Since his inauguration, there have been an unprecedented number of protests against US President Donald Trump. The rallies and marches have sought to put light on women's rights, and to a lesser extent, human rights as a whole which protestors believe are heavily threatened by President Trump and his policies. In a prior article, I discussed the nuances of how political leanings contribute to domestic violence responses - but politics impact much more than that.
Protesting Trump and his policies is one potential tactic of resistance, but there need to be mindful reflections on how to leverage privilege and be aware of the impact of personal power and what it means to be an oppressor class who is working to stand against oppression. This article is designed to challenge readers to question places in their lives where they are blind to the struggles of those with relatively less power. As such, this article will most likely make many people uncomfortable, perhaps even angry - and that is a feature, not a fault of this article. We don't move forward and improve by being comfortable, and if you have not felt discomfort in working to end domestic violence (or in any other anti-oppression or human rights work) - you might need to reconsider your strategies and self-reflection.
1) What is Oppression Theory?
Before discussing leveraging, we need to talk about and identify oppression as a concept. While we may talk about it in different ways, unless the concept is clear and workable, it is not going to be possible to make efforts to end it. There are several methods of understanding oppression theory (some examples include Iris Young or Paulo Freire), each offering complementary insight into the phenomenon of oppression. My initial exposure to Oppression Theory came from attending a domestic violence conference early in the start of my career thanks to a presentation by the Midvalley Women's Crisis Center (now Center for Hope and Safety).
The presenters discussed Oppression as built by three components: Power, Privilege, and Prejudice. All three had to exist in order for oppression to manifest. Power is defined as the ability to change yourself and others. Privilege is the history of that power and where it comes from. Prejudice is attitudes, behavior, and thoughts about someone not based on who they are as an individual, but based on characteristics of a group that person represents.
The presenters immediately explained why concepts such as "reverse-oppression" do not exist. For instance, with racism as a form of oppression, someone who is non-white may have prejudice against someone who is white... But without power within society, and without that privileged history of having power that prejudiced, non-white individual does not have the societal precedent and acceptance of that prejudice necessary to reach the level of oppression. Prejudice is problematic, sure, but separating prejudice as a concept separate from (but a part of) oppression helps to create clarity for ending racism (in this example) or other forms of oppression.
This discussion led to a woman in the audience (I was the only man present, in a room of approximately 30 women) claiming that this was ridiculous as a concept because an example about women not feeling safe alone at night walking down a street was not true for her. She felt perfectly comfortable in her neighborhood, therefore women who feel fear about potentially being harmed by men were just being overly sensitive. The presenters (two women) responded by saying that this woman, in making that statement, was diminishing and eliminating the experience of any woman who had been sexually or physically assaulted by a man, or had experienced fear due to the threat. While her individual experience may have been to not have fear, it is important when considering oppression, for each individual to resist putting their sense of safety onto someone who may not feel that same level of safety.
Then the presenters turned to me, which in the moment shocked me. They said, "and you, as a man, not taking a moment to speak out against her claim that women were overly sensitive if they felt afraid - your silence supported that statement. Having the power and privilege you inherit by being a man means your silence supports your own power and privilege." This was how I began to understand what it means to leverage privilege. To start, it means not being silent when witnessing oppressive statements or behavior that support your personal power and privilege, and at the same time knowing that in places where I have power, I have a layer of impunity to harms that oppressed groups feel regularly.
2) What is Intersectionality?
Oppression Theory is the concept of the interaction between Power, Privilege, and Prejudice - and it leads into an opportunity to understand Intersectionality. While the idea of interactions of varying kinds of oppression is not new - Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in 1989 when working to communicate the difference between white and non-white women responding to sexism.
Crenshaw outlined the experience of Black women as being often excluded from feminist theory and anti-racist politics. A big part of her analysis focused on the idea of a "single axis framework" that was used to view feminism and racism. Over time, feminism has often focused on white women's experiences. Racism has often focused on men of color. The feminist concerns of Black women were often assumed to be addressed by the feminist concerns of "all women" - the difference and nuance of their experiences, as Black women, was excluded. Black women's experience of racism, similarly, were often assumed to be included in the "racism" framework, and their experience as women was excluded. Crenshaw argued that for Black women, there is a multi-layered experience of oppression that needs to be considered beyond a singular axis of understanding.
