Strategies in Addressing Power and Privilege

Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Photo: The authors, together with contributors to 'Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment.' From left to right: Laurel Collier Smith, Garth Johnson, Liz Goodwin, Leticia Nieto, Margot Boyer.


By Leticia Nieto, Psy. D., and Margot F. Boyer

As everyone knows who has tried to address the social realities of oppression and privilege, these are tough subjects. Even saying the word “oppression,” or the even more loaded “racism,” “sexism,” and “heterosexism,” will get some people’s back up. Many folks start to feel angry, guilty, ashamed, or upset when these topics are raised, no matter how we approach them.

But we can’t have a more just society without talking about injustice. How can we address these topics in a constructive way, that will help people to listen and grow, not just create conflict and ill feelings?

In this article, we’ll broadly outline an approach that can help us grow in our understanding of oppression, and their compassion for self and others. This approach is largely a psychological one, and we use the language of imagery and feeling more than of politics or activism. We believe that people can develop more appropriate and useful skills to address the issues of oppression just as they develop other skills, and we’ve found that when people learn about these skills they find it easier to tolerate discomfort, to change their own behavior, and to work with people whose experiences differ from their own.

This is a complex model, and we’ve greatly simplified it for this space. We teach it in the course of a one or two-day workshop, or over an academic semester as part of a graduate program in counseling psychology. This column will offer a sketch of these ideas, which were developed and synthesized by Dr. Nieto, incorporating ideas and models from developmental theory, diversity models, and her own work as a therapist, teacher, artist, and cross-cultural worker.

We’re all members of many different groups. Many of these memberships reflect our choices and lives in ways that are neutral or positive. Some of us come from big families, and some are only children. Some of us have pets, and some don’t. Some of us are basketball fans, or symphony lovers, or vegetarians, or film enthusiasts. We can enjoy these affiliations and know that we are not likely to face discrimination because of them.

Other social memberships are troublesome. Because of our socially ascribed memberships in certain groups – based on gender, ethnicity, social class, and other groups – we will experience either oppression or privilege. We don’t sign up to join these groups, nor do we sign up for the system of oppression and privilege, yet they are part of our lives. We use the term “Rank” to describe this system, and we believe that people can develop access to better skills for responding to oppression in each of the rank areas. Later on, we’ll describe those skills in detail, but first we’d like to lay some groundwork for understanding how the system works.

In this model we distinguish among three terms that are sometimes treated as synonyms: Status, Rank, and Power. The “Onion” diagram shows these as layers or ways to understand social interactions. Status is the outermost layer, the one that is easiest for other people to see and the one we are most likely to be aware of, Rank refers to the system of valuing people differently depending on certain social memberships, and Power is the innermost layer, related to the core of our being.

Power relates to our connection to that which is greater than ourselves, to the numinous or the divine. It signals our connection to ancestors and descendents, to nature, and to the whole of creation. Any person can have access to Power; it’s not a function of social role or worldly success. We connect with power through our spiritual practices and our creative lives, through our mentors and loved ones, and through anything that allows us to move from a genuine center. In workshops, we ask people to envision a person or being who has this kind of Power, and to imagine walking in their footsteps, as a way of getting in touch with personal Power.

Remembering our Power enables us to work with the challenges of our lives and to cut through the social constructs of Status and Rank effectively. Usually other people cannot see our Power, though they might feel it in some situations.

Status, in contrast, is the most superficial level of interactions, one which is easy to observe. We all know how to take a high Status or low Status position, and we all get lots of practice in both. High Status behavior is marked by a dominant or assertive posture and verbal messages of assertion, leadership, dominance, or knowledge. Low Status behavior is marked by a submissive or passive posture, and verbal messages of agreement, compliance, acceptance, and support. Both high and low Status moves can be useful in some situations, or destructive in others – these are fundamental modes of behavior, not good or bad in themselves.

