How does unjust privilege fester, and how can it be combated? Leticia Nieto and Margot Boyer explain. People experience oppression or privilege based on their gender, gender identity, ethnicity, social class and membership of other groups. Nieto calls this our “Rank”. A white straight middle-class educated able-bodied cis male has the highest rank. He is overvalued- society makes him seem better than a disabled person or a woman, but he is not, really. His privilege is a social construct. Power relates to our connection to God within: are you stuck in your ego, or do you have true integrity? Anyone can connect to their power through spiritual practices.
“A person’s ability to be grounded, to exercise compassion, to use humor in a healing way, to love without demands, and to support themselves and those around them can indicate the presence of Power.
Status arises from rank and power, and varies between interactions. High status behaviour is marked by posture, and claims of leadership, knowledge or dominance. Low status behaviour is marked by submissive posture, and messages of compliance, acceptance and support. With close friends status might be fluid. High status behaviour can be positive- teaching a group, speaking up- or negative- physical or verbal violence. A high rank person can temporarily take a low status position, but that does not change their rank. Low status behaviour can be positive, for example active listening, supporting another’s idea, or appreciating someone; or negative, for example passive-aggressive behaviour.
Nieto calls the higher ranked person in an interaction the agent, and the lower-ranked person the target. Working age adults, 18-65, have higher rank than old people or young people, and so having been a child is the only experience that white male etc has had of being a target.
We learn rank unconsciously, and how we should behave as members of those groups. We follow the rules, and adopt status positions accordingly. This has certain advantages: “When both people insist on taking a high-status position, there’s likely to be conflict. When both choose the low-status position, the interaction can be stagnant and the pair may find it impossible to make decisions or move forward.” However it is wearing for the targets. The ideal is that status is flexible, and all support the good work or ideas of each.
Overcoming that social conditioning takes a lot of work, and acting from our Power. As targets, we learn to take the low status role, and that is a survival skill. Also, behaving as if the Agent way of being is normal and preferable is a survival skill. This makes Agents comfortable. Then we behave like the Agent’s conception of our target group- girls adopt “feminine” behaviour. Whatever other skills we develop, we may find ourselves driven back to that survival skill- when tired, or threatened. We get the most practice in survival skills, so they seem easiest, but they are exhausting because they require us to conform to others’ expectations of us. Targets merely surviving may oppress other members of their target group.
Nieto calls the next level of target skills “confusion”. We become aware that survival is exhausting, and we are being oppressed. We see the Rank dynamics, though we cannot yet respond to them constructively. We don’t have the language to understand, but sometimes we think, say or do things which do not fit the Target role. Nieto calls Survival and Confusion Agent-centric skills, as we cannot yet act independently of target role.
To move to Empowerment, an agent-relative skill, where we are in principle equal with the Agents, takes a great deal of energy. It is being born again. We need access to spaces for Empowered targets, such as for women, BAME people or LGBT people. Targets talk about our common experience, and learn to value each other and ourselves. We learn about the roots of oppression. It’s painful but keeps us awake. Empowerment skills involve bringing up the issue of oppression in different interactions. We express anger at Agent norms. Then we mobilise to resist oppression. This is exhausting and risky.
Then we develop Strategy skills: when using Empowerment will produce the most good, when using Survival skills is necessary. We make more conscious choices of when to walk away. We align ourselves with our Target group, and spend less time on Agent expectations. We find norms which work for us, and support our own and other Target groups. Nieto calls these Re-centring skills. We operate out of our Power. We challenge systems of oppression in the most effective way.
Few Targets get to use Re-centring skills, and even the wisest and most skilful use them only some of the time. We use the higher level skills best when feeling calm, supported and well. Anything causing distress makes this more difficult: so self-care is important for anti-oppression work.
Agents can be allies. Because rank is unconscious, Agents rarely notice their privilege even as they enforce it. Unconscious agents start in Indifference. We don’t notice or value Targets. Then privilege is not our problem. Everyone pays attention to different information and stimuli, and through conditioning Agents become indifferent to anything that threatens their superiority.
When we encounter Targets and cannot be Indifferent, we practise Distancing. We notice how much they are not like us. Distancing Out- we hold them away. “I don’t have anything against—-, I just don’t want to live next door to them.” Distancing Down is most easily seen as oppressive. “They’re dirty.” Distancing up makes us pretend to value them: claiming that — people are musical, spiritual or close to nature. Distancing takes more energy, and organised hate groups support people to distance Targets.
Inclusion is more comfortable. We use verbal messages that emphasise similarity and connection. “I don’t see colour.” It feels that we are valuing Targets, and no longer oppressing, but we as Agents still centre ourselves. We want the Target group still to meet our expectations. We can’t work effectively against oppression until we wake up.
Moving beyond Inclusion, to Agent-relative skills of Awareness and Allyship, requires strong motivation, such as a strong relationship with a Target group member. Awareness feels unpleasant, and we feel disorientated by guilt and shame. We remember when we took advantage of privilege. We recognise how harmful Indifference, Distancing and Inclusion skills are, and that we normally use them.
Society discourages Awareness skills, so we need to practise them with a group who can confirm the reality of oppression. We can learn from Targets even if they might not want to teach us. We see the Rank system and see how much talent it wastes.
If we can bear the discomfort, we may be able to learn Allyship. We are aware of oppression and our own privilege. We stop being paralysed. We work against oppression, support targets and help other Agents wake up, see oppression, and develop anti-oppression skills.