Power Differentials

I’m very curious about how we experience power in our everyday lives. It seems to me that power is crucial in our social interactions. When we have power, we feel like we control our circumstances, bringing order to an uncertain and chaotic world.

In our social worlds, there are power differentials. That is, people will encounter situations in which one person is perceived or actually has more authority, agency, or knowledge then the other/s. Social identities (age, race, sex, class, orientation etc.) can also play a role in where social power lies. One example of where a power differential could be found is between a teacher and a class of young students. Children are told they should listen to their teacher; the teacher is older (and therefore, in our culture, more capable and knowledgeable) then the children and is a trained professional. Teachers are also symbolic figures of wisdom, nurturing, and knowledge. Because of these factors, a teacher has more power than their students, and so a power differential exists.

One thing that concerns me is the power differential between a police officer and the average person. Cops are authority figures with power to arrest and detain individuals as well as carry and use weapons. Recently, a video surfaced in which a Black female officer physically restrains a young Black woman in a chair and cuts off her weave. White male officers assist in restraining the young woman, who has been arrested for damaging a motel room. While they do not assist in cutting the hair, they so help restrain her, and they are complicit in the act being carried out.

This to me is an example of one person who has more power exercising that power over another individual. By restraining the woman, they are taking her physical agency away from her: she is powerless to do anything in that moment. By chopping of her hair, the police officer was actively showing the woman how much power she had over her: so much power that she is able to physically remove a part of her body. Finally, hair weaves can be expensive. The police officer removing something that can be so expensive to maintain shows how she is asserting economic power over the woman.

I’m curious to how race could have possibly played into the unfolding of this event. Here is the video clip: “Cut on Camera: Cop cuts off woman’s weave” and the MSNBC article: http://breakingbrown.com/2014/01/watch-as-mich-cop-puts-woman-in-restraints-chops-off-her-weave/  Where do you see race mattering here, if it matters at all?

1 thought on “Power Differentials”

  1. Emily – thank you for sharing this story. I definitely think it exemplifies the sometimes negative results of the power differential between police officers and ordinary citizens. It is downright disturbing that cops frequently use their power to humiliate and harm individuals, especially those who belong to groups with lower levels of social power. Had this individual been a white male, would an equivalent amount of force be exerted upon him? I don’t think so. Race absolutely matters in this case and in many others where police officers exert their social power in unfair ways.

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