The first and most obvious answer is: mine. I see the world through my own eyes, of course, but that is not the whole picture. I see through my eyes, I see through my experiences, and I see through the interpretations of the world offered to me by the voices I listen to, the words I read, and the media I watch. Over time, as I have shifted what I am reading, who I am listening to, and what I watch, my perspective has also shifted.
A few months ago I came across an article offering workplace advice with the title: “How to Disagree with Someone More Powerful than You.” Beneath that intriguing title is a photo of a cat approaching a lobster with bands around its claws. It begins in a reasonable manner, with examples of workplace scenarios when voicing disagreement with your manager or team-lead could be necessary or important. Then the author provides tips and tools to successfully and effectively express that disagreement to your boss... and that’s when everything goes nightmarishly wrong.
The author does not suggest the lobster be allowed to attend the meeting without the bands around its powerful claws. No, no, no. Instead the author offers a detailed summary of all the exact same tools and techniques I have been using my whole life to placate and tip-toe around men in positions of power in every area of my life. Like most women, I have used these exact same techniques at work, while volunteering, during social activities, and when making family decisions.
Every single piece of advice in that article depends on the person with less power magically meeting their own needs by using the resources controlled by the person with more power, and doing all that without upsetting the power imbalance present in that relationship. There is not one mention in this article that the power imbalance itself might be the thing that needs changing. I looked-up the author and was shocked to discover she is a woman. I felt betrayed.
How can a fellow survivor of the white male dominated workplace have thoroughly listed and carefully described all of these coping skills, and then published them for the world to see, without realizing the message she was actually sending: powerful people feel threatened when they are questioned by subordinates and the less powerful people need to anticipate and accommodate the irrational fear response of that powerful person. I think it is because she was not seeing through her own eyes; she was seeing through the eyes of those white male rulers of the modern US workplace.
Unfortunately she is not alone and this article is not an anomaly. More recently, I happened upon another article – also written by a woman – about how to manage your boss when they can’t manage themselves. To me, this second article seems more deceptively steeped in the narrative of male dominance and more subtle in its perpetuation of the male superiority narrative. The author consistently uses the “she/her” pronouns every time she describes the unfixed character of everyboss, but in each real-world example where she used her recommended tools to great effect, her boss uses “he/him” pronouns. Coincidence? Not a chance.
I can see that clearly now, standing on this side of my personal realization that those skills were the tools I learned to survive as a woman in a dominate-male-centered world. Prior to that recognition, I’m sure I would have praised these articles for providing useful advice to folks who just needed to manage up or lean in to overcome their workplace woes. Now I can see that all those tools are nothing more than accommodation of an unbalanced system that perpetuates that same system. Now I can see this particular game through my own eyes.
And I am learning to recognize the racial lens through which I have been viewing the world. I have been learning a more complete history of race in this country and the world by reading books and articles, watching documentaries, and listening to black voices. I am also learning about the amazing work humans of color have been doing for decades (centuries) toward equality. I have been reading books by black authors, and watching recordings of speeches by black orators and conversations between black artists and activists.
All of this content is new to me. I was not taught about these parts of my history in school. None of these authors were required reading and none of these speeches were required viewing. Until I started seeking this history out, I did not know how much of the picture I was missing. I did not know just how much I was seeing through the eyes of white supremacy.
I am starting to see it now. I also see that it has served the powerful minority for me (and other white people) to not know this history. In not knowing it, I did not see that many of my well-meaning efforts were nothing more than further accommodation of an unbalanced system that perpetuated that same system. Even after I realized the totality of systemic racism and recognized my responsibility to change my contributions to that system, in not knowing the history I felt like one small person responsible for changing the whole behemoth.
It is the same feeling I had right after I became a union steward, the first time I saw a manager do something that was both abusive and prohibited by our contract. I immediately told my Chapter President and asked what I should do. She told me to march right into that manager's office with my contract in-hand and explain that they were violating the contract and needed to stop immediately. "And when you're standing there," she said, "remember that it's not just you, Jaydra Perfetti ID#93-whatever, standing there. You have all 553 bargaining-unit employees standing right behind you."
Learning the history of my whiteness and dredging up the unconscious narratives fed by that history enables me to acknowledge those parts of myself and become more whole. It also allows me to recognize that my past is not just in the past. My past is with me in the present because it has shaped all the parts of me. In the same way, learning the history of other people's work toward racial justice allows me to recognize that all that history is not just in the past. All that history is here with me in every present moment and that feels empowering.
Now I see it is not just me standing before the great machine of white supremacy saying “I want something different.” I am standing here, and standing with me are all the thousands of people who came before me. I am empowered in the present by their past words and actions because that history is part of the me standing in the present. I am not actually alone. We are all standing here in this moment, facing this great machine, demanding change. And we are powerful.
Information and Inspiration:
Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.