Reframe: Episode 65

Power, Dominance, and the Politics of Everyday Life

Power and dominance are not always about physical force or political authority. On this episode, Dr. Lisa Weems, a scholar-activist-educator, explains how many power dynamics can take on far more subtle forms.

In schools, across society, and throughout our daily lives, these power struggles often happen when certain cultural values or beliefs are privileged and reinforced, while others are restrained, or even silenced. Especially when we try to challenge the status quo around issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality.

These ideas are also expressed in her book, Staging Dissent: Young women of color and transnational activism.

Additional music: Lee Rosevere “Thought Bubbles” and Broke For Free “The Gold Lining.”

Read the transcript

James Loy:

This is Reframe, the podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

The concepts of power and dominance are probably familiar to almost everyone. But they are not always related to physical force, or military might, or even official authority of any kind. Throughout the everyday lives of many people, power often takes the form of prevailing cultural values that normalize the behaviors or perspectives of certain groups, while marginalizing or disregarding others.

Understanding how these common power dynamics play out in society is key focus of cultural studies, especially when it comes to issues of race, class, gender, or sexuality.

And on this episode, we speak with Lisa Weems, a Miami University professor of educational leadership, who uses this approach in her work as scholar-activist-educator. It’s also the basis of her new book, titled, Staging Dissent: Young women of color and transnational activism.

Dr. Weems, thank you so much for being on the podcast. Cultural studies is such a big area. It can cover so many different things. So I want to begin by asking you about your approach to cultural studies and how it fits in with education?

Lisa Weems:

Thank you so much, first of all James, for the interview and for the question.

So one thing you need to know about me, like you said, is that cultural studies is a very broad area. And, in fact, like part of its origins, as you know, are very interdisciplinary. So I’ll come back to that in just a second, in terms of how I approach it, and my work in education.

But, if I boiled it down to thinking about my approach to cultural studies is that it's a theoretical and methodological framework for understanding the politics of everyday life. So, that could apply to any arena of everyday life, or any arena of popular culture, or any arena of, say leisure, or entertainment, or schools.

So, for example, people that have done work in cultural studies of education have focused those areas around looking at both the relationship between what happens in everyday schools. Like, the everyday life of schools. What is it the kids and teachers are actually doing? And a lot of it is: there's the formal curriculum that people study, and they talk about, right, is the lesson plans, and the subjects they're supposed to do. But most of what happens in schools is a lot of social stuff, right? Kids talking to each other. Building friendship networks. Bullying each other. Some good stuff. Some not-so-great stuff. Participating in sports. Or, the extracurriculars like music. Or like, now, social media. Right? That's a huge thing in schools. And schools are not exactly well equipped to deal with that. Because they don't know, in technology in general, they don't really know how to either effectively or incorporate social media as both a learning tool. But then, also, when social media becomes an inadvertent part of the everyday life of what's happening, they don't exactly know what to do with that.

So people who do cultural studies of education look at what happens in schools. But also, they can look at what happens outside of schools. That also constitutes education, right?

So, like, my work is focusing on, specifically, either popular culture or on community-based organizations, where people are actively hoping to make change. And doing so through purposeful messaging, or have some kind of pedagogy, or methodology to try to change - especially the relations of race, class, and, gender in society to reduce inequalities.

So, I would say that's another theme that cultural studies is not only… when I say it's looking at everyday life, but it's always looking at the politics of everyday life. Right?

So, in every situation and every social scene, it assumes that there are multiple groups who are struggling for relations of power. Right? And that it doesn't have to be violent, in any way. But that they are attempting to somehow establish dominance. Again, whether it's the queen bees and girls - I don't know if anything about that - social groups, you know, are a huge deal. Or, whether it is the curriculum, for example, and what curriculum gets taught. Is it based on established standards? Or is it based on subjugated voices? All of those are political issues and problems that people in cultural studies of education would study.

James Loy:

That power dynamic or the concept of dominance comes up a lot in cultural studies. And I want to ask more about how its . . .  to be clear, it’s not, like you said, it’s not something that’s violent per say. Or even someone who is in charge in an official way, like a boss, or even an authority, like a government. It’s not necessarily power in that way, correct? It’s more of the relationships between people or groups and who might be in a dominate cultural position, and the way people understand those relationships, and negotiate and navigate those relationships, correct?

Lisa Weems:

That's absolutely right. So, one thing is … and the … it's a … like, in teacher education, particularly, is there's a lot of work around thinking about, particularly, the gaps between racial and ethnic composition of teachers, and between the composition of students, particularly. So, the kinds of gaps that happen when, particularly, white teachers are teaching students of color, and the implicit bias that goes -- not just in terms of teaching content, but then, right now, especially, one of the big problems that people talk about is, like, discipline, and thinking about how we code, how teachers essentially code student’s behavior as “good” or “bad,” and how that's culturally coded.

