A long time ago, I was very trusting and very naive. When I was still in college and graduate school, applying for jobs, I thought that when I asked a teacher for a recommendation and received one, it was going to help me. That’s what I had been led to believe, and why would I doubt that? Then, during an interview for a job, the interviewer told me that the recommendation a professor had submitted for me was unhelpful. “It’s not that it’s negative,” she said. “It’s just pretty generic. It doesn’t do anything for you. I’d get someone else next time.”
I was crushed. The professor was one of my beloved mentors, and had always seemed supportive in person. Most of his students (and, for that matter, his friends and colleagues) held him in awe, and based, on that, I assumed he’d be a powerful voice to have in my corner. I wouldn’t have guessed that he would agree to write on my behalf if he weren’t going to make it count.
In that moment on the phone, mid-interview, I felt tiny and discouraged. Within the sphere of our field, that professor had a great deal of power and clout and I had little. In asking for a recommendation, of course, I was asking him to lend some of his power to me. But with his ho-hum letter, he signaled that he didn’t care much, and if the interviewer hadn’t cared to understand the situation, that lukewarm effort might have hurt me.
Instead, she not only used other ways of determining that I was qualified for the job, but she also let me know the truth about that piece of my application. She used her power to help me, whereas my mentor used his indifferently, if I give him the most benefit of the doubt, as if his name alone were enough endorsement and no content specific to me were required. It’s of course also possible that he intended his lack of enthusiasm to speak for itself. Twenty years later, I’d still like to think that wasn’t true.
We can’t ignore or get rid of power: it’s a fundamental aspect of our relationships. Humans have been theorizing about how power works for a very long time; in the late twentieth century, the French philosopher Michel Foucault devoted himself to studying power-relationships, expanding our grasp of power’s pervasiveness and how it often functions invisibly. (For some detailed exploration of Foucault’s ideas and ways to apply them, see here.) Leaving the intricacies of Foucault’s ideas to others, a couple of key points are helpful in thinking about power, corruption, and what we can do to keep both in check.
One notion is that, if we think of power not as a thing that a person can possess (like a car) but as a function of the person’s relationship to other people and institutions, then it’s easier to imagine how power can lurk almost invisibly in our actions and interactions. So, for example, if Person A is the CEO of a successful company, Person A may wield a great deal of professional power over Person B, an intern in the company. But Person A’s power over or in relation to Person C (Person A’s grandmother) is a very different negotiation.
Furthermore, if we imagine that power is not static, but constantly being negotiated between people in their roles within and among institutions, it’s easier to see that the same person can have a different amount of power from one interaction to the next, depending on how the variables change. If Person X is the POTUS, and Person Y is another head of state, the power differential between them changes as their relationships to other officials change, as their countries’ economies change, as their military might changes, and so forth. Our insistence on calling the POTUS the “most powerful head of state in the world” since WWII may not have always been accurate, and “most powerful” has had innumerable different meanings during that time. Like currency, power is relative and ever in flux.
In this view, people don’t simply have power as if they’re holding a magic basketball, and they can’t lose it by having it stolen from them outright, or by fouling out or being benched by the coach. There’s no impartial referee or arbiter making sure a person uses their power responsibly. People in relationship to each other rarely have equal power, and the greater the differential in a particular moment, the greater the potential for abuse.
Several years after I felt the sting of my recommender’s indifference and recognized how he had had the power to hurt me as well as to help, I found myself at another professional turning point. Facing a committee of, again, professors who had mentored my studies, I was defending my work, hoping to be deemed worthy of the degree I was trying to earn. Going in, my understanding was that the process was largely a formality; the many steps I’d already worked through were the true vetting, I’d been told. And as expected, the committee’s questions weren’t exactly hardballs. But one committee member asked, to my surprise, “It doesn’t seem like you write much about being a woman. Why not, since you’re a woman writer?”
I was at a loss for an answer. I hadn’t expected the question. It had very little to do with the work I’d produced to earn my degree. His question had the simultaneous effect of knocking the wind out of me with its implication that there was something wrong with my work and angering me that he was measuring me by a clearly sexist standard. Later in the conversation, the same professor asked another question, this time about a different aspect of my work. “Most of the writers you’ve cited as models here are gay men. Why do you think you’ve been drawn to these writers instead of women writers?”
These weren’t questions about the content of the work or the quality or aesthetics of it. They weren’t the kind of questions I’d been preparing to answer, because they weren’t the kind of questions that were appropriate to the situation, as I understood it. What I felt in the moment and grasped more fully later was the way the power differential between us became opaquely palpable when he questioned my fitness to occupy the space in the world I was aiming for and let me know where he thought I belonged instead. My identity as a woman mattered to him as a restrictive quality, whereas to me, until that moment, I’d largely seen it as merely a matter of unremarkable fact.
