Sunday, October 18, 2009

It's just a little thing

As I was flying back from Tulsa a couple of weeks ago, I settled into my window seat when two men took their places in seats D and E. The man in the center seat said to me, "You'll behave, won't you?"

Well, how do you respond to that greeting? I could have said, "Yes, I usually do," or flipped back a quip. Or, I could have ignored him. After all, the flight would be only two hours long. But I chose to cut through the trivializing, if not ridiculing, remark which be inappropriate to give to a l0-year-old girl, much less a grown woman. So, I engaged him directly, as a grown man, obviously taking a flight with a friend and two young boys who had taken seats B and C across the aisle. They had been talking about football as they entered the plane, mentioning the Packers and the Vikings. I knew enough about the Brett Favre situation to understand why it would be an exciting, game, so I inquired about them taking the boys to the game. The man responded and we engaged in conversation back and forth for a minute or two. We had changed the power cycle and established an equal partnership, if just for that brief time.

A little thing. And yet this incident, as bizarre as it sounds, epitomizes the power cycle of how oppressor groups keep oppressed groups powerless through these stages: ignore; trivialize; ridicule; eliminate. In our book, "Transforming Leadership," Craig Nessan and I build on the work of Elizabeth Howell Verdesi in her book, "In but Still Out: Women in the Church." The power cycle is real, insidious, and so commonplace we may not notice it. In fact, I have experienced people, uncomfortable with my power of person or position, using the power cycle so often, that I sometimes don't notice it. (Or I simply internalize the oppression and acquiesce.) But understanding the power cycle helps us notice, not be put off guard, and frees us to choose how to respond.

The powerful keep people, by gender, race, age, ability, class, etc. outside their realm of power by first ignoring them. If that doesn't work, e.g. "I am somebody" the phrase of self and public recognition of African Americans in the 60's and 70's, the oppressor uses trivialization. This phenomenon is experienced all too frequently by women yet today. It this doesn't work; if the woman or other oppressed group does not go "one down," the next stage is ridicule. This might be experienced as outright bullying or through a "ridiculous" remark, e.g. the comment to me on the airplane. If a person or group submits, the powerful retain their power and all is well...for them. But if the ones ridiculed or harassed--I call it gender harassment or racial harassment, not necessarily sexual harassment--stand up for themselves and their rights and their position, the oppressors, with whatever power they have, may try to get rid of them. Guess which ones loses a job. Guess which one is put out play. Then the power cycle begins again with "ignore."

But at each stage there is also the potential for partnership. I prefer this to competition, partly because those with less power can rarely win competition within the power cycle. And also because I believe we are created for partnership in this world.

My simply refusing to be ridiculed and engaging the man cut through the ... well, one could say, "crap"...or one could simply say, stopped the progression of the power of cycle.

And so there we were. The two hours passed. When it was time to get ready to unfasten our seat belts and retrieve our luggage from under the seats and the overhead compartment, I engaged the man again, asking if he would help me lift my carry-on bag down. (As most of you know I live with a chronic illness, travel with the aid of a cane, and need help lifting things from overhead.) He seemed only to happy to do so (most people, men or women are), but did so by saying, "You're not going to hit me with your cane, are you?"