Special Series on Mastering Complex Power Dynamics

This is the second of three excerpts from Senior Editor Cyndi Suarez’s 2018 book, The Power Manual: How to Master Complex Power Dynamics. The first excerpt, “Effective Interactions: Supremacist Power and Liberatory Power,” ran last week. This short series concludes next Wednesday, December 12, to be followed by a “Meet the Author” dialogue session:

Here is how reviewer Gibran Rivera describes what Suarez covers:

“The social movements of our day have a conflicted relationship with power, endlessly deconstructing its evils while actively yearning for it. We forget that in any conflict the tendency is to become the mirror image of your opponent. There is great confusion between the struggle for power and the quest of liberation. Cyndi has written a comprehensive operations manual for living into the tension of these distinctions and quite literally enacting our way to freedom.”

Artemis is a student of power and liberation. As a young girl growing up in a black neighborhood, she learned at an early age to navigate social dangers. She went on to college and then to graduate school, deepening her knowledge and experience of power and liberation. As she moved into the social change field, she realized that the fight for liberation is actually a journey toward enlightenment.

The concept of difference is central to interactions in relationships of inequality. Humans have used differences to value, divide, and structure society—as with race, gender, class, age, and sexuality. One’s relationship to difference impacts one’s interactions, either reinforcing these structures of value, or interrupting them.

The supremacist approach to power offers two options for dealing with difference: ignore it, or view it as cause for separation. A liberatory approach views differences as strengths and entertains interdependence as an option. For the dominant, embracing difference requires one to face one’s fear of the subordinate, the other, and allow oneself to be changed, grow, and be redefined by one’s encounters. For the subordinate, the change that needs to occur in the space between difference and interdependence is a move away from dominant, or supremacist, ways of thinking. These are narratives that position one as powerless.

For Artemis, it turned out that the field of social change was a perfect arena for the study of power and liberation. One way she saw the fear of difference show up in even this work was in the demand for shared analysis and strategies for social change. Rather than seeing the civic engagement and policy practitioners be happy for and work with the civil disobedience activists, they critiqued them and dismissed them as people who did not yet know how things really worked.

Once, Artemis was in Worcester, a town an hour away from Boston, her hometown, working on the electoral campaign of a white man running for state representative. It was a comfortable fall day, and she was told by the leaders at the campaign office that she had an easy district to canvass, a progressive neighborhood overwhelmingly in support of our candidate. As the day was coming to an uneventful end, Artemis, on the last block on her list, the clipboard in her hand, saw a young white family get out of a pickup truck that had just pulled into a driveway up ahead. She looked, hesitant to walk over and talk to them, but the woman waved Artemis over to ask about her candidate. It turned out that she was working on the opponent’s team and was curious about the messages her candidate was putting out on Artemis’s candidate. As Artemis listened to the issues that she cared about framed so negatively, she thought about how to engage this woman, who was spitting with conviction as she talked, ready to defend her beliefs. The woman went on to say that she and her husband, to whom she gestured, worked hard to buy their house and raise a child, who toddled nearby, in contrast to a friend she had who cheated the system. This friend didn’t work and “figured out” ways to get subsidized housing and food subsidies. The woman said she could imagine that there were more people like her friend, riding on the backs of hard-working people like herself and her husband. Artemis noted the tension rising in her body and realized she was anxious. She was not used to talking to someone with this perspective. Though a woman of color, she lived in a bubble of college-educated, racially diverse, social change practitioners, and activists. Clearly, Artemis and this woman both wanted the same things—safety, adequate resources, and the ability to pursue personal happiness.

Finally, the words came. “I am glad that the system worked for you and your family, but it didn’t work for me. My husband happened to be Arab, and though he went to college, had a good job, and worked hard, after September 11 he had to leave the country, and now my daughter, who is about the same age as your son,” she said, pointing to the little guy beside her, “doesn’t see her father much because he is exiled in Canada.” The woman’s eyes widened, clearly taking in new information.

“So, my candidate is lying to me?” she asked, considering the implications of this new understanding. “These are people just like me, trying to make it work?”

“Yes,” said Artemis. The woman thanked Artemis, looking troubled, and promised to look further into it. As Artemis walked away, noticing the thumping of her heart, she realized that that had been the most exhilarating moment of the day. She had walked to the periphery of her world and managed to make contact on the other side. She felt expanded, bigger, lighter. She walked down the street, turned, and climbed the stairs of her candidate’s campaign office. As she walked in and excitedly shared her experience with some of the other campaigners returning from their two-hour shifts, she quickly noticed their looks and felt herself retreat into herself as one of them, a young white man said, “You did it all wrong! You’re not supposed to talk to the enemy!”

Effective interactors know how to cross thresholds of difference. One can deepen the practice of effective interactions by understanding and identifying key interaction patterns of domination and liberation. A pattern is a combination of qualities, acts, and tendencies that form a consistent or characteristic arrangement. Anyone can use patterns of domination, regardless of race, class, gender, or other difference. These are like masks one is invited to wear, innocent-seeming ways of thinking that support relationships of domination. What triggers them is an encounter with difference. They reflect an inability to make room for the other. They are used not only by the obedient citizen, but also the rebellious social change agent. There are seven interaction patterns of domination.

The first, and fundamental, pattern is tolerance. In this interaction, one allows small doses of difference—enough to stimulate, but not enough to require change. Tolerance demands moderation. This shows up in organizations that strive for diversity instead of equity. The concept of diversity flows from a supremacist perspective. It is framed as a value to the dominant. It adds nuance to a situation, but it does not change the relationships of power.