It is naive to assume that people who are “on our side” will use their power responsibly or in our favor (although they may). It is naive to think that aspects of our identity that seem to be inconsequential in one context or relationship won’t have profound meaning in others. And it is naive to assume that people who have credentials or positions often associated with moral integrity (as, for example, priests, preachers, teachers, and parents) will not abuse the power they have over others. Examples of such abuses abound, too numerous to list, though as a reminder of one ongoing and familiar scandal, we could look at the Roman Catholic Church’s history of child molestation.
The challenge is to look past individual actors — people we know personally or who have become familiar through celebrity — and recognize that the power structures in which individuals exist interact with their individual identities in creating power. In a sense, vetting individuals to see if they are ethically strong enough to hold out against the seductions of power misses the bigger picture, where our attention could do us more good: anyone can abuse any amount of power, and the power inherent in an organization tends to exert itself through individuals, even when they’re not intending to exercise it. If we pay attention to the ways in which institutions, organizations, and even culturally determined relationships and roles intersect with identity to empower individuals, we might be able to dismantle or reorganize in order to even things out. This is what it means when we use a term like “institutionalized racism” and re-examine, for example, the “War on Drugs,” which was covertly deployed by the Nixon administration to exert control over African-Americans (and “hippies”), and has resulted in a thoroughly racist, unjust system of policing and incarceration.
The U. S. Constitution stands as an example of the big-picture thinking: the branches are provided with means of checking and balancing each other, irrespective of the individuals who occupy the positions in each. This aspect of the creation of U.S. government was an attempt to address the imbalance of power that a monarchy codified. And it does do a better job of distributing power more evenly among more people, when it comes to governing the nation.
Notice, however, that within, say, the Executive Branch, a Chief can still take advantage of an intern, and if the Chief is male and the intern female, people tend to think such a scenario is more damning of the woman with little power than the man with much. Similarly, white people who believe they aren’t racists are still beneficiaries of a system of _________ (you name it: education, policing, employment, everything) that privileges them over black and brown people, yet they wonder why black and brown people haven’t done better for themselves.
What does all this have to do with the 2020 election? Let me try to pull some threads together.
Our trust of individuals, sad to say, can get us in trouble. I developed trusting relationships with professors, but at moments when our relationship became more reliant on the professional structures than the personal ones, I felt the differential between us manifest itself. As people I knew, even as teachers in the classroom, they’d been kind to me, but as powerful employees of universities, they behaved in ways I hadn’t expected. Not only that, but because of those experiences, I began to see more clearly how my gender-identity (as others perceived it) and that of my peers factored into the negotiation of relationships and the privileges that came with them.
Joe Biden, career politician, eight-year holder of the U. S. vice-presidency, gets made over in the public imagination (mainly via Twitter, in the form of memes) as a slightly goofy, childlike, avuncular Everyman, held in check by his bemused but consummately adult CIC, Barak Obama (meme). Through that lens — that fictionalized version of the real, historical man — people want to view Biden’s uninvited handsy-ness as mere friendliness, jovial good-naturedness, at most, the expressiveness of a dude who doesn’t always read social cues as well as he could. But it isn’t just his personal temperament that is the question in these instances. In the roles he has occupied — senator, vice president, white man— he has been empowered to behave in ways that surprised and unsettled people, and he has had trouble recognizing that.
If we want to see the exertion of power change significantly in this country — if we really want to make good on the empowerment of people who have been long oppressed and disadvantaged — we’re going to have to change as many of the variables as we can. The structures of cultural, economic, and political power in the U.S. have been built and maintained by and for white men; only in the last 50 years or so have the upper reaches of our institutions been open to anyone else. When a person brings different connections and a different awareness to bear on an old system, new negotiations have to happen. It’s an opportunity for the structure to change. But it can’t happen in four or eight years, and it can’t (didn’t) happen through the introduction of just one individual.
It is neither that Biden is a raging misogynist who would use the power of being POTUS to nefarious ends, nor that the women and BIPOC Democratic presidential candidates are somehow magically immune to abusing power. Many of the variables and structures that give the POTUS, members of Congress, and members of the judiciary their power remain the same, regardless of who holds an office. But just as Barak Obama’s occupation of the White House was like a solvent that revealed how stubbornly racism had held on despite attempts to root it out, another president (and then another, and another, rinse, repeat) who is not a white man is likely to negotiate the power and privilege of the position of POTUS in such a way as to show us something we’ve failed to see or refused to acknowledge, and that’s a step toward making this country — and the world — a more equitable place for future humans.
Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.