When I attended the Women of Color Network conference in 2010, the focus was on looking at where experiences of victims and survivors of domestic violence fit in the realm of intersectionality. The conference attendees were divided into three groups - women of color, white women, and men (of the 500ish attendees, only 50 or so were men, leading to a smaller combined group). Throughout the conference, I heard white women complaining about being divided from women of color. Many were hurt by this division, and there was arguing and conflict throughout the conference driven by these same white women. This "white feminism" seeks to make experiences of sexism "single axis" - making the experiences of all women the same when considering men's oppressive behavior toward women, but the reality is that women of color experience different layers within that oppression.
In work to end domestic violence, and when intervening with domestic violence offenders, understanding intersectionality can prevent BIP/DVIP classes from narrowly considering abusive, violent, and controlling behavior as being a product solely of sexism (male privilege). Abusers have many levels where they believe in their superiority over their partners/victims/children, believe others are less than they are, and believe in being personally deserving of special consideration and care from those they harm. In work to empower victims/survivors of domestic violence, intersectionality offers opportunities to analyze environments of shelters, accommodations that are culturally sensitive, and an ongoing reflection on the significant variance in experiences of those harmed by domestic violence.
While sexism is, certainly, often a predominant factor in men's abuse of women, many male abusers can also be controlling and abusive due to class (more financial resources or control, more educational experience or value), race, ability (whether their partner/victim is disabled mentally or physically), faith/religion, or any other oppressive advantage they might hold over their partner. Viewing these intersections of oppressive behavior can provide insight into understanding an abuser's patterns of harm, but can also offer avenues to insight and empathy for oppression the abuser has personally experienced (this may involve trauma-informed responses to domestic violence offenders).
3) What does it mean to "leverage" privilege?
Privilege is the history of power in different categories. To begin the process of leveraging, first it is critical to understand where you individually have power in your life. To use myself as an example, I have many layers of power that I hold due to history and groups which have had patterns of controlling others with less power. To describe what it means to leverage privilege, I will use these examples to highlight some of the many places privilege brings invisibility to people who are oppressed.
I am white, and as a white person, I need to understand the history of colonialism that is behind this racial designation and identity, as well as the illusion being white holds. If I am doing work to end racism, I need to listen to those who have been the victims of racism and colonialism - and I need to be able to understand how white people are blind to the experience of non-whites, and often fail to listen or care about perspectives of non-whites who describe experiences of harm. To leverage my privilege in this category of being white, I need to speak to others who are white, work to communicate these experiences and work to shed light on experiences that are often made invisible. I need to pay careful attention to my silence when racism and colonialism are topics discussed around me, and work to stand against racism and not dismiss when non-white people shed light on their experiences.
I am heterosexual, cisgender, and I need to understand how homophobia and heterosexism fit as a weapon of sexism. I need to be able to notice and see how transgender people are discriminated against and harmed by misgendering, direct and indirect violence, and their experiences ignored even within LGBTQ+ movements. A part of listening to those with less power, and leveraging privilege, involves an ongoing dedication to learning about threats to communities and gaining cultural learning in cultures which I am not a part of. Heterosexual people simply "supporting" the LGBTQ+ community are not leveraging privilege, and in fact can often be practicing silence and maintaining blindness to those they have power over. This is a main reason the concept of being an "ally" can be problematic, and there has been a shift within some communities to work on utilizing the concept of being an "accomplice" in working alongside oppressed groups toward gaining footing and influence (if you struggle with thinking the term "accomplice" seems criminal, it might be important to click on the link).
There are several articles naming and describing male privilege, and it has its own wedge dedicated on the Duluth Model's Power and Control Wheel. Like much that fits into being an oppressor class, being male does not automatically mean harm and disrespect toward women and girls. Part of the challenge in leveraging privilege is understanding that power is often not a chosen thing and can be neutral, destructive and disrespectful, or constructive and healthy (or anywhere in-between). As a man, I have more ability to speak to men and hold them accountable than women might be able - because like other oppressor classes, men can easily make women's experiences or feedback invisible. I can leverage that privilege by working as an accomplice to my female co-facilitator in BIP/DVIP groups, listening to her experiences and amplifying her voice to men who have been abusive and may not hear her words or examples. I can be mindful of my behavior and attitude and where my privilege as a man might make it easy to dismiss her as a cofacilitator, and as a partner in the groups.
