Power, Privilege, and Social Injustice
Power, Privilege, and Social Injustice

As a practitioner in the field of marriage and family therapy it is not only a value of the profession to be culturally competent, it is a value to be an advocate of social justice. I was reminded of an excerpt I wrote regarding the relationship between anger and power. I was inspired to share it on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the recent death of George Floyd that sparked anger across the nation and a movement across the globe.

“Where does our anger go when it cannot speak or does not have a voice?  Where does it hide its shame for existing, for breathing any life of it? How does it sit with itself in such pointed silence when all it wants to do is rage, when every moment of oppressed silence and repressed insanity throws another iron blanket over the volcano?”  

My intentions with writing about anger has been to emphasize the importance of anger and the very powerful, and sometimes detrimental role it plays in our world culturally, societally, institutionally, sociologically and psychologically since the dawn of time. Where has anger taken a seat in the paradigm of the constructs that have brought us here today?

My hope has been, that we can open up the conversation around anger, and make it more assessable to work with this emotion so that it can be used constructively. I imagine a world where examining our anger is a universal behavior that occurs to invite curiosity, compassion, and healing and cultivates healthier relationships with others and ourselves.

No one is exempt from hurting others, hurting themselves, or being hurt. Anger is a natural human emotion that every human being experiences. Everyone has at one point struggled with anger, or still does. And everyone struggles with effectively managing their emotions in a healthy way – particularly anger when it arises, or is simmering “under the radar” 24/7. Anger can be positively and negatively productive. It can be expressed effectively and ineffectively; in ways that are growth promoting and life affirming, or destructive and life-threatening.

Our ability to effectively work with this emotion involves being able to address painful feelings and experiences that anger protects. What are the barriers that prevent us from doing so? One of the largest determinants I see getting in the way of our ability to address painful feelings and experiences that cause anger, is shame. This shame is often caused by stigma. The other barrier is fear – fear of physical safety in the case of marginalized populations (including women). Another, is that addressing painful emotions and experience can feel psychologically life-threatening, as it often challenges the reality we have constructed around our identities and existence.  

Stigma perpetuates oppression and the adaptation of maladaptive behaviors. Stigma keeps those with less power debilitated and without proper support, guidance, and help. Worse, it starts them on an impossibly difficult path to begin with. Stigma is a social injustice to everyone. We can see the effects of stigma demonstrated throughout our social justice systems: in our prisons; crime, homicide, and suicide rates; substance abuse challenges; and child abuse and sexual abuse statistics. It is also demonstrated in the disparity between the privileged and marginalized not only nationwide, but also globally. 

One of the biggest connections to anger I have found, is its relationship to power. Anger commands power over another. At the same time anger can be triggered by feeling a lack of power. In the latter sense, anger will make an attempt to reestablish power either successfully or unsuccessfully. Having power, having a desire for power, or feeling threatened when there is a lack of power, would make perfect sense if we lived in a world where dinosaurs and wild creatures threatened our lives – or truly, only the strongest survived. But we don’t. Survival responses are still primitively wired in our brains, nonetheless – and we must create new narratives and dialogs with ourselves and others around power and privilege – and why, in a world of civilization are we still acting brutally?

So what can we do?  Often times when there is talk of oppression, violation and/or inequality the center of discussion revolves around gender, race, class, and sexual orientation, etc. The larger part of this talk revolves around an age-old historical legacy of male privilege – particularly white male privilege. If you do not know what male privilege, or white male privilege is, I am certain you likely do now. However, for some perspective, consider who has written history and dictated what knowledge we are to consume in our educational institutions – and ask yourself, “do you have the power to be egregious with little consequence?”

History as we know it today was written and taught by anglo saxons from Australia, North America, and Europe. And, as we give more thought to this, we know that knowledge is power and the people that have been given access to this power have been the privileged. Therefore, we also know that privilege is power. What we don’t know, is the impact this ‘power over’ has on humanity as a whole. We don’t know what impact an ongoing and gross systemic imbalance causes. Yet, if we examine the way anger works, we can get a sense. When we examine how disease is caused, we can get a sense. When we examine how our planet is impacted by our behaviors, we can get a sense. When we know that 1 in 9 of the world’s population is starving, we can get a sense. When a white, male police officer can kneel his knee on a black man’s neck for over 8 minutes with his hand in his pocket, while he screams for his life and dies, we can get a sense. When we poke a bear, we can get a sense.

The first time we lose power, or realize we are helpless we are hauntingly frightened in the most irrevocable way. It is the first time that everything begins to change. We begin rearranging the deck chairs without recollection and walking in our sleep, our lives revolve around a fire-breathing dragon and our psychology is changed forever. Subsequent forms of losing power kick up dust into our unhealed wounds reeling back to the fire of the dragon we have been dancing around, and we are scorched from the repercussions of our reactions.  We are like walking blisters in the sun.

We are all connected.  What can we do to build the web of just and fair relationships between all living beings?