Like other animals, human being continually play Status games. Most of us take both high and low Status positions throughout the day. With close friends, partners, and colleagues, Status play can become very fluid, with both parties taking each position in turn. Certain social roles evoke particular status behavior, and we’ll talk more about those later on.

It’s easy to observe Status play at any bus stop, family meal, or business meeting. Watch an interaction unfold, and you’ll likely see people switching Status positions regularly. This is important, because Status is not a permanent state or role; it’s a temporary behavior. Unlike Rank memberships, which are generally stable, Status play is labile (mobile).

High Status behavior includes many positive activities: leading a group, teaching a class, speaking up for a principle, asserting connection. High Status behavior also includes the whole spectrum of aggression, from positive action to confrontation and even violence. Violence is a high-Status move, and this is true no matter who does it. When a person who is a member of a socially marginalized group commits an act of violence against someone who is a member of a socially over-valued group, we see that as a high-Status move. It’s a temporary situation, a snap shot of an interaction, that doesn’t change the underlying dynamics of societal and institutionalized inequity.

Similarly, when someone who is a member of a societally over-valued group or holds social privilege takes a low Status position in a particular interaction, that does not change the Rank memberships of the people involved. To use an extreme example, a slave-owner could be kind, friendly, or submissive to a particular slave in a given situation, but that would not change who was the owner and who was the slave.

It’s helpful to keep discussions of Status and Rank separated, to better understand the issues in both areas. Often when people talk about Rank, examples of Status play come into the conversation. However, the fact that some individuals who are members of devalued social groups experience success and exhibit high Status behavior does not change the underlying dynamics of Rank.

The middle layer of the Onion, Rank, is complex. Because Rank is difficult to discuss, we use a series of metaphors to attempt to understand how it operates. One metaphor is that of an essentially mechanical system, a conditioned response that everyone is trained to make when they are very young. We call it the Rank Machine. It operates like an old-fashioned clockwork or a primitive industrial system, like an assembly line of 100 years ago, but it happens within and around ourselves.

The Rank machine does only one thing: it sorts people into two piles, a small pile of people who are overvalued, and a larger pile of people who are devalued. We call these two piles Agents and Targets. Since the Rank machine is part of our deep conditioning, we rarely become aware of what it does, or even that it’s operating. The effects of Rank would need to be measured in nanoseconds. We meet a person, and the Rank machine has assessed them as well as us, and categorized them and us, often before either of us speak. We don’t have control over this; it just happens. What we do have some control of is our awareness of the Rank machine, and how we respond to the categorizing that goes on in ourselves and others.

Currently in the US, the Rank machine sorts people in nine different categories. We use the acronym ADRESSING (developed by Pamela Hayes) to remember them: Age, Disability, Religious Culture, Ethnicity, Sexual Orientation, Social Class, Indigenous Background, National Origin, and Gender. In these nine categories, people are classified as either Agents or Targets. Agents receive advantages or privilege, while Targets receive liabilities or oppression.

One problem with this whole Rank system, of course, is that the categories are ridiculous and false. People don’t fit well into binary, yes-or-no categories. To use one obvious example, racial categories are only social constructs, and many people have ancestors from many places and connections with many ethnic groups. People are not either “White” or “People of Color;” we are various and complex. This is the TRUTH.

At the same time, this Rank system, as absurd as it is, has a tremendous effect on our lives. Being categorized as male or female, as straight or gay, or any other rank assignment, can make a difference in the access, opportunities, and comforts of our lives. This is reality. As you read about these models, we’ll ask you to keep both of these in mind: the TRUTH that Rank categories are absurd and false, and the REALITY that Rank categories affect our lives.

This article originally appeared in Colors NW Magazine and was part 1 of a 3 part series. All three articles are available for download at the website which also has information about Dr. Nieto’s book Beyond Inclusion Beyond Empowerment where the ideas originally introduced in this article were given full-length treatment.

Strategies in Addressing Power and Privilege (article 1)

Skill Sets for Target Group Members (article 2)

Skill Sets for Agent Group Members (article 3)