Power and Privilege Part II

Many of you know I had the privilege of being a part of a co-creation process developing curriculum for students that will be participating in service learning experiences around the world.  Remember some of them from previous pictures?

 Photo courtesy of the  Classroom of Many Cultures  very own Laura H

Photo courtesy of the Classroom of Many Cultures very own Laura H

One of the challenges that I have faced, and witnessed other foreigners face, is understanding power dynamics within the work place (or society). Power structures are a social construct that come from years of conditioning and since each country, and even location in a country, has a different set of conditioning, perspectives are incredibly divergent. With the input of some of my colleagues and one of my interns, I came up with a little test that could be done with students to help them better understand their perspectives, which then will help them to consider others' perspectives (since we often do not realize our views are just that OUR views not the ultimate truth).

Below are some examples, a slightly edited version, of what we used with the co-creation group and examples I used with some of my staff in testing this activity. First, you get to play. See what biases you may hold. We all have biases so I encourage you to be honest with yourself and not say, "I can't respond that way because that makes me look misogynistic, racist, age-ist, etc." You are the only one seeing your biases** and it is only by recognizing them that you can start to address them, if you so choose. 

**Note, this idea was very difficult for some of my staff to understand. Many of them have been raised to believe that when asked a question the goal is always to get the 'right' answer, also known as the answer that most closely matches the opinion of the authority figure/teacher.

 

After you try it, I will explain some reflections of my own that have popped up in my life in Cambodia. To play, you must decide of the three 'people' pictured, who is the boss, who is the manager, and who is the staff person (ignore the fact that some people are missing half their heads this is a technology problem not a reflection of any kind of actual physical difference in the person).  

When putting this together, it also made me think, based on my experiences, how homogeneous the bosses and managers in my life have been.

Pencils ready?  You may now open you booklets... (I have always wanted to say that, though just the thought of those words makes me anxious).

Biases Game

 Image 1

Image 1

 Image 2

Image 2

 Image 3

Image 3

 Image 4

Image 4

 Image 5

Image 5

 Image 6

Image 6

 Image 7

Image 7

Put your pencils down.  Enjoy that wave of relief that washes over you with those words...  Now, some reflections on each of these images.

 Image 1 reflections: I used an image similar to this with my staff members and they tended to assume C (White Male) was the boss and then would switch A (Asian Male) and B (Asian Female) as the manager.   Almost all of them used the rationale based on what they see at our office for the A or B decision.  Across the board, they assumed the foreigner would be the boss as that seems to be the accepted norm.  From my perspective, some of this comes from the low education levels post-Khmer Rouge and still rebuilding a trained management within the country.  Some of this has to do with big multinational NGOs and businesses that bring a boss from overseas.  I have seen it argued that this is residue left from the French colonial times, where the French were the ones with power.  Per usual, I give you no one right answer.

Image 1 reflections: I used an image similar to this with my staff members and they tended to assume C (White Male) was the boss and then would switch A (Asian Male) and B (Asian Female) as the manager.   Almost all of them used the rationale based on what they see at our office for the A or B decision.  Across the board, they assumed the foreigner would be the boss as that seems to be the accepted norm.  From my perspective, some of this comes from the low education levels post-Khmer Rouge and still rebuilding a trained management within the country.  Some of this has to do with big multinational NGOs and businesses that bring a boss from overseas.  I have seen it argued that this is residue left from the French colonial times, where the French were the ones with power.  Per usual, I give you no one right answer.

 Image 2 reflection: Here in Cambodia, respecting elders is still the norm. Even the language indicates a division of respect based on age (I address someone my grandparents' age as grandma/pa, older than my parents as older auntie/uncle, my parents age as younger auntie/uncle, older than me as older brother/sister, etc).  When sharing this slide with my colleagues, C (the oldest) is the boss, B (middle-aged) is the manager,  A (youngest) is normal staff.  When sharing with some non-Khmer, Westerners, it was believed that the oldest may actually be the normal staff serving as a guard or cleaner.  The assumption was made if a person is still working past retirement age, they must be forced to because of lack of retirement, maybe they have low education, and thus would be in a lower level position.

Image 2 reflection: Here in Cambodia, respecting elders is still the norm. Even the language indicates a division of respect based on age (I address someone my grandparents' age as grandma/pa, older than my parents as older auntie/uncle, my parents age as younger auntie/uncle, older than me as older brother/sister, etc).  When sharing this slide with my colleagues, C (the oldest) is the boss, B (middle-aged) is the manager,  A (youngest) is normal staff.  When sharing with some non-Khmer, Westerners, it was believed that the oldest may actually be the normal staff serving as a guard or cleaner.  The assumption was made if a person is still working past retirement age, they must be forced to because of lack of retirement, maybe they have low education, and thus would be in a lower level position.

 Image 3 reflection: Cambodia is a fairly homogeneous place, in comparison to many other countries, but there are still some biases.  For example, in this image, C (a Caucasian foreigner) would likely be viewed as the top person in power while B (the African, here in Cambodia likely Nigerian) would be considered the lowest with the Khmer in between.  I have not been able to really get a deep reason from any of my Khmer friends about this bias but there is definitely a lighter is better bias.  African or African-American/Europeans are treated differently than white foreigners.  When sharing this with others in different countries, a wider variety of distinctions emerged about who would be the boss based on race or ethnicity.

Image 3 reflection: Cambodia is a fairly homogeneous place, in comparison to many other countries, but there are still some biases.  For example, in this image, C (a Caucasian foreigner) would likely be viewed as the top person in power while B (the African, here in Cambodia likely Nigerian) would be considered the lowest with the Khmer in between.  I have not been able to really get a deep reason from any of my Khmer friends about this bias but there is definitely a lighter is better bias.  African or African-American/Europeans are treated differently than white foreigners.  When sharing this with others in different countries, a wider variety of distinctions emerged about who would be the boss based on race or ethnicity.

