This week I attended a diversity training at work. I had never attended such a training, but I had seen the episode of the Office where Michael’s Chris Rock impression prompts Dunder Mifflin to conduct diversity training (with predictably disastrous results-Michael hijacks the meeting and asks everyone to start by naming two races to which they are sexually attracted) enough times to feel I knew what I was in for.
I expected predictable conversations extolling the virtues of diversity and cultural sensitivity and inclusivity, not necessarily negative or bad in theory but redundant and ultimately unhelpful–the facilitator herself noted this, saying that Canada is very diverse. Diversity isn’t what we need, but rather systemic overhauls that produce true equity. I was pleasantly surprised by experiential activities and real discussions about power and privilege. The facilitator, Natasha Aruliah, was fantastic. She was knowledgeable, insightful, warm, tactful, and taught at the exact appropriate level, which is not so easy in a group of 40 people from diverse generational, ethnic, linguistic, and educational backgrounds.
Natasha had us fill out the ‘Power Flower’, an activity originally devised by Anne Bishop. In the inner tier of each petal, we wrote down the type of person who experiences the most power and privilege in our society, i.e. the dominant group for that particular category. For example, in the interior section of the sexuality petal, we wrote the word heterosexual, as heterosexual people experience power and privilege compared to people who identify as gay, asexual, pansexual, bisexual and more. In the outer tier of each petal, we wrote down our own personal status. So, in the aforesaid sexuality petal, I wrote the word heterosexual. Finally, Natasha asked us to colour the petals where our status matched the dominant status. The result is a flower where our respective levels of power and oppression are obvious.
Below is my power flower, which you will note has 11.5 petals filled out of a possible 13 petals. I filled out half of the gender petal as I am not male, but I am cisgender. Thus, although I do not belong to the dominant group, I experience an enormous amount of power and privilege as a cisgender person.
I struggled with how best to fill out the ability petal, as I am registered with the government of Canada as having a permanent disability, however Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is not a visible disability. Having a disability that is permanent and yet invisible has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that I will not be discriminated against socially, in an employment context, or otherwise, because of my disability. I choose when to disclose this information and similarly I may hide it if I wish. The ability to hide is a privilege. On the other hand, because my disability is not visible, I have often found its legitimacy questioned and I have had to advocate hard for benefits and assistance and accommodations that are alas, finally, often denied. This advocacy inevitably involves disclosure; in this case I am no longer privileged with the ability to hide.
I also struggled to decide how to fill out the class petal. I grew up incredibly privileged until the age of 14, at which time my parents divorced and I was raised by a single mother and without many of the economic benefits I had enjoyed as part of a traditional nuclear family. Since the age of 14-over the past 22 years-I have never made a salary that has elevated me above the poverty line. I have often struggled to meet my most basic needs. And yet, I have never become homeless or gone bankrupt as I have always had a financial safety net in my family.
I also see the way my disability has interacted with my class, insofar as I first became depressed at a critical juncture in my educational/career path and this interruption has taken a very long time to recover from. In addition, depression has interrupted my ability to work as an adult. It has necessitated expensive medications (sometimes upwards of 500$ a month) that have often not been covered. It has required other therapeutic services, that more often than not I have been unable to afford. And yet, I have always had a strong safety net, people to help me pay my rent, pay off my credit cards, loved ones to house and feed me when I’ve been sick.
As for the rest of the 11.5 petals, there is absolutely no argument for not filling them out. I have an embarrassing amount of unearned privilege. Looking at my flower, it is impossible to draw any other conclusion.
I’ve only been thinking about power and privilege in an intelligent or even reasonably deep way in the past five years. Before this time I was blissfully ignorant to most of these questions, which is a privilege only afforded to the kind of person who has 11.5 petals filled out. I filled out this power flower four years ago during my graduate degree, but filling it out this time I am married and the person I am married to is an immigrant, a person of colour, a person of a different and-in today’s political climate-highly stigmatized religion. English is not his first language, he grew up with a single mother and without the resources to acquire a university education. Of course, he is much more than an amalgamation of naked petals, he is a human being, but it occurred to me while filling out this flower how unequally weighted we have each been to play the game of life.
This isn’t a totally scientific calculation, but if this flower can be seen as an actual indication of total amount of oppression and power experienced by an individual, I exist with more than twice as much power in this world as my husband, or put otherwise, he experiences more than five times the oppression as me. Like I said, this isn’t scientific. Surely some of these petals should be weighted differently than others, although I can’t imagine how such a thing could be determined in any reliable fashion.
I have known my husband for 18 years and over the years we have had many conversations on this topic; though not in such explicit terms. I have often expressed frustration at my husband for his various struggles. I have been intolerant of the path he has taken and choices he has made. I have failed to understand the larger context of power and privilege. This conversations has often gone as follows:
Him: You don’t understand.
Me: You think I don’t understand, but I’m not stupid. I get it.
Him: But you’ll never really understand.
Me: That’s condescending. Obviously I can’t understand exactly, precisely, because I’ve never been in your EXACT situation, but overall I get it.
Him: But you don’t get it.
When I came home from my diversity training this week, I showed my husband my power flower. I told him I had completed one for him. I apologized for all the times I have minimized the barriers and failed to acknowledge everything he has faced. He was underwhelmed by the point I was making; it’s a point he has lived with his whole life. He doesn’t need to colour in a flower to know that he has faced obstacles and oppression. “It’s a white man’s world”, he said quoting Tupac and shrugging. White power is old shoe for him. This time instead of saying “yes, but…”, I just nod. It’s amazing to me how we can fail to see one another, even those we live with, even those we have lived with for almost two decades. I’m still learning. There’s still lots to learn.