One glaring omission in much diversity and inclusion (D&I) work today is the lack of attention to power dynamics. Interculturalists are skilled at articulating cultural differences, but most miss the ways power inequities affect relationships and behavior. Corporate D&I trainers sometimes allude to power differences, but rarely provide skill-building on ways to minimize them. Practitioners with a social justice lens are acutely aware of power dynamics, but often approach inequities with a vocabulary that alienates key stakeholders.
There are three reasons power dynamics are usually avoided in D&I work. One, discussing power dynamics illuminates the status quo, threatening those who hold power and make decisions that affect the rest of us. Two, in the U.S., acknowledging power inequities contradicts our deeply-held value of egalitarianism, rooted in our founders’ declared ideal of equality. Three, we don’t know how to talk about power.
These reasons are driven by fear, which makes sense given the high stakes. However, we can’t change something without seeing it, naming it, and working with it. The following key concepts can help create a world that works better for more of us, by changing how we think and talk about power.
- Believing something in your heart does make it real. But not necessarily for anyone else.
- Just because you don’t see it, experience it, or like it, doesn’t mean “it” isn’t real.
- Your feelings are 100% valid, true information about your experience. They are not 100% valid, true information about reality.
- There are such things as facts, objective reality and basic morality. (Quantum physics aside, we may debate what comprises fact, reality and morality, and how to respect them, but not whether they exist.)
- Your thoughts, feelings, beliefs and behaviors don’t only come from you. (They do come from your will and conscious mind, but also triggers from your physical environment; culture; technologies and ancient, unconscious “downstairs brain”.)
- Everyone has some power, but some have more (Power is “the ability to create a result.”)
- Along every aspect of human difference, there are differences in power. Our differences are neither neutral nor equal. (We identify – or the world identifies us – as members of different identity groups based on our differences. These identities are either “dominant” (possessing greater relative social, political and/or economic power) or “non-dominant” (possessing less).)
- Power operates without your awareness or permission. Not liking your privilege or power doesn’t make it go away. (“Privilege” is the unearned set of advantages enjoyed by members of a power-dominant group solely for being members of that group.)
- Apples and oranges. The same behaviors done by different people don’t necessarily have the same meaning or the same impact – because of power differences. (A woman hitting a man — while still harmful – has an entirely different social context, historical legacy and set of consequences than a man hitting a woman. The Empire destroying the Rebel base is not the same as the Rebels destroying the Death Star.)
- Having power doesn’t mean always feeling powerful or good.
- Having privilege doesn’t mean feeling privileged or special.
- Power is about the ability to not do as much as do.
- Everyone has both power-dominant and non-dominant identities. No one is either one or the other. (And sometimes these identities shift with context and over time.)
- Everyone’s feelings matter. Everyone’s shame, anger, fear and pain deserve empathy and understanding. (This doesn’t mean you’re entitled to empathy and understanding from everyone, or any one person in particular.)
- Feelings don’t matter. Creating a world that works better for more of us is about avoiding and disrupting behaviors that are oppressive (hurting people’s lives and livelihoods), not “offensive” (hurting people’s feelings).
- Oppression hurts everyone – but not in the same ways, or to the same degree. (See 12 Reasons Ending Racism is (Also) Good for White People and The Dirty Secret of Racism: It Hurts White People Too )
- People at the disadvantaged end of a power inequity (non-dominants) are always more aware of the inequity. (This is due to biology and brain science, and makes non-dominants more qualified to determine whether or not an unequal power dynamic exists.)
- Having good intentions doesn’t absolve you of responsibility for your negative impacts.
- The solution to power differences isn’t always to make non-dominants more like dominants. (This is a common urge of well-intended power-dominants. So women are taught how to communicate like men, people of color are encouraged to dress like White people, and “foreigners” are rewarded for not speaking with “an accent”. This approach not only reinforces the power inequity, it reduces diversity.)
- Equity does represent a loss for those who hold disproportionate power. This is why they fear and resist it (although they may neither realize they’re resisting, nor know why they’re upset).
- You are owed neither universal comfort, nor universal freedom, at work or in life. Expecting your workplace or community to never hurt your feelings, never make you uncomfortable and let you do whatever you want is unrealistic, immature and ineffective. Expecting an environment free of oppression is not only reasonable, realistic and effective – it’s a human right.