By Angela Noel
April 6, 2017
“You know,” my dad said from his living room in California, “for that You are Awesome thingy you do . . . maybe you could ask people about speaking truth to power.”
“Tell me more.” I held my phone to my ear, enjoying a peek of springtime sun three-thousand miles away.
“Well, in my career (he’s retired) I never really gave much thought to whether I should say something, I just said it. And it got me in trouble, even fired. But, it’s really important. Especially now. So, I want to know how people do it, and do it well.”
Separated both by geography and sometimes ideology, my dad and I do agree on many things. We both, for example, believe societies big and small–families, workplaces, neighborhoods, countries–need healthy, well-informed debate by people that care. We believe respectful discourse among equals brings clarity, if not agreement.
But, there’s that whole power thing that mucks things up.
Many, many social constructs imbue power to one individual over another. Parent to child. Boss to employee. Dominant culture over minority culture. Rich over poor. Masculine over feminine. The types of power an individual can possess are equally numerous and complex: physical, economic, psychological, and legal; just to name a few.
We hold these powers at different times, at different strengths, and among different people. Some examples: a mother has power over her child, but no power over her work schedule; a father has power at work, but can only see his kids on the weekends; an entrepreneur owns her own business, but can’t stop a stranger from grabbing her crotch as she walks down the street; a college professor minding the law gets pulled over three times a year, every year. There’s a similar thread among these experiences, though it may not be easy to spot at first.
I wrote a paper in college, the only one I saved for more than twenty years, titled, “The Other Product of Advertisements.” In it, I argued that though the post-modern era attempted to redefine the power differential, the basic structures that create and maintain that differential remained the same. Writing one paper on the dynamics of power and reading a few books on social justice do not make me an expert on, well, anything. But I do have eyeballs and am living in the world today. What was true in 1995 is still true. We haven’t moved the needle much when it comes to redefining core power structures. We’re changing the way things look, without changing the way they feel.
And that’s not good enough.
We’ve changed the names for things without changing the dominant context around them. We say LGBTQIA to offer a more inclusive moniker for non-heterosexuals. But we still use the term straight. If I’m straight, does that make someone else crooked? Isn’t crooked the term we use for criminals and fraudsters? And that’s just one example.
The words we use matter, they’re the buckets we cart meaning around in. But, the words we choose follow patterns we’ve learned, reflecting the world we’ve grown up in.
Communication isn’t just about saying what we want to say, how we want to say it, it’s about saying it in a way that helps others to hear. The words that jump up from the archives of my mind aren’t always the best words to use for this purpose. If what I say causes someone else to feel “less than” will they hear me? Or will I just be another petty tyrant reinforcing the story they’ve heard all their lives of their otherness and vulnerability?
And all this comes back to power. When we have it, people don’t mess with us. When we don’t, they do. If we see each other as equals, we have open dialogue and respectful conversations. If we aren’t equals we have exhausted mothers, heartsick fathers, crotch-grabbers, and frustrated professors. This is not news. I am one more voice, saying what many have said before me. No law or mission statement can make equality real. Individual people must feel it, and act upon it in everyday ways; at the grocery store, choosing a movie, taking kids to school . . . you get the idea.
But making equality a part of every day isn’t easy. We’ve been fed a steady diet of images, words, and experiences that reinforce inequalities from our earliest memories. The messages we thought were innocent, are not.
Disney’s Princess Problem
An excellent blog post by Hayley Beasley Dye on her daughter’s broken Disney Princess cup got me thinking.
Hayley points out that her daughter’s favorite princess, Princess Tiana, had gone missing. Tiana, unlike Belle or Ariel, didn’t (presumably) sell enough merch.
Disney sells stuff to people, that’s their business. Magic and all that loveliness aside, their purpose is to make money. They have no vested interest in upending their Princess machine to change the world for the better.
Or do they?
My son vociferously protested against seeing Moana. He thought it was another one of those “pretty dress movies,” a topic he’s not interested in at all. But, when he learned Moana was an adventurer appointed by the ocean itself for an important mission, he said, “Oh! THAT Moana. Yeah, I want to see that.”
By offering characters representative of more than the damsel in distress, pretty pink dresses, trim waists, and pale white skin, Disney can capture the imaginations of boys and girls of all races, classes, body-types, and orientations. Teaching every child they can be who they want to be with the help of loyal friends and a boatload of hard work, but without needing anyone’s permission, creates a positive tension in the world. They do great things because they know they can and want to try.
A Brave New World
Plenty of evidence suggests children aren’t predisposed to prefer one type of toy or hero over another. Girls don’t naturally gravitate to dolls, and boys to cars. We teach them these things.
A recent experience by a little girl, rewarded for her potty training success, demonstrates both sides of our culture today. The two-year-old white girl who sees herself reflected in the African American doll in a lab coat (inspired by a Disney show, Doc McStuffins); and the cashier who can’t understand why, perfectly illustrates where we’ve been and offers a glimmer of hope on where we could be going.
That is, if we speak up. And if we do a whole lot of listening.
Disney’s business follows customer demand. A whole lot of customers want to buy the damsel-in-distress-style Princess gear for their girls. And as long as people still see this merchandise filling the shelves, the dominant themes persist. Until the demand ceases, the supply will remain. Individual customers might seem to have little power to influence Disney. Much like individual employees have little power to influence CEOs. So how does change occur?
One mind, one choice, at a time.
It’s slow, but important. One voice speaking truth to power when it counts, is added to another voice that does the same.
Getting fired isn’t the goal. Being a jerk is not the goal. But, speaking up with whatever power we possess–economic, positional, social–and speaking out in defense of respect and equality to those who can influence large scale change, is the goal.
And when we’re the ones in those positions of power, listening is our most courageous act.
So I’m using my You are Awesome thingy, to ask you my dad’s questions:
What issues matter to you?
How have you used your voice to speak truth to power?
What was the result?
How have you used your power to listen to others?
I’d love to know your thoughts (and my dad would, too.)