THE CULTURE OF POWER

 

By Paul Kivel

 

If you are a woman who has ever walked into a men's meeting, or a

person of color who has walking into a white organization, or a child

who has walked into the principal's office, or a Jew or Muslim

who has entered a Christian space then you know what it is like to

walk into a culture of power that is not your own. You may feel

insecure, unsafe, disrespected, unseen or marginalized. You know you

have to tread carefully.

 

Whenever one group of people accumulates more power than another

group, the more powerful group creates an environment that places its

members at the cultural center and other groups at the margins.

People in the more powerful group (the "in" group) are accepted as

the norm, so if you are in that group it can be very hard for you to

see the benefits you receive.

 

Because I'm male and live in a culture in which men have more social,

political, and economic power than women, I often don't notice that

women are treated differently than I am. I'm inside a male culture

of power. I expect to be treated with respect, to be listened to,

and to have my opinions valued. I expect to be welcomed. I expect

to see people like me in positions of authority. I expect to find

books and newspapers that are written by people like me, that reflect

my perspective, and that show me in central roles. I don't

necessarily notice that the women around me are treated less

respectfully, ignored, or silenced; that they are not visible in

positions of authority nor welcomed in certain spaces; that they pay

more for a variety of goods and services; and that they are not

always safe in situations where I feel perfectly comfortable.

 

Remember when you were a young person entering a space that reflected

an adult culture of power-a classroom, store, or office where adults

were in charge? What let you know that you were on adult turf and

that adults were at the center of power?

 

Some of the things I remember are that adults were in control. They

made the decisions. They might have been considerate enough to ask

me what I thought, but they did not have to take my concerns into

account. I could be dismissed at any time, so I learned to be

cautious. I could look around and see what was on the walls, what

music was being played, what topics were being discussed, and, most

important, who made those decisions, and I knew that it was an adult

culture of power.

 

I felt I was under scrutiny. I had to change my behavior-how I

dressed ("pull up your pants," "tuck in your shirt"), how I spoke

("speak up," "don't mumble"), even my posture ("sit up, don't

slouch," "look me in the eye when I'm talking to you")-so that I

would be accepted and heard. I couldn't be as smart as I was or I'd

be considered a smart aleck. I had to learn the adults' code, talk

about what they wanted to talk about, and find allies among

them-adults who would speak up for my needs in my absence. Sometimes

I had to cover up my family background and religion in order to be

less at risk from adult disapproval. And if there was any

disagreement or problem between an adult and myself, I had little

credibility. The adult's word was almost always believed over mine.

 

The effects on young people of an adult culture of power are similar

to the effects on people of color of a white culture of power or the

effects on women of a male culture of power. As an adult I rarely

notice that I am surrounded by an adult culture of power which often

puts young people and their cultures at a severe disadvantage as they

are judged, valued, and given credibility or not by adults on adult

terms. Similarly, as a white person, when I'm driving on the freeway

I am unlikely to notice that people of color are being pulled over

based on skin color. Or when I am in a store I am unlikely to notice

that people of color are being followed, not being served as well, or

being charged more for the same items. I assume that everyone can

vote as easily as I can and that everyone's vote counts. I am never

asked where I am from (and this would be true even if I had stepped

off the boat yesterday).

 

In a society that proclaims equal opportunity I may not even believe

that other people are being paid less than I am for the same work or

being turned away from jobs and housing because of the color of their

skin. When I am in public spaces, the music played in the

background, the art on the walls, the language spoken, the layout of

the space, the design of the buildings are all things I might not

even notice because, as a white person, I am comfortable with them;

if I did notice them, I would probably consider them bland,

culturally neutral items. Most of the time I am so much inside the

white culture of power and it is so invisible to me tat I have to

rely on people of color to point out to me what it looks like, what

it feels like, and what impact it has on them.

 

We can learn to notice the culture of power around us. Recently I

was giving a talk at a large Midwestern university and was shown to

my room in the hotel run by the university's hotel management

department. After I had put my suitcase down and hung up my clothes,

I looked around the room. There were two pictures on the wall. One

was of a university baseball team from many years ago-twenty-two

white men wearing their team uniforms. The other picture was of a

science lab class-fourteen students, thirteen white men and one white

woman dressed in lab coats and working at lab benches. In total I

had thirty-five white men and one white woman on the walls of my

room. "This clearly tells me who's in charge at this university," I

said to myself; these pictures would probably send an unwelcoming,

cautionary message to people of color and white women who stayed in

that room that they could expect to be excluded from the culture of

power in this institution. I mentioned the composition of the

pictures to the hotel management and referred to it in my talk the

next day.

