation. I encourage you to challenge my framing and the arguments I make. That is an important part of holding power accountable.
I’m not a scientist, sociologist, or anthropologist. I’m a writer, and it’s important to keep that in mind—not to undermine my analysis, but to inform you as the reader of where I’m coming from. This project was first and foremost about writing. In the beginning, I didn’t even know what I was writing toward; I stumbled on the subject of power structures accidentally. The works included in this project document the journey I went on to grow my political education, which was fostered by my study of power. The ideas and arguments behind my essays will continue developing as I do, so think of them as living, breathing entities. They are as incomplete and imperfect as the person who wrote them.
While I didn’t read any power theory until more than eight months into my project, I accidentally stumbled (as I’ve made a habit of doing) across one website in particular that proved incredibly helpful. It’s called PowerCube, and I highly recommend it as another look into power analysis, this one from a group of academics. To briefly summarize PowerCube, it looks at power structures as forming a cube whereas I look at them through nesting circles. The only similarity our visual representations of power have is the concept of power operating on levels. I divided my nesting circles into global/national, local/state, outer-personal, and inner-personal levels; PowerCube divided its theory into global, national, and local levels. The reason for this difference is likely that PowerCube takes a general approach, whereas my analysis of power came from a personal point of view. I came up with my concept of levels long before I found PowerCube.
Additionally, PowerCube looks at forms of power, which are divided into invisible, visible, and hidden categories. My concept of forms is different (including cultural/social, economic, and political categories), but I came up with mine after I visited this website for the first time. PowerCube also looks at spaces of power, which include claimed, closed, and invited spaces; my power chart never focused on spaces. Lastly, PowerCube thinks of expressions of power as the concepts “power over,” “power to,” “power with,” and “power within,” which I do borrow heavily from even if my working definition of expressions of power is broader, speaking to different ways power is experienced (though all four of those are certainly examples of how power can be experienced). I came to this definition of expressions of power only after I found PowerCube.
I want to give credit where credit is due, and though I developed my two original sketches of power structures on my own, much of my late-stage thinking was shaped by PowerCube. This analysis would not look the same without it, and it has undoubtedly been a force for good in the life of this project.