So, that's one area. That would be one thing. Another thing that's more, like, also, that's not … again, so implicit. It's not so directly related to the classroom, would be, again, that idea of hegemony. I know you’re familiar with that. You're like, oh, back to grad school. That's, again, the idea of dominance that's not based on any kind of physical force, or even, like, overt force. But it just is the status quo. And most times people don't really challenge it. But it still is there as a force that dominates, based on a particular group. So, a really good example of that is, like, religion in schools, and how oftentimes schools say that they are secular. That we have a separation of church and state. But the school calendar is a wonderful example of the ways in which the school calendar is actually oriented around the Christian faith.



James Loy:

To be clear, we’re not arguing for an overhaul of the school calendar here.

But it is a good example of something that many parents and teachers and students simply take for granted, it’s just another part of the background fabric of everyday life. It is the status quo, if you will.

But cultural studies will ask us to stop for a moment, and to think about how different aspects of culture are constructed, by seeing who’s values or ideas or beliefs are being privileged and reinforced, and how that can shape different cultural practices as a result.

And these kinds of social constructions are happening all around us. All the time.

(Segue to Question)

James Loy:

So, Dr. Weems, is it a challenge for cultural studies … when we thing about the way things are normalized in society, it’s almost like cultural studies needs to call out the way those things are normalized by a mainstream dominate group because of the way it can then disregard or marginalize certain groups.

But to the people who are in that mainstream or dominate group, they may not necessarily see those constructions as a problem. At all. They just see them as normal. To them it’s just the way it is. So is that the reason cultural studies needs to exist? Or is that one of the problems that cultural studies needs to overcome? 

Lisa Weems:

That's a really great question. And I think different people will have different responses to that. And I think … of course, I think that's why we need cultural studies. But I also know that cultural studies is not … it's going to be something that also generates its own criticism, for that reason. Because you're troubling the status quo. And who likes to be troubled? Like, who likes to be thought of …. Like, the whole idea is … and in our society, in particular is, even though we have this myth of individuality, is we all like to be normal, right? Every magazine you pick up is about taking a quiz to see how normal you are. We test our kids to make sure that they're normal in schools, right? That's the standardized testing. So, we're obsessed with being normal. So, to even challenge the status quo is not very popular.

So, even though, yes, absolutely, I agree with you, is that cultural studies, we need it, because it does allow us to just think and challenge the status quo. And oftentimes people are very resistant to it. Because they feel like it's a personal attack. And the whole point though, I would say, with cultural studies is that it's systemic. It’s cultural. It’s learned. And the wonderful thing about it being learned and cultural, is that it can be unlearned. And that it can be transformed through social change.

James Loy:

What would be some of the ways that that might play out in real life? Do you have examples of some of the problems that cultural studies can help us solve? Or how it could be used to potentially help us see things differently or to address certain issues?

Lisa Weems:

Well, I’m going to be real concrete and real specific to what's timely right now. So, a very important issue in schools today, like I said, is, again, what's the politics of everyday life in schools?

Well, so, one of them is around immigration. Right? And we have a growing number of students who are both not only voluntary immigrants. But are immigrants non-voluntary. Involuntary. That are refugees. And so, the students are not the problem. But if you listen to the dominant media, you will get that construction of the problem. That it's the students themselves. It's the immigrants themselves. Or the refugees themselves that are the problem. Cultural studies will come in and say, no. It's the framing of this situation that's the problem. Right?

Especially when we're talking about -- again, get real concrete -- we're talking about eight-year-old Jose, who comes from Colombia. By himself. And he does not speak …. Not only does he not speak English. He does not speak Spanish. Because he's from a very rural village. He has no educational resources available to him at school. He has no particular social resources to him. He can rely on the goodwill of particular people, who might represent an interest in that. And that's a very local kind of way of dealing with the situation. But to take a step back is to say, okay, what do we need to do to really rethink this? Where our emphasis within education is in terms of serving students? Not just those who are here up at the top. Or, not even here. Students that are still the ones that we identify. But then the ones that really fall through the crack. That are really vulnerable, quite frankly. And that the dominant perspective constructs them, nonetheless, as a problem.

So that would be … the solution, in thinking about that, is both, like, having critical conversations with everybody that, in that school, about thinking about that in a very concrete way of, like, how do you talk with that student in a way that doesn't reinforce the idea that that student themselves is a problem? Or that that student is deficient? Or that there's a burden, or anything like that? But that they receive the same education that any other student would get.

James Loy:

Okay, I can definitely see where that normalized mainstream … especially the media framing of that issue showcases those particular subgroups as the “problem.” And then once we take a step back and see the situation more clearly, you can see that that’s not necessarily the way they should be viewed or looked at.

But what happens after that? Is there like a practical application or a solution to that problem? It seems like the first step that cultural studies offers is getting people to recognizes that that’s happening. But is there more that can be done beyond that? More than just shining a spotlight on things that may be hidden, or those issues that may need to be questioned. But beyond that, what else can be done? Can cultural studies, once it’s been highlighted, can it help move us forward from there?

