Check your power structures

By ROZALIA LUJZA TOTH

Edited by NICHOLAS PRATLEY

It is not often that we take the time to think about how we relate to those around us. Who we see; how we act; what roles we take. Recently I was prompted to ask just these questions to myself. In doing so, I came to acknowledge the unusual situation I now find myself in. As with everything in life, it is something that simply happened. The strangeness of it only becomes apparent in reflection.

Throughout my time at UCU I have integrated into a friend group that almost exclusively constitutes of young men. In this, I have encountered some frustrations. While such, in itself, is to be expected in any groups of friends, my unique place on the periphery is confirmed by my gender. I am able to adapt, I am able to deal with micro-aggressions, and fit into the social hierarchy. This is the position I accept as the marginalised. The moment I lose these abilities, I drop out. The moment I cannot take a joke, or don’t understand the banter, I am perceived as an outsider.

“In many cases, this leads me to observe when I would have otherwise contributed”

In many cases, this leads me to observe when I would have otherwise contributed. I keep an eye out for when it is my place to talk. If I get a chance to talk, I am mostly cut off. In other cases, me speaking will cause a room of men to go silent and listen to me. This creates an unnatural atmosphere which is barely more encouraging. The result of these situations is that I often think twice about what I want to say. I think about whether it will be accepted or will highlight me as an “other.” Although on the surface it seems as if I have integrated, entering my friend group means overcoming my fears. You could say it takes a lot of balls. Despite all their love for me, to some extent I will always be someone tolerated within their group of the powerful.

I have come to see this tolerance as something that derives from their acknowledgement of my otherness; appreciation of the fears I must overcome to be part of their group. This overcoming of fear becomes a spectacle of interest, which leaves me somewhat elevated in the group esteem.

The most fascinating characteristic of this relationship is just how oblivious they can be to it. The unconscious way the powerful can afford to act, when others around them have to consider. Excepting the occasional misogynistic joke, their power displays and violence are non-intentional. When attention is drawn to their behaviour, there is an immediate realisation. There is the reaction of “oh my god,” followed by a swift apology. By pointing out their behaviour, I make them feel guilty for being powerful. They cannot do much about this. It is the structure they are in that makes them blind to it. A structure they can easily survive in, without ever having to recognise or think about it. If you cannot see something, surely you cannot escape it. Yet, when it is revealed to them, they feel guilty and accused. This offers no escape route, only a sense of being stuck within set social parameters.

The point of this train of thought is not to bash or criticise my friends. This is simply a power structure close to me, which I have had plenty of time to analyse. My interests go beyond this experience. My observations concern what happens when a structure is pointed out to the powerful who inhabit it. I used my experience as a lens through which to contemplate this. The recognition of power and subsequent guilt seems to be a poor motivator, leaving little room for powerful or marginalised alike. With this being the case, what is required to move structures if holding up a mirror is not enough? What can one do with the feeling of guilt?

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