The second pattern is objectification. Here one removes history from the interaction so as to avoid responsibility for what happened and will happen. Imagine one is a first-world citizen vacationing in third-world country, simply appreciating the beauty of the place and friendly locals. One basks in the privilege that allows one to consume in this way, and suffers no recognition of the cost the locals have paid and are paying. One feels no personal responsibility for the past and does not see how one contributes to the condition in the present.

The third domination pattern is assimilation—one is incapable of seeing difference. The other is a version of oneself gone astray. This allows one to ignore difference by reducing it to sameness. If one cannot completely ignore the difference, one deems it exotic. While this may seem like a compliment, it defines the other as foreign and unknowable. This occurs when one is not able to be curious when faced with a different interpretation of reality. Instead of seeking to understand how or why this reality makes sense to the other, one seeks to make the other see the “truth” and correct behavior.

In the fourth pattern, authority, rationality is hidden. Something is because one says it is so. One does not have to justify it or provide explanations. The simplest example is the parent who responds to a child’s “Why?” with “Because I said so!”

Objectivity is the fifth. Here one ignores power-laden realities, believing one is taking the higher ground. This is reflected in the much-valued claim of neutrality that characterizes the dominant psyche. It is noncommitted, detached, and moderate, as when one says, “I will not hire someone based on the color of their skin. I will hire the best.” It is this very levelheadedness that creates the inflexibility that supports the dominant order. One does not take into account the reality that racial histories have underdeveloped whole groups of people and given other groups unearned advantages.

The sixth pattern, accumulation, refers to the collecting of experiences and things. Quantity is made to stand in for quality. More is better, and he who has the most wins. An example is deferential treatment for the wealthy simply because they are wealthy and regardless of the quality of being. Or, conversely, dismissive treatment of a subordinate, regardless of the quality of being, simply because of lower status.

Finally, there is certainty—when one asserts one’s reality as if there is no other. One knows for sure and speaks in declarative sentences. One sets the frame for the interaction, expecting the other to slide into one’s narrative. It is devised to make one’s reality the operative one. One must unlearn this fetish of assertion. Refraining from assertiveness is the discipline to make space for looking into another person’s life, and for the other to look equally into one’s life.

Learning to live with people who differ is one of the most urgent challenges facing societies today. These seven domination patterns—tolerance, objectification, assimilation, authority, objectivity, accumulation, and certainty—are considered acceptable and encouraged in postmodern Western societies, but they do not help us live well together. Patterns of domination make one rigid and keeps one from fuller forms of existence. In order to wear these masks, one must disconnect from authentic experiences, which are mutual.

Patterns of Domination
1. Tolerance Small doses of difference are allowed
2. Objectification Removes history from the interaction
3. Assimilation Incapable of seeing difference
4. Authority Rationality is hidden
5. Objectivity Ignores power-laden realities
6. Accumulation Quantity stands in for quality
7. Certainty Asserting one’s reality as if there is no other

As there are patterns of domination, there are also patterns of resistance. These are ways of being that disrupt relationships of power by making space for the other. They require a freedom from archetypes and the capacity to try on new ways of thinking. Just as one has the choice to rigidify, one also has the choice to endlessly recreate oneself.

We develop in relationship. This is a cross-racial, cross-class, cross-nation existence. It is interstitial being, a reconnecting across boundaries, in two senses. One, it is living between one’s reality and another’s. Two, it is living between one’s present self and one’s future self. Disrupting relationships of power requires one to redirect one’s life energy away from patterns of domination and toward cocreating new, mutual realities.

Learning to live between worldviews allows one to disrupt the dominant realities of monocultures and see the narratives to which one has become acculturated. There are three interaction patterns of resistance. They are three types of powers that together help one make space for new realities.

Sign reading is the power to see and feel the often-invisible signs of patterns of domination, such as the ones outlined above. It is the ability to understand the ways one structures meaning in a way that carries power. The dominance approach is related to the rule of men and the overvaluation of masculine characteristics. It is in relationship with accumulation. It relies on individuality, or the lack of relationship to others, the past, and the future. It uses aggression to address conflict. Understanding the symbols of dominant power narratives is the power of sign reading.

Deconstruction is the power to understand how the signs of power come together to construct narratives that support particular power arrangements. For example, it is being able to understand how the signs outline above—dominance, overvalued masculinity, accumulation, individuality, aggression—together create and sustain patriarchal societies. Patriarchal societies are imbalanced societies. They subordinate the feminine powers of creation, care, and relationship, which build society and culture. Ancient symbols like the yin/yang remind us of the ancient wisdom of the balance of destruction and creation.

Reconstruction is the power to rearrange the signs to tell a different story, to create new realities from the elements of the current one. One looks for overlooked or suppressed ways of thinking that are significant in the situation. Since power is never absolute, there are always submerged narratives ready to emerge. In patriarchal societies, invoking the feminine contributes to balance and mutuality.

Patterns of resistance require a commitment to egalitarianism, the belief in the equality of all people. It maintains that all individuals are equal in fundamental worth. It predisposes one toward mutuality in interactions, the give and take of ideas and feelings such that all are altered by the interaction.

A commitment to egalitarianism results in the acceptance of living in a state of constant expansion. One doesn’t take on the low opinion of others and strives to think well of others. One becomes more multifaceted with every interaction. It enables a different sense of control.

Patterns of Resistance
1. Sign Reading The power to see signs of patterns of domination
2. Deconstruction The power to understand the relationships between the signs of patterns of domination
3. Reconstruction The power to use the signs to tell a different, more mutual, story

We live and experience power in relationships, within interactions. Understanding patterns of domination helps one cut through the details and identify the core interaction patterns that prevent mutuality. One’s main task is to disrupt these patterns of domination in one’s interactions, whether they arise from the other or oneself.