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
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
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
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.
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 email@example.com or