Carol A. Hand
This morning I awoke thinking about the images that come to mind for three of the ways power is manifested: military/police force, symbolic forms of oppression through the enforcement of conformity, and resistance. Military and police action is the easiest to envision for me, and the list of images that come to mind is long indeed. Images for resistance are also easy to envision, although not as likely to appear in corporate media. Symbolic power is more difficult to envision, but the image that comes to mind for me is from Andry (1749), Orthopaedrics of the art of preventing and correcting deformities of the body in children.
Photo Source: Drawing by Carol A. Hand
(based on an adaptation of N. Andry (1749), Orthopaedrics or the art of preventing and correcting deformities of the body in children, cited in Foucault (1)
At a university with strong anti-Native biases, I lived under the manifestations of symbolic power – the oppressiveness of invalidating judgments from most of my non-Native colleagues. Interestingly, those who made this judgment claimed to operate from a stance of strength-based social work practice. Some even thought of themselves as experts on Native American issues, and some of them had authored works that claimed to teach others how to operate from a social justice framework. But that is another story for another time.
The story I need to record today is about the illusion of power. It is a memory of the past, but has implications for the present and the future. It was graduation day at the university. A prominent faculty member, a self-proclaimed feminist who was scheduled to deliver the graduation address later in the day for master’s students, arrived dressed in high-heeled clogs.
I watched her walk as I took my position behind her in line as we headed toward the auditorium. I worried that her clipped and unsteady gait might spell disaster. Although my inclination was to reach out to help steady her balance, my culture has taught me it is rude to intervene in another’s path without an invitation. In any case, my role in this procession was to merely follow. Thankfully, we arrived at the hall without incident.
Following our unsteady clog-clad colleague, the social work faculty entered the large sports arena for the university commencement ceremony. We proceeded to our assigned seats toward the front, on the left side of the arena. Faculty from the anthropology department were seated several rows behind us. The commencement began with a blessing by a respected Tribal elder, followed by speeches from university officials. The highlight of this particular commencement was the keynote address by the governor. He began his address by dedicating it to “the first, best, ‘state citizens’.” As I looked at the prominent presence of Tribal elders and leaders on the stage behind him, I thought this was a hopeful sign. The governor then noted, “the first best state citizens were not the explorers or timbermen or miners who came, or those who built the railroad that spans the state. The first, best citizens were the farmers and ranchers who made it their home and who, through hard work and sacrifice, made the state what it is today.” As the governor said this, I heard a collective gasp from the anthropology faculty, and many others scattered throughout the arena. Yet, my social work colleagues appeared too enraptured with the governor to notice.
After the ceremony ended, my colleagues gathered to discuss the speech. My clog-clad colleague gushed, “That was such a powerful speech. The governor is such an eloquent speaker!” The rest of my colleagues nodded enthusiastically in agreement. I just couldn’t let this pass, so I quietly added, “I thought it was very disrespectful of Native Americans.” Only one of my colleagues responded, “Oh my god, I never would have thought of that!” The rest became silent, exchanged glances, and walked away.
We went on to the next ceremony for social work graduates, located in a in a smaller room. Faculty sat in a row on the stage behind the podium where those chosen to deliver encouraging words spoke, facing the waiting graduates. Those of us who remained seated had an interesting, behind-the-scenes view.
When the time arrived for my colleague to deliver her address, she shuffled to the podium with her carefully crafted speech in hand. I watched as she placed her papers on the podium, gripped the sides of the podium tightly with both hands, and stood on tip-toe. As her speech stretched on, her grip increasingly tightened as her ungrounded stance caused her to wobble. Although I do not remember any of her words, I remember the image of the ever-tightening grip that turned her knuckles white (as mine do when I grip the steering wheel of my car when I drive on icy roads, a similar feeling of ungroundedness and fear).
I have pondered this scene. The podium, a symbol of power gripped evermore tightly, became a prop to steady someone who needed, for some reason, to appear to be what she was not. I also reflected on the fawning deference shown to the governor. All too often, we revere people in positions of power, not necessarily because they have anything meaningful to say, but merely because of their socially constructed status. The lesson for me is to be sure that I take the time to be sure-footed, to be well grounded, so I can walk and stand with mindfulness, grace, and certainty. And to take the time to remember what is really important: simplicity, humility, concern for others and the earth.
I wish my colleague well. Yet, I witnessed how this need to grip the symbols of power often resulted in unconscious ways of invalidating others, be they students or colleagues, when she was not on stage in the public eye. Her lack of grounding also affected Native people in other ways. She developed the diversity class for master’s students, and only included Native American literature that confirmed misinformation about the disfunctionality of contemporary Native Americans in a state, community, and institution that already had significant anti-Indian biases. I share this story to encourage others to be aware of the invidious seductiveness of the symbols of power. We are most tempted to grasp them when we are most fearful, least grounded, and least balanced. And without balance, we can do great and lasting harm to others.
I am truly grateful for the lessons I learned about power from my colleagues at the university. Those of us on the margins are sometimes fortunate to encounter harsh lessons. If we are able to hold onto our foundations from other cultural or spiritual perspectives, we are better able to remember what really matters in life. It helps us resist the temptation to grasp the symbols of power for our given position in the socially constructed hierarchical order. Having options helps us question the limitations of internally programmed and externally imposed norms. It helps us see more clearly the worth of who we really are. It helps us have compassion toward others. And it gives us the tools we need to loosen the ropes that bind us all in the prison of socially constructed categories, roles, and hierarchical relationships.
(1) Michel Foucault (1979). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison, photo inset between pp. 169-170. New York, NY: Vintage Books.