Talking About Race without Talking About Power is Useless

Ashley-Lukashevsky-DefendDACA

#defendDACA, artwork from amplifer.com, open source art and messages.

Since I last blogged Trump repealed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which allowed over 880,000 people to live more humanely and participate in our community more fully. As an action please sign this MomsRising petition calling on Congress to stand with DREAMmers. Please support organizations and individuals working to protect, defend, and push for progressive changes. My suggested list includes OneAmerica, Colectivia legal del Pubelo, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Neighborhood House, and 21 Progress (all of these organizations are poc led). Beyond financial resources, please take a moment to learn about what organizations in your neighborhood are doing to support DREAMmers and immigrant communities most impacted by this decision, immigrants will be here long after Trump so let’s keep the support going.


I’ve been thinking and reading more about power and how it manifests in our work and lives. In the United States, we are conditioned to believe and aim for equality. What this means for power is it is an off-limits topic, we consciously or unconsciously, believe we have equal chances of attaining our dreams. We hear phrases like “education is the great equalizer,” and we believe in ‘equal access.’ Due to power dynamics, we are never really equal. We can’t undo racism without talking about and understanding power.

In our current world view race and power go together, like hand-and-glove, fish and chips, and sometimes like oil and water. If we think about who currently holds formal and informal power we see patterns of whiteness. White people are in positions of formal power – they are over represented in government, business, public sector jobs, etc. By default, in informal settings, white people still hold on power. I’ve gone to many meetings with white people who should be my peers but they exert more power than they are due. It shows up in who is talking and where they sit, whitesplaining, or I have to sit through tantrums because a white person is unhappy when challenged and see an action as power being redistributed away from them.

I started reading Eric Liu’s book You’re More Powerful Than You Think, A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen. I’m only on page 56 so I haven’t fully gotten into the book, but it is giving me some good thoughts on how power needs to be attended to. In the opening chapter Liu defines power as “capacity to ensure that others do as you would want them to do.” Liu lists several main sources of power: violence, wealth, state action, ideas, social norms, and numbers. He goes on to say conduits of power come from institutions, organizations, networks, laws, and narratives. Borrow his book from the library or buy it from an independent bookseller to learn more.

When we think about the main sources of power, there are very few that allow for people of color to positively express our power. Currently social norms default to whiteness, wealth is concentrated with white people, ideas are monetized or acted upon by white people (wealth and networks to decisionmakers are more visible to white people). Violence and state actions are used intentionally or unintentionally to hold people of color down. Before you give up and stop reading there is hope.

When we acknowledge power dynamics, especially racialized power dynamics, and work to rebalance them we shift power. Liu touches upon shifting power dynamics in his book. Organizing is one way to build power, labor unions are good at using the power of their membership and numbers to shift power.  In the community organizing, I’ve been involved with we often use narrative to shift power. Community voice and stories are used to challenge and call out societal norms that default to whiteness. As people of color become the majority in our country it is important we work on coming together in ways that recognize our collective power when we act in solidarity with each other.

We all have the power to shift power dynamics to benefit people and communities of color as well. Earlier we blogged about Color Brave Space, facilitation guidelines Heidi developed. When I facilitate I use these to focus the meeting on people of color. The act of focusing our meetings on people of color is an important way for me to exert my positional power to focus on people I care about. While it may make people including myself squirm to acknowledge my positional power I must do so if I want something to change, not acknowledging or using it appropriately means the system will default to what is easy which is currently centering whiteness.

For societal norms to change we must acknowledge how race and power work. When we understand how power shows up we can begin to shift it. Here are some simple steps you can use to begin to understand how power works in everyday life:

  1. Who is speaking – Start paying attention to who speaks at meetings, in conversations, etc. What are the racial and in some cases gender dynamics?
  2. Decision making power—Do community members and people of color have decision making control? Do they need to seek final approval from a governing body?
  3. Privilege—Access to networks, materials, financial resources, information, etc. What steps are taking place to redistribute these privileges?
  4. Disengage—The power to disengage from uncomfortable conversations or work is an important form of power. Impacted communities cannot walk away from unsafe or uncomfortable situations, yet those with power can often abandon projects, strategies, programs.

The more we can name and see how power the better we are at having it shared. There is more to think about this topic so share your thoughts on the topic by commenting on the Facebook thread or emailing fakequity@gmail.com. In a future post, we’ll unpack power dynamics more.

Posted by Erin Okuno

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