learning privilege


Power is the ability to influence or change an outcome.

Generally speaking, there are two different kinds of power: institutional and personal. Institutional power is often used to restrict resources, exercise control over others, or decide what is best for other people. Personal power is the influence or authority someone has over themselves and their family, friends, acquaintances, etc. For example, I have the personal power to decide to take the bus to a meeting, but I am at the mercy of an institution that has decided on the bus route and schedule.

When we talk about power, we often talk about people who are able to exert themselves publicly: politicians, celebrities, CEOs, and rich people in general. Many of these folks have obvious institutional and personal power at their disposal, but we often forget that even if we don’t think we have institutional power, we each have personal power that allows us to make decisions about how our day (or someone else’s day) will go.

We often feel impotent when faced with institutional power. It can feel too big and overwhelming, unmoving and indifferent. This is where it can be helpful to remind ourselves that institutions and systems are made up of people, and everyone has personal power. Everyone who works within an institution (and by institution I mean anything from a small business to a government agency) holds some kind of power as an individual in their workplace; the questions is: how will they use that power?

Take a few moments to think about your job, if you have one. What power do you hold by virtue of your position? Now take a few moments to think about how your race might affect how you wield that power. How might it be influencing the reactions of your supervisor? Your clients? Your colleagues? Your direct reports?

If you’re white, your race is almost certainly making it easier for you to make decisions that are respected by your colleagues, your staff, and your supervisor. It is almost certainly, however, also making it less likely that your staff of color will come to you with race-based problems they’ve experienced.

If you’re a non-Black person of color, your race is almost certainly making it easier for you than it is for Black folks to make decisions that are respected at your organization. Your race may, like that of white people, also be a barrier to finding out what the Black experience is like at your place of work.

Race influences every interaction we have, and thereby influences the degree to which we are able to exert our power. People do not need to be empowered; they need to be allowed the space to use the power they already have.

I encourage you to think about how you might use your power to make concrete change at your institution. Concrete changes at an institution are institutional change. You have the power.

© 2018 Judy Blair LLC

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