February 2, 2016

ZUMBA | On Having Power

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When thinking about power and hierarchies, I of course have to distinguish between the “have” and the “have nots.” That’s how many systems, especially in the United States, are set up. There is usually someone who has power and authority over others who are deemed “inferior.” It’s a concept that is applicable to multiple situations like the power a mayor has over his citizens, the patriarchal power a man has over a woman and even the power a teacher has over a student. These types of hierarchies have become inherent to us, so it can be hard to really notice or question them even if you’re aware of power dynamics. From my own experiences, I find these structures damaging to my own well-being as well as others who are deemed “less powerful.”

Often those in power and on the higher end of the hierarchy do not necessarily realize what their actions, language and even lack of action may cause. It’s due to some kind of disconnect where they don’t really consider the lives they may be affecting as long as they aren’t directly in front of them. It’s easier not to care about consequences when some decision maker is just looking at a policy or any form of text because it’s a distance away from an actual person. There’s a barrier that’s really hard to break through, because often times the oppressed are dehumanized to the point where we forget something may relate to an actual person.

This concept is only further emphasized when some form of proxy is used by someone in power to talk to those “lower” than them. It’s a very bureaucratic method for someone to use one of their many constituents to go talk to the people in attempt to appease them. Essentially it’s like giving us a fake kind of attention so we’ll move on from whatever we’re fussing about at the moment. Towards the end of last semester, I experienced a lot of “higher ups” sending messages through other people and didn’t really receive much direct interaction. I felt that I wasn’t being treated as an equal, which is something I’m constantly told to strive for — just to be able to sit at the table with everyone else. I can also guarantee that this isn’t something that only I feel. People have had to deal with bureaucracy for years.

These types of actions present the idea that our voices don’t matter if we’re not someone with power. We’re “just” students or “just” people of color. It becomes apparent to us that we’re not worth leaving labels and putting power aside to be spoken to as people. Then, people are surprised when we go to supposed extremes in order to be heard instead of realizing that we feel unheard.

When policies or decisions that affect students are made, the people who should be present are often left out of the conversation. Institutions often discuss and make decisions without the input of the people their decisions will affect. By this I mean specifically those who can relay their own stories in attempt to shed more light on a particular situation. When a conversation happens behind closed doors with no transparency or outside input, who knows what people in power can decide? The set-up perpetuates the disconnect that I previously mentioned as those in power appear to further distance themselves away from those they’re meant to serve. It’s found in institutions of higher education across the country where change for marginalized students is hard to achieve, exemplified by the Chicago cover up by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. I could go on.

Through the continuation of these actions, we ensure that damaging hierarchies continue to exist. We continuously feed into disparity if we choose not to question those in power or the idea of power itself. Although I find these structures to be damaging to me and others who are considered marginalized, I also see them as small places of motivation. As they repeatedly try to quiet us or brush us off, it becomes another bullet point on the long list of reasons institutional changes are necessary.

Sarah Zumba is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at sez29@cornell.edu. Zumba Works it Out appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

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