Toxic Social Systems of Power and Privilege
They saturate our world – power, privilege and their eventual byproduct, oppression, manifesting in our personal lives and global culture daily, minute by minute, as socially constructed realities that have defined humankind’s existence for millennia. Maladies woven into our human DNA, these social systems are none the less subversive toxins that have damaged individuals and people groups for far too long. The challenge we face in proactively dealing with the systems of privilege and power is to first become intellectually informed, allowing a personal cultural lens adjustment to take place in order to actually see these societal mores as they truly are. Then by acknowledging the existence of inequitable power systems that victimize human beings, we can begin to embrace proactive responses as a means of dislodging entrenched patterns of exclusion, rejection, privilege, harassment, discrimination and violence.
The problem is that too many of us are caught in a whirlwind of survival, reluctantly contributing to ongoing cultural maladies passively, – through silence and inaction so often facilitated by over filled, over active lives. And all too often our life paradigms are full of examples of the dominance (oppression) matrix (women subjugated in the home, work arena, culture and faith based institutions, – foundationally the issues behind sex trafficking; white male privilege; bullying in the home, work place, schools and yes, – the church; police and judicial corruption; class and wealth distinctions; racial inequities, etc.), that we’ve become socially conditioned to live amidst the ‘stuff,’ thereby allowing the abuse to continue and proliferate. We’ve lived with the toxicity for so long that we’re sometimes more a part of the problem than the potential solution.
The roots, therefore, of privilege, power and oppression extend deeply into the human cultural persona, providing fertile soil for a host of peripheral injustices (conquest, spousal/child abuse, poverty, human slavery etc.) that have plagued humankind since the beginning of time. Viably addressing these mindsets for the purpose of bringing sustainable change will therefore be difficult, requiring commitment (grounded in sincere respect and love for humanity), tenacity, focus and almost superhuman courage. And since privilege is rooted in long held cultural systems (families, schools, workplaces, churches), changing these systems will require not only dealing with the worldview of the individual, but also the paradigms of the entire systems involved. In addition, it’s important to note that it’s easy for members of privileged groups to completely miss the existence of their own experience of privilege and its consequences, – that the social realities of privilege, power and oppression are their responsibility as much as the rest of society. This is a key issue because entrenched systems of privilege are self protecting, leaning towards creating a social lens that render privilege invisible by denying or minimizing conflict and trouble, attributing the trouble to others, blaming victims, renaming conflicts/issues as a means of subjugating the truth, utilizing dominance (bullying), mistaking intentions as consequences and assuming everyone prefers ‘things’ the way they are (Johnson, 2006).
So how do we deal with socially toxic systems? What are our options? Raising awareness is the first step. Knowledge and truth are powerful catalysts for change. Watch and observe with your eyes and hearts open: acknowledge that privilege and oppression exist and then work to become sensitive to their subtle hold on society. Again, most systems mask the reality of privilege by denying it exists, or by trivializing it. An awakened, informed culture could be a viable force in bringing critical issues of social justice to the forefront. “There would be far more active opposition to white privilege, for example, if white people lived with an ongoing awareness of how it actually affects the everyday lives of those it oppresses as not white” (Johnson, 2006). The same wisdom applies to male privilege and other social justice issues. Additionally, read up on the issues; – the structures behind the power and privilege matrix are extremely complex, – it’s therefore necessary to become familiar with the voices already dealing with systems of social oppression. Self-education through reading and other media sources places a life-affirming tool of response and action well within our grasp. Without knowledge, we are powerless.
Once aware, speak out. Make an effort to be part of the solution. Naming the social issues (write about it, paint it, dance it, talk to friends, colleagues, social and church leaders, government representatives, etc.), along with voicing the need for change, will bring the injustices into the light, providing an opportunity to rework cultural and individual worldviews (albeit slowly, but offering change none the less). If you witness an injustice (however insignificant), take a stand. Just do it. Yes, – it will be inconvenient and maybe even messy, but you’ll feel more alive and culturally involved. It’s about overcoming evil with good. And again, the changes will need to happen corporately as well as individually, so mediating a lasting transition to an open, fair minded society will take significant time and patience.
Lastly, be willing to become personally and physically involved. Invest, volunteer, reach out. Roll up your sleeves and jump in. The more you begin to perceive the injustices around you, the more opportunities to become involved will present themselves. And yes, – there’s risk; most likely life will become more uncomfortable, but extricating ourselves from our comfort zones can be wonderfully fulfilling. And know the temptation to follow the path of least resistance will always haunt you, pulling on your resolve. But over time, each of us can become viable social advocates actively battling discrimination on all levels. And never underestimate the power of the one to begin a cascade of change for the many. If enough of us volunteer, write letters and simply care, the pendulum can be dislodged, initiating movement in the direction of life, inclusion and justice. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and never will” (Douglas, 1950).
Each of us, therefore, can make a difference by taking small, defiant and informed steps toward ensuring a life of freedom, dignity, and equality for all humankind.
By acknowledging our shared obligation to deal with the social systems that have imprisoned humankind for centuries, we all can become a viable force for community transformation. Change can happen as a result of the smallest of gestures, but its key to invest first in becoming informed (read, read, read), and then rising up to do something about it. Healing communities damaged by toxic social systems will be a long, arduous journey and must exist far beyond any compulsory good intentions. But the hope that we can shine the light of healing into the darkened abyss of privilege and power can sustain us if we work together in performing sustainably viable acts of social good.
Johnson, A. (2006), Privilege, Power and Difference.
Douglas, F. (1950). The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglas.