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Power & Oppression
"The Subjective Side of Power"
by Margo Adair and Sharon Howell
From Healing the Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism, edited by Judith Plant, Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1989

Background on the context in which this essay was written.

Date Reading Was Discussed: December 7, 1992
Present: Catherine C., Colleen M., Stephanie R., Kalisa, Molly R., Lorraine Z., Karine P., and Cathleen M.

In their essay on power Margo Adair and Sharon Howell observe that "The hierarchical and competitive nature of our society gives everyone plenty of opportunities to experience [being both the dominator and the dominated]."

A woman of color at this month's session said that at her job she often detected racial discrimination. When she learned that a white co-worker was not able to bring her lesbian lover on company trips, she became aware that, racism notwithstanding, she likewise enjoys prerogatives of power (heterosexual privilege in this case).

Also, she had at first assumed the lover was a man. Conscious of her own prejudice—and the general public's—she now tends to say "he or she." Some of us lamented that the words we need to re-language power dynamics are often not even in a dictionary.

The authors assert that "Ecofeminism offers a very different sense of power—power that comes from living in harmony rather than hierarchy." In agreement, one woman said that ecofeminism is not about setting up hierarchies to judge who's more oppressed than whom.

To argue that sexism is more harmful than racism, for example, pits groups against each other, places women of color in a conflicted position, and creates a hierarchy of oppression. On the other hand, the woman expressed frustration with many men who claim that they, too, are oppressed by patriarchy.

Well, yes, of course they are, but clearly, she exclaimed, the psychic pain economically-advantaged, able-bodied, straight, white men experience is substantially different from the real, material struggle and psychic pain a Native American woman living on a dirt-poor reservation endures. As African American writer Hattie Gossett once remarked, these men are "whining from the catbird seat."

Several women conceded that the issue is slippery. Ecofeminists don't want to discount anyone's suffering by prioritizing oppressions. Yet a response is in order when those who are privileged by race, class, or gender expropriate the language of oppression. This serves to downplay past wrongs and obscure their present power. One woman submitted that if people with privilege are serious about overcoming their own oppression, their healing process needs to include proactive engagement in social change.

We wrangled with the old question of whether authentic change comes from working within the system or outside of it. One woman rejected the notion that simply putting enough women, men and women of color, lesbians and gays, etc. into positions of power will result in social transformation. She felt that regardless of who's at the helm, the system is fundamentally flawed.

Another woman countered that the continuum is long and wide; we must encourage resistance wherever it is expressed. A woman of color explained that she conforms at work with pearls and nylons, but wears her hair braided. This subtle Black-identified statement creates its own radical ripples throughout the corporate culture.

A couple of women were delighted that we have a feminist in the White House. Considering Hillary Clinton's ambitious agenda, they found themselves reluctant to criticize the First Woman's conventional version of feminism. Another woman was thrilled that Maya Angelou was selected to read poetry at the Clinton inaugural. Somewhat unsettled by the group's enthusiasm, one woman declared that the inclusion of women of all races in the body politic should be a given.

Other women reminded her that a celebratory mood is justified in light of the fact that we've just survived twelve years of aggressive affirmative action for aristocratic white men.

Adair and Howell write that power relations are usually unnamed, unspoken, and kept invisible. They contend that "the silent conspiracy that upholds the status quo" is broken when people openly discuss the "power taboo."

One woman, however, questioned whether feelings are honestly exchanged in relationships where there is an imbalance of power. She gave an example of going out for dinner with a wealthy friend. They split the bill even though the friend had ordered more. The woman confessed that because of her own issues growing up working class, she was too ashamed to ask her rich friend to pay her fair share.

The woman also hypothesized a situation in which a racist remark is made in a group consisting of only one person of color. Would that person of color appreciate a critical response from a white "ally," or would calling further attention to the racism leave the person of color feeling uncomfortable? One woman pointed out that politics of power are always present and always cause anxieties whether verbalized or not.

Another woman shared poet Pat Parker's paradoxical advice to "the white person who wants to know how to be my friend." Parker counsels: "The first thing you do is forget that i'm Black. Second, you must never forget that i'm Black." In applying to ecofeminism the wisdom gleaned from Parker's "zentence," we are reminded that ecofeminism is indeed a contextual ethic.

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