At the end of the last newsletter, I teased that we would move beyond questioning the systemic box to dismantling it, though there are many steps to that process. Seeing the box is the first step but that does not automatically translate to change. In fact, once you start to notice the existence of the box, you often begin to see it everywhere; all of the ways the system has been designed to contain you. As highlighted in the previous newsletter, oppression “is the systemic and pervasive nature of social inequality woven throughout social institutions, individual consciousnesses, and human psyche.” (1) So oppression maintains itself by being so deeply ingrained into our societal structures and culture that we believe it to be true. Here is a short list of conditioned beliefs upholding oppression that were wake up calls to me:
- Our economy is based on a belief that people are naturally greedy (2)
- Our schools are structured around a belief that there are good and bad students (3)
- Our government is founded on the belief that the elite are smarter than the people (4)
- Our cities were literally built to enforce a belief in segregation as prosperous (5)
- Our dreams are shaped by the belief that our success is determined by merit (6)
This is just the tip of the iceberg, but each of these underlying beliefs shape our thought patterns and thus society. If you believe people are naturally greedy then you will trust competition over collaboration (7). Studies show that creative students are seen as a nuisance in the classroom because they “don’t follow the rules” (8), while students of color are routinely punished more often for the same behavior as white children (9). It is no wonder half of Americans don’t exercise their right to vote when suppression of equal representation has been a tactic of politicians since our founding (10). You may assume neighborhood segregation to be the result of income disparity and individual prejudices if you don’t know the history of explicitly racist government intervention (11). And even a seemingly innocent belief that people earn their success means we blame people rather than context for their failures (12). I could go on about the manifold ways each of these convictions determine our societal structures (and likely will), but the point is:
This brings us to the second part of the definition of oppression: “Oppression is the use of power to disempower, marginalize, silence, or otherwise subordinate one group or category, often in order to further empower and/or privilege the oppressor.” (13) It is a system of power and control of the few over the many; in order to stay in control, those in power must trick us into not trusting each other and believing it’s not possible to be any other way. It’s like this often quoted protest sign: “Equal rights for others does not mean fewer rights for you. It’s not a pie.” (14) But we have been made to think of equality as a pie and then left to fight over a tiny sliver of that pie while those in power take the rest (15). So in my opinion, the most subversive thing we can do is exercise our creativity, to create together, to say we don’t accept the given box and to break it down and build up something new. Of course building something new takes intentional and radical creativity, which is why I’m writing this newsletter.
Living is a creative act,
Everyday Creativity Tip
When the world’s constraints have you feeling stuck, it can be useful to play with a structure that is more malleable, to remind your body and mind what it’s like to act on ideas and see the impact of your choices. Can you remember a time when an actual cardboard box could become anything? Guess what? It still can. Here’s just 101 things to do with a cardboard box. Try some of them out! Don’t recycle the next delivery box; transform it! It doesn’t need to be functional, but try to change the function from its original purpose. Pay attention to what beliefs hold you back and what keeps you going. Here’s a list of materials to start off with:
- cardboard box (use of one of the many delivery boxed we get these days)
- scissors or an exacto knife
- tape and glue
- paints, marker pens or thick crayons
- colorful paper, foil, cellophane or fabric
- paper plates, egg cartons, anything recyclable
1. Definition of oppression from the Racial Equity Resource Guide.
2. Upstream Podcast, “The Call for a New Economy”, https://www.upstreampodcast.org/new-economy
3. Marilyn Elias, “The School-to-Prison Pipeline”, Teaching Tolerance, Issue 43, Spring 2013, https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/spring-2013/the-school-to-prison-pipeline
4. Scene on Radio, “The Excess of Democracy”, Center for Documentary Studies: https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/spring-2013/the-school-to-prison-pipeline
5. Segregated by Design. Directed by Mark Lopez, Silkworm Studio Film, 2019, https://vimeo.com/328684375
6. Roge Karma, “‘The Meritocracy Trap’, explained”, Vox, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/10/24/20919030/meritocracy-book-daniel-markovits-inequality-rich
7. See Jennifer Armburst modeling of a capitalist economy based on masculine traits versus a potential economy built on feminine traits, Proposals for the Feminine Economy, https://sister.is/proposals-for-the-feminine-economy
8. “Torrance (1965) interviewed teachers in five countries (United states, Germany, India, Greece, the Philippines) and found that teachers in all five countries disapproved of students asking questions, guessing, being independent in judgement and thinking, being intuitive, being willing to take risks, and being unwilling to accept an opinion or mere authority — and these are all behaviours associated with creativity.” – Keith Sawyer, Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, p.390
8. “40% of students expelled from U.S. schools each year are black; Black students are 3.5x more likely to be suspended than whites.” – Community Coalition, “Are Our Children Being Pushed into Prison?” Infographic: http://2j61yv256vxd12hdls206jrv.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/prisonpipelineifographic.jpg
9. On our constitutional convention: “…the deep worry about giving ordinary citizens too much power was a constant theme at the convention. It led to many structural checks on people power in the document: Especially the powerful president and his veto; and the Senate, which many of the delegates explicitly described as a house of elites that would temper the less-disciplined people’s house.” Scene on Radio, “The Excess of Democracy”, Center for Documentary Studies: https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/spring-2013/the-school-to-prison-pipeline
10. Prejudice can be birthed from a lack of understanding the historically accurate details of the past. Without being aware of the unconstitutional residential policies the United States government enacted during the middle of the twentieth century, one might have a negative view today of neighborhoods where African Americans live or even of African Americans themselves.” – Segregated by Design. Directed by Mark Lopez, Silkworm Studio Film, 2019, https://vimeo.com/328684375
11. “If we truly believe that we’ve created or could one date create a world were the successful truly merited all their success, it necessarily follows that we’d have to argue that the failures were exclusively responsible for their failure.” – The School of Life, “Meritocracy”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTDGdKaMDhQ
12. Definition of oppression from the Racial Equity Resource Guide
13. Dyfrig Williams, “Power is not a pie”, Medium, https://medium.com/doing-better-things/power-is-not-pie-186540030a0a
14. We are the 99 Percent, “Facts”, https://wearethe99percent.us/main/page_facts_income_inequality.html
Originally published August 17, 2020 on the Creativity in Context Newsletter by Evelyn Thorne.
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