Feminist meditations on transforming power and privilege

Xenobia Bailey, Sistah Paradise’s Great Wall of Fire Tent (installation view, John Michael Kohler Arts Center)

My grandmother taught me that when you are working things out, emotional or otherwise, talk to yourself. Talk it over with yourself until your mind is clear and your body sinks with lightness. So, I’m one of those shocking crazy people who talk to themselves all the time. As a child people thought I was mad, I’d wonder off in the distance talking and talking, forgetting I was getting further and further from home. Luckily, I also had a grandmother who never tired to entertain our madness. This time calls on us all to talk to ourselves, to practice truly listening with self first in preparing for the hard and bruising conversations with each other in a world that is broken and requires mending. Facebook is evil but is a platform to talk to self. In here speaking to self this morning, as usual…

“The thing about oppressive systems and spaces is that they are oppressive. Emotionally draining, structurally and intellectually blind to their true nature. Their violence, their gaslighting ways that cut deeper than skin. They erase everything about the world and then proceed to create the world in their image, leaving no room for imagination of how the rest of the world could look different. With rules and rituals and reinforcement they cement the oppressions, proceeding to co-opt everything in the space into tools of its own reproduction.

Those on the sharp end of the knife have their lives circumscribed as perpetual performances of resistance. When they get tired, have no more fight left in them or must choose the battles to maintain their sanity, they are labelled. When they no longer have the patience to educate, persuade, teach, perform the theatrics of holding fragile sensibilities, they are unhelpful. 

Before you ask a person who does not hold power and privilege within a system or space “what can we do”, think about the gaslighting effect of that, and remember to ask also “what can we stop doing”. If they tell you once, listen and hear. Or else you’re not interested in changing, and that is violence.

Before you tell a person in a situation where they are outnumbered by the stacks of privilege “oh but you have power you can just speak”, ask yourself, is this really true when seen from their perspective. 

Before you ask someone in a structurally oppressive system ” be propositional”, consider whether they haven’t been trying to be all this time and you didn’t hear because privileged ears are deaf. 

Take time to remember the many times when they did propose and because your privileged ear which hears only the echoes of its own interest wasn’t capable of hearing, you didn’t, you couldn’t hear. Consider that asking people to be propositional is violent, is a tool of silencing, because people who are without real power in an oppressive system or space don’t go around mouthing off meaningless things, they are always speaking, even with their silence, they are speaking. Read what feminists have said about strategic silence, or just be decent and wonder when someone is silent, why because everyone has a mouth and has ideas. People are never without a thing to say. 

Each time they speak, they are being propositional. If you don’t know how to listen to them, it is not their fault. And before you are tempted to ask what exactly are you saying, consider that with 5 words you just ripped their heart, erasing them only to ask them to get over it and show up in the way that serves your interest. 

So consider if the way the space of conversation is structured is off putting or silencing, or if people have just given up because they’ve experienced that it’s not worth it. And consider that giving up is not weakness, it is an act of survival for those sitting on the knife’s edge of an oppressive space or system. Sometimes people chose not to “fight” any longer because they either know the space is not able to survive their unleashing of things they really think and feel. Or, they are not ready to deal because each time they must do this talking and taking on, the energy they extend is like circling the globe three times. And they will be the ones left there to live with the muscle pain and you’ll be moving on with your life. Consider that speaking, taking on for those without real power and privilege is wounding. And the thing about oppressive systems and spaces is that they have instinctive capacities for defaulting to their ways, to wound and do so violently. 

And no, oppressed people don’t get to bear the burden of your fragility as the powerful ones in a system or space. That’s your work. Practice allyship by working on oneself. Because each time your response is “oh but that’s personal attacks”, it means you’ve not reconciled with what it means to be an embodiment of an oppressive system and the cost of responsibility you have to bear on the way to your so called allyship. 

So, show them you care, you are here, then let them be. They will come when they are ready, and if they do not, just keep being kind and doing everything else you need to do as the one with power and privilege within an oppressive system or space. Stop hiding behind oppressed people by shoving them to the front or putting them on the spot, that patronising and violent invisible hand, “go ahead, speak, we are listening, we want to hear your voice”. Consider that when people haven’t been heard for so long, they stop believing that oppressive systems are capable of listening.

Before you jump to building structures, creating processes, apportioning positions trying your hand at “levelling the playing fields”, recognize that there is hurt and pain and it is sitting in the bodies of those without power and privilege in a system or space. And the thing about things that sit in bodies is they take time to exorcise. Bodies are fields of chemical reactions where it can take one trigger to create an explosion inside a person who does not hold privilege. Do not gaslight them for feeling things that only bodies can feel. Consider first your behaviours. 

Consider starting with “what will it take for this space to hold your need to heal”. Then rituals must be in place that affirm over and over the belief that those who hold power and privilege in a system do really want to change, that the space is willing and is doing the work of being different. 

