September 28, 2022

the oppressor loves civility

a pink bicycle parked under a sign that says no bicycles
photo caption: a pink bicycle is parked beneath a sign that says “no bicycles please”. who put the sign there? why aren’t bicycles allowed? i would probably move my bike, but only because they added the “please”. photo by Ian Barsby on unsplash.

“Being civil” is a hard concept to square up against. It’s like professionalism: who could argue against that in a workplace? But while both concepts may appear benign at first, these standards are set by people in power. The norms and culture they create is often rooted in their own image.

Oppression can exist in any system that applies cruel or unjust control on the people in it. Oppression may feel like something that happens at the level of a nation or state. Unfortunately, it operates like a fractal: the macro becomes the micro, and vice versa. People in an oppressive world will enact those norms at the local level. Organizations replicate the conditions of oppression around them. How might those patterns be evident in a place like an organization or business?

Consider the typical structure of an american business or non-profit. A small fraction of people set the rules for the entire company. They often create those rules based on what they consider comfortable or necessary. They make decisions that feel opaque to people outside the conference room. They may invite feedback, they may not, and they get to choose how to use it.

I know what it’s like to feel like I’m stuck under my boss’ thumb. I know how desperate I’ve felt trying to get out of those situations. Even simple questions or challenge to authority can put your livelihood in jeopardy. We may agitate and get angry because oppression is our everyday experience. It’s easy to be civil when you’re in charge. It’s easy to feel impartial and above-it-all when it’s your thumb.

protect yourself

Remind yourself as often as necessary that while your experience may be normal, it isn’t right. Toxic workplaces want you to think that leaving will take you from the frying pan into the fire. They don’t want you to focus on getting out of the pan.

Be assertive about what you need. You may be in a situation where you won’t be able to get it, but you can still try. I think of the solution as a foregone solution. If I have a problem that’s impeding my work, of course people in charge will want to help me.

Don’t take failure personally. I recently began to explore the concept of generative somatics. Yotam Marom wrote about them in his essay, Undoing the Politics of Powerlessness. Generative somatics seeks to help people heal from the trauma of oppression. Marom writes,

“Our behaviors — even the self-sabotaging ones — are our bodies’ responses to threat. Our instincts are clumsy at times, and they often cut us off from our better options, but credit where credit is due: these instincts, at some points, probably saved our lives. Instead of hating those traits so much, we might be better off tipping our hat to them, thanking them for the safety they have provided us, and letting them know that we don’t need them anymore — that we want to practice something new instead. It doesn’t mean excusing bad behavior in ourselves or the movement; it means understanding where it comes from for the sake of changing it.”

The last point is especially true for leaders of color in a workplace. We’re often asked to carry out oppression while we experience it ourselves. If this seems like something that’s true for you, you have an obligation to end the harm you’re causing.

protect others

Think about your organization. Who has less institutional power or privilege than you do? What have they been struggling with? How can you help them? What are the ways you can transfer institutional power to them? This could look like inviting them to speak at a leadership meeting. It may mean advocating for a thriving wage. Receive their concerns with care and then do something about them.

Now ask yourself, who has more institutional power than you do? Who has worked here longer, or has more seniority than you do? Ask for their advice on how to deal with the situations you find yourselves in. Find ways to convince them to lend support for your causes.

convert allies to accomplices

Don’t settle for silent solidarity. How many times do we put ourselves on the line to speak up about some injustice at work? How many times will people tell us offline that they agree? Don’t be afraid to ask them to speak up. Be aware of power dynamics here. I’ve counted on white accomplices to say the things that I would get fired for saying. I wouldn’t press the issue with Black or Indigenous colleagues, for instance. People in power can accuse them of stirring up trouble or being too loud/arrogant/insistent.

People who are afraid to speak up can try rehearsing beforehand what they want to say. You may even roleplay with them if it’s helpful. Know also that culture change is hard. If it’s going to work, you’ll need explicit and public support from the top of a hierarchy. They have to recognize that it’s a problem for the change to stick.

Think about your options for going public. Many organizations, especially white-led nonprofits, obsess over public opinion. White supremacy values keeping conflict private as a way of avoiding it. Reach out to people outside your organization who can help.

oppression isn’t civil

Your oppressors will use every tool they have if it helps enforce their power. I rarely find success using their own tools against them. They may also receive support from the very people they oppress. Don’t give them any more than you have to.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space