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Excerpts from “Helping Teens Stop Violence: A Practical Guide for Counselors, Educators, and Parents” by Allan Creighton and Paul Kivel

It’s About Power

In the classroom with young people, and in workshops among adults, there are differences – differences in gender, racial and ethnic heritage, age, physical ability, economic class, sexual orientation, and many others. Some differences are visible, some we look for automatically, some we may pretend not to see. But what is true about these differences is that they are used to separate people along lines of power. This power takes the form of access to resources, work, housing, education, physical security, protection by law, and representation in government. And while some groups are socially sanctioned to be powerful, they are permitted to have this power at the expense of other groups, whose access to resources is correspondingly limited or denied.

The social perspective from which Battered Women’s Alternatives and the Oakland Men’s Project operate is that the primary root of violence in the United States is the systematic, institutionalized, and day-to-day imbalance of power. What this means to those social groups that do not have equal power – women, children, people of color, workers, and the rest – is that they have less control over their lives and are targets of physical and sexual violence, discrimination, harassment, and poverty at home, in the workplace, and in the wider community.

This pattern of power imbalance is continually renewed through the training of each generation of young people. When children in this country learn misinformation about groups of people different than themselves through lies, jokes, stereotypes, rewritten history, and biased research, they are being trained to justify, enforce, and continue the power differences.

And since all social inequalities reinforce one another, it becomes clear that violence against women and children will not be stopped unless violence against people of color, gays, lesbians, Jews, people with disabilities, working-class people, elders, and the rest is also eliminated. Moreover, we cannot expect to support young people in “unlearning” the lies of sexism unless we are prepared to assist them and ourselves in unlearning the other “isms”.

We need to say something about language as we begin to explore issues of power more closely, because language itself is an instrument of power and is often used to control others. Throughout this book we use the terms “sexism”, “racism”, “anti-Semitism”, “heterosexism”, and “adultism” as terms describing different oppressions, conscious that although they are in common usage, they are more or less inadequate and even misleading. “Anti-Semitism” as a synonym for the oppression of Jews hides the fact that there are non-Jewish Semitic (Arab) people who are oppressed in ways different from Jews. “Adultism” as a term for the oppression of young people defines the oppression in terms of the oppressor, not the victim. “Heterosexism” is slightly less clumsy than “the oppression of gays, lesbians and bisexuals”, but usually only means heterosexual prejudice, not the full-blown oppression. Names for nonpower groups are always problematic, since they are almost always picked by power groups. Take “teen” for example, a word which adults often use to trivialize, judge, or diminish young people. Part of all unlearning is continuing to questions our terminology.

The Violence Is Institutionalized

Nonpower groups undergo systematic, routine, day-to-day discrimination and mistreatment, in forms as basic as access to jobs, food, and housing. As members of nonpower groups, we frequently experience this violence as individuals, and often experience it from individuals, but it has its source in already existing institutional inequality. The institutions of family, education, work, business, religion, housing, law, and government in which we are raised sustain this inequality. Inequality is made to look “normal”, or it is made invisible or denied. But it is precisely because inequality is institutionalized that the mistreatment of nonpower groups is so complete.

There Is No Reverse “ism”

Since the institutional imbalance is in one direction – power over nonpower – it is counterproductive to use concepts like “reverse racism”, “reverse sexism”, and so forth. Individuals in the nonpower group can stereotype or have prejudices about people in the power group. They can act aggressively toward them. But the power imbalance nonetheless targets nonpower groups – nonpower groups do not have the social power and command of resources to limit the powerful or to protect themselves from system-wide violence.

Our Differences Do Not Cause The Power Imbalance

This cannot be emphasized too strongly: our differences do not cause the institutional power imbalances; they are used to justify already existing imbalances. People do not earn mistreatment because they are Latino, or women, or have disabilities. There is nothing natural or biological about these differences that causes oppression. Rather, the imbalance of power is there first, and we are all exposed to it as children, learning lies about target groups long before we actually meet any of these individuals.

The stereotypes are taught to us as a means of justifying the imbalance. For example, “African-Americans are mentally inferior, so they are better suited for menial jobs”, or “Women are natural nurturers, so they should do all the housework and childcare”. These lies enable a society to justify forcing these groups to take care of its most difficult and exhausting work and to rationalize discrimination and unequal pay for comparable work.

This resource developed with the generous support of the Ontario Trillium Foundation.
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