Men often want to be given recognition for their "good behavior," and invest in anti-sexism causes on occasion to gain congratulations and thanks for work that women have been struggling over forever. Women feel compelled to reward men for doing anti-sexism work, joining at rallies or marches, or giving support. Leveraging, in part, means being able to do work without asking for recognition or reward, and being able to directly speak to your motives for doing that work. If the answer in part has to do with "feeling good" it may be playing to that power, not helping to address it.
I have an advanced college degree, a master's of social work, and I am of middle socioeconomic class. Some layers of privilege do not shift, or only shift when changing location. Monetary resources can fluctuate over a lifetime, as educational access can shift when someone is able to learn more through a trade or school. I had to work to gain my MSW, but I also had to have financial ability to go back to gain this education. I have been impoverished and experienced financial devastation in my past, but I also grew up surrounded by family who assisted me a number of times to keep me from being completely destitute. People of middle or upper socioeconomic classes can easily develop power and privilege and be blind to the reality of skill sets (and social rules) being different by class. As my class position has shifted over the years, to leverage my privilege when I am in more advantageous places of power, I need to remember my experiences and my sense of safety without imposing my experience on others.
An ongoing challenge in anti-oppression work overall is when people in positions of power (oppressor classes) take their knowledge and experiences in life and believe others should have or do have the same sense of comfort and safety as they have. As I mentioned, I have experienced financial devastation in my life - but I had family to help at the worst times. If I took that sense of having a safety net and projected that experience onto someone without family supports, it would be oppressive of me (as I would be speaking from my power and privilege, and would be prejudging someone and expecting them to have the same resources I had when I was in financial hardship).
Power is about ability to change self or others, and gaining recognition for standing against oppression may change how you feel about yourself, and change how others feel about you. This is not to say that feeling satisfaction is wrong or bad, but speaks to motivation and begs the question: If you do not get recognized or rewarded, will you feel resentful toward an event or toward a group due to that lack of kudos? As a man, if a woman feels slighted for you getting recognition over her, is that man able to listen to anger without being upset or becoming oppressive as a response?
A huge challenge for leveraging privilege - if you are in a privileged class, the freedom, agency, health, safety, and well-being of other groups are not tied to you. As a man, I can always step away from the struggle to end violence against women and girls and it would not impact my privilege as a man. As a white person, I can do nothing to try and end racism and my life is not in any way changed if non-white people continue to be oppressed, subjugated, murdered, and scapegoated. I have to take my privilege personally, and I have to choose to leverage it outside of personal benefit because often the personal benefit is not there. If I make getting praised my benefit, then I struggle for my own desires, not for freedom, respect, and agency for others.
4) What are some ways to leverage privilege?
I hear the question "what actions can I take?" and that question can sometimes be a genuine request to become more involved in addressing oppression, and is sometimes a defeatist question where the person believes they cannot do anything that will make any difference. Both reasons for asking that question can have the same results, and the same sorts of answers. It's not enough to do independent action, and often it's hard to measure impacts by doing so. The best starting point, as mentioned above, is to actively educate and reflect on a personal level.
For most anti-oppression work, and for most efforts at leveraging privilege, there are many groups that work to end oppression - and a big part is simply joining groups and becoming willing to listen to their experience and wisdom. Go to an LGBTQ+ training. Attend an anti-racism event and ask about being more involved. Volunteer at a domestic violence program. Any of these actions is contributing to efforts. The key component, for those who represent an oppressor class the group is resisting, is humility
An oft used tool in leveraging the privilege and power of middle and upper socioeconomic class involves donating money to charity. The challenge in this leveraging is that many donations are given with little thought to where funding might be more effective. Donating $200 to a large nonprofit might not do much in their overall efforts, but that same amount given to a local agency that struggles to maintain services might be significantly more useful. Researching the needs in your local area and finding ways to give with impact, or to volunteer time or efforts to support the work can make a big difference, and while all the challenges and warnings above still apply (particularly the "savior complex" of wanting recognition and reward), it is a simple and direct way to leverage.