 Image 4 reflection: I didn't actually use this image with my Khmer colleagues, as it is largely assumed everyone is Buddhist.  The Muslim population here seems to almost exclusively work in the fishing industry and Christians are few and far between, though growing in number.  In discussing this with some other expats, we were all thinking about the religious backgrounds of our former bosses.  It was interesting based on region of origin how this varied, I have a bit more Jewish influence in my past places of employment due to being in the DC area.   

Image 4 reflection: I didn't actually use this image with my Khmer colleagues, as it is largely assumed everyone is Buddhist.  The Muslim population here seems to almost exclusively work in the fishing industry and Christians are few and far between, though growing in number.  In discussing this with some other expats, we were all thinking about the religious backgrounds of our former bosses.  It was interesting based on region of origin how this varied, I have a bit more Jewish influence in my past places of employment due to being in the DC area.

 

These last three I think are where it really gets interesting with my colleagues...

 Image 5 reflection: Everyone who saw this image automatically ranked people based on the more education, the higher up in power.  It was an easy assessment with no deliberation.

Image 5 reflection: Everyone who saw this image automatically ranked people based on the more education, the higher up in power.  It was an easy assessment with no deliberation.

 Image 6 reflection: Then, this image appeared and, for some, there was much more hesitation.  This was the example that came up when one thinks about foreign, college-age volunteers coming through and their role in the office dynamic.  In some organizations, staff seem to treat them as if they have some secret answer to everything.  In this image, none of my staff kept A (the person with the least education), who was now a foreigner as the lowest person.  Usually, C (the mid-level education person) was bumped down while the high level education person remained the big boss; however, for some staff, the under-educated foreigner became the  Big Boss.   When asking staff about this decision some could articulate that perhaps education is much better overseas, so a higher education degree in Cambodia is the same as a lower education degree in another country.  Someassumed a highly educated Cambodian had likely studied overseas, so they could still be the big boss while a mid-range educated Khmer person likely studied in Cambodia where the education system is not as strong.  For some, when asked why, they simply said, "Because a foreigner always has to be the boss.  They are the ones with the money."  When I started to talk about how maybe foreigners don't have cultural knowledge and understanding that is essential to working well in the country, most of my colleagues didn't even know what to do with that observation.  It was absolutely fascinating and left me pondering for DAYS.  What exactly are we exporting to these other countries?

Image 6 reflection: Then, this image appeared and, for some, there was much more hesitation.  This was the example that came up when one thinks about foreign, college-age volunteers coming through and their role in the office dynamic.  In some organizations, staff seem to treat them as if they have some secret answer to everything.  In this image, none of my staff kept A (the person with the least education), who was now a foreigner as the lowest person.  Usually, C (the mid-level education person) was bumped down while the high level education person remained the big boss; however, for some staff, the under-educated foreigner became the Big Boss.  When asking staff about this decision some could articulate that perhaps education is much better overseas, so a higher education degree in Cambodia is the same as a lower education degree in another country.  Someassumed a highly educated Cambodian had likely studied overseas, so they could still be the big boss while a mid-range educated Khmer person likely studied in Cambodia where the education system is not as strong.  For some, when asked why, they simply said, "Because a foreigner always has to be the boss.  They are the ones with the money."  When I started to talk about how maybe foreigners don't have cultural knowledge and understanding that is essential to working well in the country, most of my colleagues didn't even know what to do with that observation.  It was absolutely fascinating and left me pondering for DAYS.  What exactly are we exporting to these other countries?

 Image 7 reflection:  This one broke my heart.  Most of my co-workers that I showed this little exercise are Deaf.  Almost, across the board, they put A (the Deaf person) as the lowest on the power ladder.  B (the person without a disability who is hearing) was always the boss.  Some would switch C (person with a physical disability) with A (Deaf person) for the lowest on the hierarchy but only if they could pretend C was the interpreter for A.  I told them to imagine the organization we were talking about was to help Deaf people, just to change the scenario.  They still did not move person A (Deaf person) above the second in command unless they inserted the caveat that the manager was serving as an interpreter.  So, why does my heart break?  How do we support our Deaf community members to become the leaders they can be if they can't even imagine having a Deaf person, let alone themselves, responsible for leading others, especially hearing people.

Image 7 reflection:  This one broke my heart.  Most of my co-workers that I showed this little exercise are Deaf.  Almost, across the board, they put A (the Deaf person) as the lowest on the power ladder.  B (the person without a disability who is hearing) was always the boss.  Some would switch C (person with a physical disability) with A (Deaf person) for the lowest on the hierarchy but only if they could pretend C was the interpreter for A.  I told them to imagine the organization we were talking about was to help Deaf people, just to change the scenario.  They still did not move person A (Deaf person) above the second in command unless they inserted the caveat that the manager was serving as an interpreter.  So, why does my heart break?  How do we support our Deaf community members to become the leaders they can be if they can't even imagine having a Deaf person, let alone themselves, responsible for leading others, especially hearing people.

Have you ever worked in an office with a person who engages with the world in a different way?  From a chair?  Through sign language?  Who cannot see?

This made me think, how different would our world be if included all people at the table, regardless of how they engage with the world?  But, you will have to wait for Part III of this blog for my final thoughts :)  Thanks for reading and enjoy struggling with the questions this raises for you.

 

This post originally appeared on The Life and Love of Karen in August 2016.