No, to say is not to do. So, ease off on the declarations and words. Symbols matter greatly in this but declarations of intent are not symbols, they are tools to make us feel good, or a little less bad as the privileged. 

Consider that blindness is a luxury, a con actually, in this day and age. “Blindness” is itself an act or strategy of maintaining privilege. You can tell me how many times you ‘re an ally, stand on top of the Himalayas screaming anti-racism, anti-patriarchy, anti-homophobia, blah blah. You can build structures and all, but if I do not feel it, It’s not real. Remember that the thing about oppressive spaces and systems is that they erode belief. 

So, behaviours that affirm belief must be foremost. They must feel real and authentic. Being “willing to change means being vulnerable”. That great feminist theoretician and intellectual Dawn Kavanagh says always, “our vulnerability is our power”. That is true, because in being vulnerable together we recognise each other’s humanity. We build a new space where in time, healing may be possible because there is now a neutral space where empathy is both a value and a currency of a new kind of power. Yes, empathy is not a warm and fuzzy thing, it is a thing of deeply political and material value. 

But remember that vulnerability is a two-way street. We must both be naked in the street otherwise it’s not building a foundation of equality. If I haven’t seen you naked, asking me to be naked in front of you is violence. It’s reducing me to a performer on a stage whose rules are not mine, and of course I can act. But consider that people in a system or space that is oppressive go through their daily lives within that system or space in perpetual performance. So, don’t be violent. Give people a break from the acting. Workers fought for an 8-hour workday for a reason. But remember also that systems or spaces of oppressive power and privilege dehumanise, it will take time for people who’ve gone through daily dehumanisation to see the humanity of those holding power and privilege (who embody the system) within the space. So, these rituals of vulnerability must be exercised over and over.

So, all this talk about diversity, read Angela Davis’s lectures, educate yourself about its pitfalls and how the concept is being instrumentalised to mask the real transformative work required. 

On inclusion, feminists have said it, inclusion in untransformed structures is co-option, participation in bolstering structures whose only job is to uphold the very systems of oppression. Yes representation is a right for those “excluded” from power but consider how you will make representation meaningful. What is the new thing being built that is capable of holding true and genuine “inclusion”? Consider this, is inclusion really possible in structures built inherently from a foundation of privilege? 

Take time to figure out your answer and be prepared to be honest. Consider that sometimes suicide is what is needed for transformation to happen. No, it’s not the knife on your throat, its surrendering privilege, those acts of nakedness together. Its recognising that you’re not the cradle of humanity, cleansing yourself of your sense of supremacy. This is an art and a hart (art of the heart) which makes it ultimately a science.

No, don’t patronise people, it’s not handing over power, it’s not charity, its transformation.

Nobody wants to be handed a rotten power. It’s building a new formula of power, on new foundations. Its patronising to keep talking about handing over power, too many overtones. 

We must consider, what are our constructs of “change”, both as those on the knife’s edge and on the side where power and privilege is weighted. 

Blah blab blah. 

Oh and consider that this can’t be put in a log frame. Indicators are important but its tangible acts and tangible experiences of something different from oppression. If oppression is a negative application of power and privilege by those who have it, a negative experience of how power and privilege works by those on the receiving end, then the converse, the creation of space, behavioural codes, rituals that both distribute and make possible a positive experience of power. From the power within to the power with.

Consider that this is about “culture” change, and culture is as much about things that are felt as things that are seen (the material, the symbols, or markers). So, you can put up material things but if attaining those things is itself violating, it’s not change, its torture. And you can make people feel warm and fuzzy and “included” but it’s not transformation, it’s not inclusion, it’s co-option. So, consider your recipe for inclusion, that inclusion is more than the sum total of your performative acts as the ones in whose favour power and privilege is weighted…”

And then proceed to hold humility as intonga nomsimelelo wakho (a stick for you to lean on). That means considering the idea that systems of oppression are historical, layered, cellular, that the experience of those who live in bodies that systems of privilege and power cast in role of “victims”, even when they do hold positional power, is like being on a treadmill, that the overtures and efforts of your space or institution will not be enough. 

Systemic and systematic oppression damages in deep ways. Reparations, justice is the only balm. But that in itself is so big. So, be honest about the project, be humble because if you cannot hold your own disappointment about how even when you “mea culpa” 5 times a day, people are still not happy, then you’re not honest. So, do not make it about you, it’s not about you, it’s about the experience of those on the receiving end of the system’s abuses. And, please don’t ever ask people to stop being triggered. This is not curation, people can’t curate when and how they respond in one situation, compartmentalising in the way that you would like. Be humble, work like a donkey to transform yourself so you don’t show up as the system itself anymore. Khulula longubo yobugwenxa, masihambe ze sizozibhenca bhenca sizijonge sizilungise!

Oh by the way, blame Hope Chigudu, Everjoice J. Win, Shereen Essof, Dawn Kavanagh, Phumi Mtetwa…, and all these other feminist witches dead and alive. Witches always be poisoning and corrupting innocent minds. 

(Photo Credit: Elephant)