If you are white, then understand why an anti-racist group might be suspicious of a white person asking to join or assist. If you are heterosexual, it is possible that you might experience distance from the LGBTQ+ community when starting to join in efforts. It is possible that fears of being seen as a racist, or as a homophobe (or fears of others thinking you are not straight), lead to discomfort. Be okay with that discomfort, and notice where that is a process of leveraging privilege. Because leveraging privilege means resisting the power you have, and being okay with doing that at the same time you use it in respectful and healthy ways (being an accomplice).
Speaking up to those who are in the same group as you are is an important part of leveraging privilege. Calling out attitudes, statements, or beliefs which are oppressive is often difficult but ultimately critical to making the invisible, visible. If you are not effective in calling out your peers, or if you receive anger from groups you are trying to help - don't focus on others as the problem, rather think about how you can be more effective in listening or intervening.
When encountering resistance - it is not about others, it is about YOU. Think again about oppression theory and intersectionality. When people are oppressed, they resist. If you are being resisted, it might be due to a layer of oppression you might be relying on to try and get your points across. In doing so, you are likely enhancing the layer of oppression you represent, and making the oppression you are trying to work against worse.
To make a direct comparison to BIP/DVIP work - when doing intervention with domestic violence offenders, facilitators of groups have direct power of their class (their position as facilitator, power over participants regarding potential termination and/or reporting to referral source, often educational or monetary advantages over participants, and race or ability may play a factor as well). Participants sometimes resist material in the classes, and if that comes up, facilitators need to reflect and consider ways the material presented may not have worked to intervene.
Sometimes resistance comes from an oppressor being angry at getting called out for abusive, disrespectful, and hurtful behavior. Sometimes resistance comes from a participant feeling oppressed by the facilitators or the system. Sometimes it might be that the material is not effective because of how the facilitators present it. There are many factors that may be involved, but ultimately, it is up to the facilitators to consider their own complex interplay of privilege, position, and intersectionality as a part of the class and where that interplay fits.
To summarize these leveraging tactics:
- Work to understand the history behind your privilege, and the impact of the power behind that privilege.
- Work to practice cultural humility and learning; expand your experiences in understanding groups who are oppressed.
- Work to notice how oppressed people's voices are ignored or silenced by people with power and privilege (including ways you might personally ignore or silence others).
- Work to understand suspicion or wariness oppressed groups or individuals might be toward places of your personal privilege and power, and learn to both be okay with that suspicion and not be defensive as a response to it.
- Know your motives behind doing anti-oppression work and question yourself - are you motivated primarily (or in a large part) to receive recognition or congratulations for your efforts?
- Engage in community trainings, volunteer with groups, donate effectively, and research current services in your community before starting your own work.
- Know who is in your own groups of power and privilege and use those connections to educate, intervene, and discuss with people who might ignore those who are oppressed.
- Work to understand resistance both in terms of feedback about your efforts, and as a way to understand more how others experience you.
- Make commitments to be active in ending oppression, and to constantly seek education and learning formally and informally.
Leveraging privilege is a process, and is constantly evolving if you are open to personal growth and the struggle with others to seek respect, health, equality, and justice for all. To conclude, here are some examples of people leveraging their privilege:
- Timothy Dempsey, a high school history teacher who has co-facilitated BIP/DVIP groups in addition to teaching history, he writes about how teachers can leverage their privilege and power within their classrooms.
- Sandra Kim and B. Cole discuss leveraging privilege from an organizational standpoint, and the need for personal reflection as a part of leveraging.
- Cynthia Silva Parker analyzes her layers of privilege and her responsibilities in leveraging the privileges she has in her life.
- Anthony J. Williams talks about looking at his privileges by stating "although my Blackness and my queerness affect my treatment in a structurally racist, classist, heterosexist, and ableist society, I’m still a man in a patriarchal society" - and then considers how he needs to use that privilege to work for rights of people who are transgender.
- Kevin Powell works to use his personal reflections, and leverage his platform and voice as a public speaker and educator to both do anti-oppression work and lead discussions on respect and health.
- Food Not Bombs is an organization that I have seen consistently work on several levels of intersectionality as they fight for food as a right, and leverage their privilege as they do so - if nothing else in here moves you to action, consider volunteering and learning more from them.