Finding Our True North for Racial Justice: Redefining Power

  • Posted on: 17 April 2020
  • By: Damita Brown

Dr. Damita Brown

How does a racial justice lens redefine power within a white led and predominantly white organization?

Instrumentalist justice looks like exploiting black participation as opposed to sharing power. In that situation tactics of dominance continue to run the organization. From divide and conquer to hiring black gatekeepers – some one has to handle the “natives”.

What really has not happened in Madison is an understanding that racism is disgusting.

How it works is still something white people need to be more curious about? It is so poorly understood because of the assumption that it is understood. It is similar to the idea that when people are convinced they are living in a functioning democracy and that they are free, they will not work to create a democracy or free themselves. Whites who assume they are not racist are not trying to solve that problem.


This really points to the inherent power in self-awareness. Being curious about how racism works is how we begin to overcome ignorance. It is pure intelligence to be curious. It is the capacity to expand our own minds through the development of critical awareness of what is.


There also needs to be a deeper sense of determination. By this I mean, first, determination to go beyond “trying” at a superficial level which allows you to check the boxes off but which does not create a fundamental shift in the way you behave. If you are satisfied with the benefits of white privilege and the power it has given you, yet you are engaging in racial justice work, you might not be able to see the contradiction there. That deeper level of determination to uproot racism has to emerge as a key element of self-awareness.


To let go of a grasp on illicit and racist power it has to be seen as the violent thing that it is and it has to be understood in terms of the harm it is causing. And yet, as far as white supremacist culture is concerned, there may as well be blood in the breast milk. We bathe in violence. We enjoy a steady diet of violence. Ours is a culture of violence and aggression – macro, historical, passive, and micro.

The second sense of deeper determination has to do with recovering from the harm the violence of racism has caused. Violence and racism are inseparable. How are our relationships impacted by this violence?

I think we can really be committed to this work when we see the harm racism causes to our sense of humanity. Only then can we begin to develop a richer sense of that humanity, to restore it. Recovering from the impact of racism means being able to be accountable to ones self. Not guilt ridden or shame based but truly devastated by the immensity of the harm that has been caused. What mitigates that deep sorrow and remorse is the fact that the racist structures we have inherited are not of our own making. And yet that's not enough. Personal responsibility has to be defined by how we enter this narrative and perpetuate it. Blamelessness and accountability go hand in hand.

What makes black people feel welcome in organizations that have a history of abusing, ignoring or controlling them? What kind of trust can there be of power that has historically ignored the structural violence of segregation while benefiting from it? Some expression and evidence of willingness to dismantle whiteness and white supremacist culture has to translate into looking at specific practices within that organization that keep Black people out, controlled or subordinate. We sometimes talk about push out behaviors in schools. What about push out behavior in other white led organizations?


Some respect for Black and Brown leadership, ideas and experience with racism needs to take place on an ongoing basis. And this respect does not materialize magically. It involves a long slog through the many filters and safeguards put in place by centuries of racist training. It takes time to recognize, transform and act. Transformative action is literally the critical shift of our gaze and the development of our lens on that basis. There has to be enough self-reflective power to examine projections of racist narratives onto innocent people. That dialogue implicit and explicit has to be turned outward and the trained editing and suppression of those ideas and the ways those ideas impact our day to day decisions has to be understood.


That is the process that translates in to genuine accountability. Seeing it makes us able to own the harm we cause. Once we get to that place we will not need to worry about ending racism. At that point of transforming our projections we become able to act from a legitimate position of understanding illicit power and feeling disgust for it. We feel disgust for the violence that is encoded in whiteness and our preference for white defined things. White neighbors, white status symbols and a hierarchy created by white people for white people. Rejecting that culture becomes possible when we see there is something better than an identity dependent of dispossession of others, something better than social structures that rely the zero sum logic which pits one group's needs against another's. Something better than the imposed training to believe that we are separate and therefore it is possible to flee from harm we cause to others.

This kind of self awareness is power. It rejects the mythical norm. It allows us to be truly self-directed. Without this we are manipulated and controlled by that which we cannot face in ourselves. And power will seem to be something someone else can give us. But legitimate power does not come from out there.


Most of us aim our sights at the norm. We aim for that version of sanity. We have a carbon copy facsimile imprinted on the back of our eye balls of what it looks like but we are all just aiming at constructions and missing the target everytime – it's a box we are told to live in but none of us really fit. Our immaturity is reflected in our lack of awareness of this fact. We need the emotional security of that awareness. Effective resistance depends on it. Destroying that box is the work of deconstructing race, dismantling the mythical norm of whiteness.


Being true to dismantling whiteness and white supremacist culture on which it rests cannot be done in a vacuum. We will need to speak truth to power. First to the power living in your mind so that you become that power. You evict the master's power and the master's tools and the trinkets he gives you for playing along. Then you can find the true north of your own sanity in this speech. You will fnd it in the acts which that speech compels.