Navigating Invisible Power Structures at Work


There are three types of power that commonly exclude yet disproportionately impact employees of color. They are:

  1. Positional Power — influence that is assigned to a particular role or office
  2. Institutional Power — influence that is systematically assigned to a specific racial group in order to gain exclusive privilege and access
  3. Relational Power — influence that is granted as a result of close relationships with those who have positional or institutional power, typically established through a shared identity marker.

Institutional Power creates Positional Power. 91% of Fortune 500 CEOs are white men. 71% of elected politicians in the US are white men. White men make up 31% of the US population, but hold 65% of all elected offices. White men are not smarter, harder working, or more strategic and agile than any other group of people. However, they dominate the workforce in positions of power, having the authority to influence company culture and organizational priorities. Not only to they sit in these seats of positional power, but they do so without being questioned about how they got there, if they’re qualified, and if they need [additional] support. They are expected to sit there. We anticipate it. We are comfortable with it. We are socialized to see their faces on our currency and in our history textbooks. We are accustomed to flipping through channels and seeing them in tailored suits leading board meetings. It took 219 years for our country to ever elect a President who wasn’t a white male, and that President has received more slander, criticism and vile hatred and disrespect than any other man that has ever held that office. There is an inherent privilege that white men possess, that cannot be shaken from the fabric and origins of our country. Wealthy, landowning white men in particular, created race. They socially constructed this overarching, visible identifier to strategically divide groups of human beings who would otherwise band together. They created race to ensure that the rich and white would stay in power–and it worked. They used race to pit poor European indentured servants and poor African slaves against each other by providing small, incremental benefits to poor white indentured servants that elevated their status but ensured they remained subordinate. And race has continued to be used and abused as a vital tool of division, a vessel of hatred, and a classifier of merit. We do not stand a chance at moving forward without first acknowledging who holds power and why. Until it is no longer a huge accomplishment or anomaly that a woman or minority (or both) holds a position of power (without the skeptics and critics accusing that person of getting that position as a function of a diversity initiative or as a result of affirmative action…), the system is still thriving exactly the way it was set up to.

Relational Power allows Institutional and Positional Power to thrive. Ever noticed that the rules seem to bend for some people while needing to be strictly abided by for others? Ever notice those hush-hush behind-the-scenes deals that tend to result in new positions being created? Ever notice the discrepancy in pay on the basis of race and gender? People at the top tend to look out for each other. They speak the same language. They validate each other. They prioritize each other. They provide unearned access to each other. The secret to getting ahead is not working hard, no matter what anyone tells you. Most of the hardest working people in our country unfortunately have little to show for it. Getting ahead is more about who you know, and who knows you. That’s why its so important for us as Black professionals to learn the art of networking and positioning ourselves to be present in spaces that don’t expect us to exist or thrive in. That’s why it’s important for us to acknowledge institutional, positional and relational power, but not feel victimized or discouraged by it. We must acknowledge that it’s there, that it’s well established, but that it’s not impossible for it to be interrupted. Here are a few ways to be a productive disrupter of the status quo:

  1. Let your work speak for itself, but know when to speak up. Be a dominant force to be reckoned with, with a proven track record of high quality work, so that even when you are inevitably questioned (because, systemic racism), you have all the odds you can control stacked in your favor. Know when to be visible and when to make your accomplishments known. Be aware of the unique value that you add, and stand firmly behind it.
  2. Don’t be afraid to push back against those who may be trying to use their institutional or relational power to their benefit. Bask in your confidence and self love. Know your worth and don’t ever fold. Learn how to respectfully disagree and back your argument with facts and evidence. Don’t always take no for an answer–white people sure don’t.

We live and operate in an intricately designed system that is up to us to disrupt, dismantle, and create from scratch. Be exceptional, be observant, be confident, and walk in your brilliance. #blackprofessionalmagic



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