 

A few years ago I would not have seen these pictures in terms of race

and gender. The pictures themselves, of course, are only symbolic.

But as I walked around the campus, talked with various officials, and

heard about the racial issues being dealt with, I could see that

these symbols were part of the construction of a culture of power

from which people of color and most white women were typically

excluded. I have learned that noticing how the culture of power

works in any situation provides a lot of information about who has

power and privilege and who is vulnerable to discrimination and

exclusion; this institution of higher education was no exception.

 

The problem with a culture of power is that it reinforces the

prevailing hierarchy. When we are inside a culture of power we

expect to have things our way, the way with which we are most

comfortable. We may go through life complacent in our

monoculturalism, not even aware of the limits of our perspectives,

the gaps in our knowledge, the inadequacy of our understanding. We

remain unaware of the superior status and opportunities we have

simply because we're white, or male, or able-bodied, or heterosexual.

Of course a culture of power also dramatically limits the ability of

those on the margins to participate in an event, a situation, or an

organization. Those marginalized are only able to participate on

unfavorable terms, at others' discretion, which puts them at a big

disadvantage. They often must give up or hide much of who they are

to participate in the dominant culture. And if there are any

problems it becomes very easy to identify the people on the margins

as the source of those problems and blame or attack them rather than

the problems themselves.

 

Every organization has work to do to become more inclusive. I want

to focus on some ways that groups often fail to include members of

our country's most marginalized members-those marginalized by

economic status, physical ability, and English language ability.

 

Often, when groups talk about diversity issues, they address those

issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation that are most visible.

Without an understanding of how class limits people's ability to

participate in organizations a group may end up with a remarkably

diverse group of middle class participants. Those who are homeless,

poor, single parents, working two jobs, or poorly educated (and many

people fall into more than one of these categories) often are unable

to attend meetings or events because they cannot afford the time, the

fees, the childcare, or the energy. When they do attend, they may

feel unwelcome because they have not participated previously, because

they do not speak the language (or the jargon) of the organizers, or

because they are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the middle-class

values and styles of the group.

 

People with disabilities can be similarly excluded when meetings are

held in rooms and buildings which are not accessible, when signing

for the hearing impaired is not provided, when accessible public

transportation is not available, or when the pace and organization of

the meeting does not allow them to participate.

 

When English is not people's primary language, they may face

comparable barriers to finding out about meetings, attending events,

becoming part of the leadership of an organization, or simply

participating as a member when interpretation is not provided. They

are left out when non-English media and communication networks are

not utilized or when the pace and style of the group does not allow

for the slower pace that a multilingual process requires.

 

I am Jewish in a Christian culture. I am often aware of ways that

the dominant culture of organizations I work with exclude me. When I

get together with other Jews in a group I can feel so relieved that

we are all Jewish that I fail to notice ways that parts of the Jewish

community have been excluded. Because I am in the culture of power

in terms of disability, I can overlook the fact that we may all be

Jews in the group but we have scheduled a meeting or event in a place

that is not accessible. We may all be Jewish but we may have failed

to do outreach into the Jewish lesbian, gay, bisexual, and

transgendered communities. Or because we are predominantly

middle-class Jews, during our discussions we may be unaware of how we

are excluding Jews who are poor or working class.

 

We each have ways that we are in the culture of power (for me, for

example, as a white male) and ways that we are marginalized (for me

as a Jew). Although we may be good at recognizing how we have been

excluded, we are probably less adept at realizing how we exclude

others because we do not see excluding others as a survival issue for

us. We have to look to people from those excluded groups to provide

leadership for us.

 

It is important that we learn to recognize the culture of power in

our organizations so that we can challenge the hierarchy of power it

represents and the confinement of some groups of people to its

margins.

 

Assessing the Culture of Power in Your Organization

 

What does the culture of power look like in your organizations? What

does it look like in your office or area where you work? In your

school or classroom? In our living room or living space? In our

congregation? Where you shop for clothes? In agencies whose

services you use?

 

The following questions can be used to identify cultures of power

based on gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, age, race,

language, physical ability, immigrant status, or education:

 

1. Who is in authority?

 

2. Who has credibility? Whose words and ideas are listened to with

most attention and respect?

