The connection between social challenges and power

A few weeks ago I sent an email to YPM subscribers about Juneteenth, and how I see the connections between parenting and power, and one of you wrote back to me:


I as a white parent am exerting power over my white child. How does this connect to racism?


I understand modeling how we use power wisely and in a more collaborative way when possible. I don’t see the race connection.


I love this question – and if you have more like it, I encourage you to send them over!


In this post I want to be more clear about how power shows up in our social challenges.  Then soon I’ll help us to connect this to the ways that we navigate this in our relationships with our children.


(As a side note, there’s kind of a thing when White people talk about racism, particularly, where we back up our points using articles in White-authored and -controlled publications.  Wherever I can find a resource by a BIPOC author or citing BIPOC experts, I use it here.)


Here’s an idea that guides me in understanding a lot of different but related ideas: 


Most of our big social challenges are a result of oppression.  


What’s oppression?


Oppression is the systemic use of power and authority to discriminate against and marginalize a particular group of people, often on the basis of their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or other characteristics. (Anti-Racism Daily)


What kinds of forms does oppression take?  There are some listed on the Anti-Racism Daily (ARD) link above, and below I’ve outlined just a few of what could have been hundreds of examples.  I think it’s also important to note that ARD points out the most egregious examples of oppression, whereas I see oppression as ARD defines it as a normal part of how these systems work.  


For example, political oppression isn’t just about disenfranchisement and voter suppression; politicians systemically use their power and authority to discriminate against particular groups of people as an everyday part of their work.  Voting against a bill that will allow us to mitigate the effects of climate change that relatively wealthy White people created and that will disproportionately impact poor and BIPOC people is oppression.


In the workplace

There’s an inherent imbalance of power between employers and employees.  When one person (or a company) controls the amount of money another person is paid, the person doing the paying always has an incentive to get the person being paid to do as much work for as little money as possible.  I’m always actively working against this ingrained thought pattern myself, and ensure that my employees take home a living wage even when I do not.


Rather than give employees real decision-making authority, companies often create structures that make it seem like employees have more of a say when they really don’t.  BIPOC experts have argued that Employee Resource/Affinity Groups (like we often see in white collar workplaces) exist to pacify white collar workers, which prevents them from working toward change for blue collar workers. (New York Times)  Consider: if parents’ needs were actually met by the company, would we need parents’ ERGs?  If Black employees’ needs were met by the company, why would we need a Black ERG?  


ERGs were created to help people who don’t have networks of mentors and sponsors to help them get ahead, and why White men can see the benefits that others are getting from the ERG and feel left out. (Thomson Reuters)  Black Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion strategist Raven Solomon and Kimberly John-Morgan of Junxure Consulting argue that White male ERGs may have a place: to create allies. (LinkedIn)


Further, companies may placate some groups of people to avoid making more drastic change for everyone.  The classic example of this is that employees at Starbucks corporate headquarters enjoy plush recliners in dedicated lactation rooms to pump breast milk whenever they like, while cafe employees pump in the restroom, on their bathroom breaks. (New York Times)  The (more often White) corporate employees have more power and have been granted more power by the corporation, so we can now relax – rather than working to extend the same benefits to people whose work hours and methods are more tightly controlled by the company.


And of course these are just examples of the everyday types of control that are part of how a business operates – never mind the obviously atrocious racial harassment (randomly-selected example from SHRM, but this happens all over the place) and sexual harassment (randomly-selected example from U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but this also happens all over the place) that can combine to create the definition of intersectionality. (Columbia Law School)  


In politics

One person, one vote seems on its surface like the epitome of a fair system.  But it isn’t really fair when Black voters are systematically disenfranchised – by being incarcerated at higher levels and then prohibited from voting when they’re released (Pro Publica), and by reducing polling places in Black neighborhoods (also Pro Publica). 


Indigenous voters are disenfranchised by putting few polling places on reservations, and by requiring physical street addresses when many voters living on reservations don’t have one and instead use a P.O. Box. (also Pro Publica).


When one White man who pulled in $500,000 in 2020 from fossil fuel stock can essentially change the course of the way the world responds to climate change by watering down the commitments of the U.S., that’s power at work. (New York Times)  Of course, paying him the $500k (or the $65k that Exxon paid him) to change his vote would be illegal.  Profiting from and taking bribe money from the fossil fuel industry while voting to protect it is not illegal.


In philanthropy

The vast majority of philanthropic funds are generated from wealth that White people hold, which is then managed by White managers and board members.  Those managers shape what programs are eligible for funding (and how organizations can ‘prove’ they are making an impact) and the (White) board members set the strategic priorities for an organization that most likely ‘serves’ BIPOC people – deciding whether and how these people’s needs will be met.  


The entire process further entrenches rich White people’s power over BIPOC people’s ability to meet their needs – and the wealth was most likely generated in the first place by avoiding taxes and paying workers as little as possible.  As Andrew Lee at Anti-Racism Daily puts it: “The economy that allows some U.S. workers to gain fabulous wealth is the reason why so many people around the world need charity.”  (Anti-Racism Daily; for a deep dive, try the books Winners Take All and Decolonizing Wealth – hat tip to Brian Stout on this one).


In Culture

Power dynamics almost always show up between groups of people, and especially when people in one group use power to take resources from people in another group – and then use signifiers of the disempowered group to make money.  Julie Feng, writing for The Body Is Not An Apology writes: “Cultural appropriation is not cultural appreciation. It is a cultural exchange levied through unequal power relations on a systemic level.”  This shows up in issues from dance, dress, music, folklore, language, religious symbols, and traditional medicine. (East East)


So White people discriminate against Black people for wearing natural hairstyles (NAACP Legal Defense Fund), and then White celebrities wear cornrows (Hub Pages) without calling attention to the discrimination that Black people face for wearing them, (The Guardian), and even use them as signifiers of coolness. (Amandla Stenberg)  


These are just some of the ways that power shows up ‘out there’ in the world.  And all of these different issues fit into one of three buckets:


White supremacy: Seeing Whiteness, including White people, as superior to everything and everyone else – and with superiority comes power

Patriarchy: Seeing masculinity, and males, as superior to everyone else – and with superiority comes power

Capitalism: This looks like a value-neutral system where the means of production are privately owned, but it combines with White supremacy and patriarchy to say that Whiteness and maleness will be (financially) rewarded – and with money comes power


Power imbalances exist in a lot of places in our culture, and a cornerstone idea of Democratic (capital D) politics is that care for others, and fairness, are both good things (see The Righteous Mind; hat tip to Houri Parsi for introducing me to Jonathan Haidt’s work).  Care for others and fairness are how Democrats aim to make the world more fair, more right, and more just.  (Most Republicans think that there’s entirely too much care and fairness in the world and we should care a lot more about authority, liberty, and purity.)


We learn about these ideas when we’re young, through the messages we get from our culture every day.  And how were these cultural messages passed to us?  Through the media, through school, and through our parents.


Which means we’re passing them along to our children as well.


Soon I’ll share some thoughts on what messages we’re sending to our children about power – and how that fits with the messages we want to send.


If you’d like to learn more about how we’re passing on these forms of power to our children, and what you can do about it, grab a copy of my book, Parenting Beyond Power: How to Use Connection and Collaboration to Transform Your Family – and the World, today.


About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (, which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

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