I usually start a piece with a quote or by referencing an academic model. Something pertinent that someone I’ve never met has said or thought of. I do this for many reasons and if I am completely honest one of those reasons is that I’ve come to realize that my words are not powerful enough on their own. I wasn’t even aware that I did this until I sat down to write this piece today. But that’s the thing about power. It reveals things hidden right in front of you.
When I started working in the social sector as a teacher, I wanted to understand and challenge inequality which to me was based on what people did or did not have. The more I work to understand inequality I come to understand that it is all about power within a system reinforced by games that we all play. I’m not sure if we are playing against one another and I don’t know what winning looks like, but I do know that not everyone knows the rules and in that knowledge lays power.
What people tell you about the world and how it operates as a system is very different. While I sit here writing this piece and trying to resist the urge to quote anyone, I think about James Baldwin describing an African American child watching a western movie, realizing that when they are cheering for the cowboy and not the ‘Indian’, they are not cheering for themselves. They have not yet realised that the ‘hero’ of this story has little to do with who they are. Hidden in every moment of your life, the way that you are treated by your peers, by those in positions of power, as you navigate the system you begin to learn some of the rules of the game. Television is telling us to cheer for the cowboy, look like the cowboy, act like the cowboy. Behind the entertainment is a thinly veiled history that determines the winners and losers in this long game that we have been playing and the currencies that enable you to play.
There are some currencies I can’t control or choose not to, like my name and my gender but incrementally my success is partly a product of assimilating to how the game is played and who the winners are. Like when I was told by a recruitment panel that they were struggling to offer me a senior role as I didn’t have the ‘gravitas’ of the other applicant. When I asked what that meant and whether I could do anything to challenge this, they simply said ‘not really’. The other candidate was male and older, some of this just couldn’t be helped even if I was better suited to the role and had performed better at interview. What they were telling me is that I wasn’t the cowboy.
The other applicant was also white and middle class. I usually wouldn’t write that in a blog as I try to not talk about race or class explicitly. When I talk about race it makes people uncomfortable and I feel pushed into a box where I sense I have less power. My power in spaces is deeply connected to my ability to assimilate. I talked about this with guilt once with a colleague, how I had spent most of my career talking about educational inequality but never race and class, never systematic oppression, until quite recently. He said yes but you had to gain a seat at the table before doing so. He was right, I was playing a game, accumulating power, comfortable in my relationships, my reputation, the power my voice now carried. But even then there was definitely a cost in doing so, a penalty for speaking about things that draw power from remaining hidden.
We often think about power as something we do or do not have, the idea of different sides, people who have power over others. That, of course, is part of it, but power is also a way to think about a system within communities where we are all complicit in. The games we play that reinforce the power dynamics in a system rely on our collective complicity. Taking this more internal view can be deeply uncomfortable but it also is exposing of both what leads to inequality and its vulnerabilities.
In my attempt to step out of the games I usually play I called up my mum to ask her what power meant to her. She said her power came from having British children who could interact with the country she had immigrated to and also from my father who was determined and knew how to fight. It was also connected to wealth and position. ‘Actually, it comes from being part of a group’ she concluded ‘my power comes from those around me’. To dismantle the system we participate in and that oppresses so many we need to recognize our complicity and consciously stop playing the game. Otherwise, the game will continue to be played unless we see ourselves as part of a collective and also unleash the power of working as one.
Author: Nusrat Faizullah works with emerging and established organizations to support them to tackle social issues and systemic injustice. She specializes in strategy development, human centred design and identity informed practice. She is currently also a learning partner at Lankelly Chase Foundation.