Monday, July 14, 2014

Lessons from bell hooks: How I Use My Power and Privilege to Fight Domestic Violence

In this guest post, Paul Bancroft of Tahoe SAFE Alliance weaves together bell hooks’s power and privilege theory with his own standing as a white male in the domestic violence prevention field to explore how one can make a difference as an insider and outsider in a movement.
bell hooks rocks my world.  I first encountered her work in grad school. Her writings on race, gender, and class have resurfaced over the years, most notably in two recent encounters.  I purchased a copy of her book A Will to Changeand, as I opened it to begin reading, I discovered that it had been signed by her. Definitely a bonus when buying used books! A week later, a quote from the same book surfaced at a retreat I attended as a participant in the Strong Field Project Leadership Development Program.  We were asked to read different quotes that were taped onto the walls and then choose one that resonated with us and share it with our peers.  Of all of the quotes, this one from bell hooks spoke to me:
“In the dominator model the pursuit of external power, the ability to manipulate and control others, is what matters most. When culture is based on a dominator model, not only will it be violent but it will frame all relationships as power struggles”.
I chose this quote because it articulates one of the bigger issues that I think the domestic violence (DV) field is facing. DV intersects with a myriad of other forms of oppression.  bell hooks uses the phrase “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” to describe our political system. While her description may be open to interpretation and unpacking it deserves its own blog entry, I would argue that it also describes many of our social systems and it is a useful reminder that there are multiple oppressive systems at play that need to be addressed if we are really going to work towards ending DV.
The power in being tactically inside and strategically outside
As a field, are we reaching out, sharing victories and challenges with, and learning from other movements like those organizing around immigrant and LGTBQIA rights, worker’s rights, economic justice and access to health care? Can we do a better job of working together towards systematic changes with the vantage point of, as Paulo Freire puts it, “being tactically inside and strategically outside”?  The DV field operates within “the system” as we are primarily funded by local, state, and federal dollars. Similarly, we rely on the criminal justice system to hold abusers accountable and provide various forms of support for those experiencing abuse. Yet we are also situated outside of “the system,” since we can locate ourselves within the broader social justice movement.
bell hooks frequently addresses privilege and power in her writings. Her writings resonate with me because of how I interpret her work. I believe she advocates for creating space where, for instance, men can work as allies in the DV field, white people can work as allies in the fight for racial justice, and heterosexual people can work as allies towards LGBTIQA rights. This is possible as long as we are aware of and willing to take ownership of our privilege and the power we hold.
Understanding and using power and privilege to work as an ally
As a white, educated, middle-class male who has been involved in social justice work for many years, I have learned how to use my power and privilege in a way that is consistent with “being tactically inside and strategically outside.” I can use my white maleness to gain access to relationships, information, and resources to benefit the community members whom we serve. I feel I am in a unique position to be able to challenge other men’s sexist behavior. I have helped bridge the language gap between English and Spanish speaking community members, and I have used my inherent male privilege to gain access to and influence the decision making of law enforcement as it pertains to victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.  
People with power and privilege can work as allies and are not merely participants in the “White Savior Industrial Complex.” In other words, if people constantly work on awareness and own their power and privilege, listen, ask questions, build relationships, critique (especially themselves), and understand the history and context in which they operate, then they can work from a genuine place; not just come in to “save” those less fortunate folks.   In order to own my power and privilege I need to understand why it exists in the first place by asking, “What systems are in place that perpetuate that power and privilege?  Who benefits and who suffers as a result of these systems?  My work is to use my power and privilege to dismantle the systems that maintain it, to challenge the status quo, and to be an ally.
One of my favorite quotes as adapted from Antonio Machado is “we make the road by walking.” Let’s create the space to walk together where we collectively work to make the world a better place.

Paul Bancroft is Client Services and Prevention Director at Tahoe SAFE Alliance.

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