Lisa Weems:

I would say this is where cultural studies can kind of map onto more Freirean praxis-oriented. But not everybody takes that. So, there's people that are in cultural studies, and I’ll be quite honest, that end with that sort of critique. And that's where they're ended up. I go the next step of, like, okay, so what I focus on … I focus on particularly youth that are involved in, not just participating in programs, like at school. But that are participating in programs and initiatives, movements, etc., that are about trying to affect change in a larger way. So, not just educating people locally. But then trying to say, well, how come those people are framing this group of students as a problem? This group of immigrants? When there are other immigrants that are not? How else might we also think about that?

So, focusing on the action part, and supporting youth, and other people, who are actively involved in mobilizing for change on that. There are some people that lead that. And then there are other people that, like, as a researcher, for me, I tend to do both. Leading that. But then, I also research other individuals and organizations that are action-oriented, or praxis-oriented, in terms of teaching people the skills for advocacy. For direct action. And for things that are ways to make interventions.

James Loy:

That seems like a great segue to talk a bit about your book, which I also wanted to bring up. Your recent book is called, Staging Dissent: Young Women of Color and Transnational Activism. And you’ve said it seeks to interrupt normative histories of girlhood dominated by North American contexts and Western feminisms.

So can you explain a bit about what the focus of the book is, and how does it relate to some of the issues we’ve been talking about?

Lisa Weems:

So, I've done to work with, and based in, youth based organizations for the last thirty years. In a range of nonprofits and in schools. Researching in classrooms. Teaching in classrooms. But primarily my passion is working with youth. So, while I do … like I said, I do cultural studies and I come through a cultural studies framework. [So] primarily, my interest is in foregrounding how it is that youth are actually taking charge of their own lives to empower themselves. And then, the second piece is: how are they working to change their communities and their societies?

So my interest in, particularly, is in, and in the book, is that I focus on young women of color. And I define that. That's a slippery slope. Because in the United States, that's a term that we use. “Young women of color.” But another term would be “black indigenous” and “people of color.” That also includes like young trans femmes. It's a very broad inclusive category. But who are engaged in, like I said, empowerment. Self-empowerment. And then activism. More likely in terms of trying to do movement building around certain issues.

And the certain issues that I’m interested in them organizing are about building forms of connection across nation states for the purposes of reducing racial and ethnic and gender-based inequality.

So I picked three different organizations. Or three different sites, if you will. Of people, individuals, and groups, who were working across geopolitical boundaries. Or geographic boundaries. Who were working with people in other countries across tribes, whatever it may be, to foreground issues of discrimination, violence particularly. Even in the case of indigenous women, thinking about women who are missing and murdered. Or about land destruction and environmental justice. And who are working towards some kind of not only, again, themselves to be empowered. But also to raise awareness within their communities. And then, to affect some broader change in terms of … to try to fight against things like consumerism. To fight against things like racism. To fight against things like homophobia.



James Loy:

So cultural studies emphasizes the voices of those who are being minoritized. But that does not  always have to be just in relation to race or gender or ethnicity, class, or sexual orientation.

Because we all have multiple social identities, that we switch between throughout our daily lives, it’s probably not hard for most of us to think of circumstances or situations where we may be relatively privileged, by finding ourselves in those dominate cultural positions. But then, at the same time, also still left feeling marginalized or diminished in other areas of our lives as well.

So, in that way, Dr. Weems says, understanding the power dynamics between these complex social and cultural contexts can be quite liberating. For everyone.

(music fade)

(Segue to Question)

James Loy:

Do you find that to be a challenge though?

In your classes, for example, when you talk to your students about some of these issues, with the way cultural studies wants to challenges dominate cultural values and perspectives. Is it difficult, at times, for students to wrap their heads around this stuff? Is it a challenge for them to start seeing the world in these different ways, do you think?

Lisa Weems:

Yeah. I do. I mean, I think, like, again, when you were talking about …. Sometimes I will get students … so I teach Miami plan classes and doctoral classes. It's very, very interesting. In the Miami plan classes, I tend to get this … there's the students who are, I think, like, that, again, that you can tell that they… this is the first time they've started encountering different oppositional ideas. And it feels very threatening to them. It feels very threatening. They feel that it's either personalized. Or…and/or that I’m saying throw everything out. And that we can't enjoy things. The term that's often used is overanalyzing. I’m overanalyzing. We're overanalyzing. You're just thinking too much about it. Whatever.

But then you've got students that, like me, when I went to university from my hometown, right. My little hometown, where I didn't fit in. And I went to university and there were other people that exposed me to Paulo Freire, and exposed me to some of this. And I was like, what! There's other people who have been thinking about this for decades! For 100 years! I’m alone! And I think there are students like that here that really feel, again, affirmed by that. Because they don't necessarily see that represented in dominant culture.

James Loy:

Dr. Lisa Weems is a Miami University professor of educational leadership. And her recent book is called Staging Dissent: Young women of color and transnational activism.

This is the Reframe podcast. Thank you so much for listening. If you would like to hear more free episodes, download them on Apple Podcasts or through Google Play Music.