 

3. Who is treated with full respect?

 

4. Whose experience is valued?

 

5. Whose voices are heard?

 

6. Who has access to or is given important information?

 

7. Who talks most at meetings?

 

8. Whose ideas are given importance?

 

9. Who is assigned to or expected to take on background roles?

 

10. How is the space designed? Who has physical access?

 

11. What is on the walls?

 

12. What languages are used? Which are acceptable?

 

13. What music and food are available?

 

14. How much are different people paid? How are prices determined?

 

15. Who cleans up?

 

16. Who makes decisions?

 

Every person has the right to complete respect, equitable access, and

full participation. Anything less limits the effectiveness of an

organization by denying it the contributions-the experiences,

insights and creative input-of those individuals and groups excluded

or discriminated against.

 

Those inside the culture of power rarely notice it, while those

excluded are often acutely sensitive to how they and others are being

marginalized. Therefore leadership in efforts to eliminate the

culture of power needs to come from those in excluded or marginalized

groups. Unless they are in leadership positions with sufficient

respect, status, and authority, the organization's efforts to change

will be token, insufficient, and have limited effectiveness.

 

As they become better at identifying patterns of exclusion, people

from within the culture of power can learn to take leadership in

identifying marginalizing practices so the organization doesn't have

to rely as much on people at the margins to do this work. Although

groups will always need to look to the insights of people at the

margins to completely identify how systems of oppression are

currently operating, there is an important role for those inside the

culture of power to take leadership as allies of those excluded. They

can challenge the status quo and educate other "insiders" who are

resistant to change. It is precisely because they have more

credibility, status, and access that people on the inside make good

allies. They can do this best not by speaking for or representing

those marginalized, but by challenging the status quo and opening up

opportunities for others to step forward and speak for themselves.

 

Every institution of higher education has a culture of power. Each

department, division, school, program, and office within it has its

own subculture of power. These may not be consistent or overlapping.

The university may have an educated white male administration while

the women's studies department has a middle-class white woman's

culture of power which excluded poor and working-class white women

and women of color of all classes. To be in opposition to the

prevailing culture of power does not preclude us from creating

subcultures of power that, in turn, exclude others who are even more

marginalized than we are.

 

We have a responsibility, as people who have had access to

educational opportunities, to not let the fact that we are on the

inside of a culture of power deny educational opportunities to those

who are on the outside. We need to fight for equal opportunity and

full access and inclusion not just for those groups of which we are a

part but also for groups to which we do not belong. For most of us

that responsibility means listening to those on the margins,

acknowledging our inside status compared with some other groups, and

acknowledging out access to power, our resources, and our privileges.

Then we can work with others to use our power, resources, and

privileges to open up the educational structures to those who

continue to knock on the doors.

 

One of our goals should be to create organizations and institutions

that embrace an internal culture of full inclusion and whose members

are trained to think critically about how the culture of power

operates. We each have a role to play; we each have much to

contribute to create such organizations; and we each must push every

group we are a part of to move from a culture of power to a culture

of inclusion.

 

 

Chapter 1: The Culture of Power, by Paul Kivel in, What Makes Racial

Diversity Work in Higher Education: Academic Leaders Present

Successful Policies and Strategies, edited by Frank W. Hale, Jr..

Published in 2004 by Stylus Publishing, <http://www.styluspub.com/>

LLC, 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling, Virginia 20166. Copyright

2004 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. Reprinted with permission.

 

 

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Paul Kivel

 

Paul Kivel is a trainer, activist, writer, and a violence-prevention

educator. His work gives adults and young people the understanding

to become involved in social justice work and the tools to become

more effective allies in community struggles to end racism. Kivel is

the author of numerous books including Uprooting Racism: How White

People Can Work for Radical Justice, which won the 1996 Gustavas

Myers Award for best book on human rights, Men's Work, Making the

Peace, Helping Teens Stop Violence, and most recently, Boys Will Be

Men: Raising Our Sons for Courage, Caring, and Community and I Can

Make My World A Safer Place; A Kid's Book about Stopping Violence.

This chapter has been adapted by the author from Uprooting Racism:

How White People Can Work for Racial Justice Paul Kivel, 2001

(revised 2002). He can be contacted at pkivel@mindspring.com or

through www.paulkivel.com.