Beyond #MeToo: How Privilege and Skewed Power Structures Silence

Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

If you are a sentient human, then it is likely that the sickening allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and rape leveled against Harvey Weinstein and the wider set of abuses that have surfaced via the #MeToo campaign have left you shuddering. If you have been on the receiving end of such treatment, they have likely reminded you of all the times where you were made acutely aware of the gaping differential in power between yourself and whoever was intent upon abusing your rights and/or your person.

I was immediately reminded of being cornered in the cloakroom of the fine dining restaurant I worked at and bear-hugged from behind by the owner, who had grown weary of being rebuffed. Of having a sloppy kiss planted on me by a Mexican government official when I delivered materials to his room for the conference I was helping organize. Of being cornered by the dad of some kids I babysat. Of being groped on the job and offered better shifts in return for sex. Of having inappropriate conversations foisted upon me, yanked into “friendly” embraces that were anything but, and having my appearance rated in excruciating detail as if I were not there. Of being bullied, demeaned, and having my personal space invaded by men who wanted me to know (or explicitly told me) they had the power to take something from me at any time, regardless of how I felt about the matter.

And those were just the work-related incidents. There are not enough hours in the day for me to list all the times over the last thirty years that I have been harassed, grabbed, groped, squeezed, pinched, manhandled, assaulted, threatened with rape, offered money for sexual favors, exposed to anonymous penis, masturbated at, bullied, pressured, verbally assaulted, and followed and/or chased while walking, biking, running, taking transit, sitting in a park, dancing, hanging out with friends, attending local community events, sitting in waiting rooms, studying in the library, or getting groceries.

Across all of that space and time, the thing that stands out to me – besides how pervasive abusive behavior is – is how few places I had to turn for help when I really needed it. How few people had an understanding of what it meant – on a visceral level – to be in a position of vulnerability.

Fewer still seemed to grasp the extent to which structural sources of vulnerability – patriarchy and other ills (racism, misogyny, classism, heteronormativism, etc.) that are built into our norms, narratives, policies, and practices – amplified the power differential between the abuser and those being harmed and complicated the ability of the harmed to speak up.

For me, in practice, that differential meant that instead of my skeezy bosses being called out on their behavior, male colleagues felt comfortable enough to joke openly about the “side action” said bosses got. Instead of being encouraged to report issues on the few occasions I did broach it with staff, I was told said abuser was essentially too big to fail, especially over minor incidents, and that I should modify my behavior. Instead of provoking concern, I might be asked if I was misreading intentions or, worse, if I was delusional that someone of stature would take that level of interest in me. Instead of lewd and threatening behavior in the public space being denounced, it was often waved off as “harmless” or even “flattering” and to be expected given how “exotic” I was, with more people than I care to count telling me I would miss that attention when I got older, that maybe I shouldn’t wear shorts so much, or that that’s what I get for always walking, biking, exercising, and traveling alone. Instead of getting assistance after escaping a potential assault on the river bike path several years back (a guy made lewd comments, I flipped him off, he chased me down, blocked my passage, and charged at me, growling he would “fuck you up alright!”), the officer I flagged down threatened to cite me with disturbing the peace for having flipped off my would-be attacker.

For black women, immigrant and undocumented women, indigenous women, queer and trans folks, and others from marginalized groups who do not have an ally in law enforcement, who are negatively characterized as “hypersexual” or “aggressive,” whose claims get filtered through stereotypes that normalize their vulnerability and deem them complicit, and whose struggle to be acknowledged means that they are likely to be victimized more than once, that differential has meant that “MeToo” barely scratches the surface with regard to their experiences.

The structural nature of this differential in voice and power, particularly for non-white, non-heterosexual, non cis-gendered women and folks, and the extent to which it both facilitates harm and encourages silence is what has me thinking about this in the context of urban planning.

Not because I think that people within the planning community are strong-arming ingenues and defiling potted plants – I feel like I need to make that clear.

But because so much of what we do within this field is aimed at addressing vulnerabilities – including threats to health, safety, and overall well-being – in order to build healthy, resilient, inclusive, livable, and just communities and cities.

And yet, all too often, those with the power and resources to influence debates on what constitutes a valid form of vulnerability or how it should be addressed themselves have limited experience with or knowledge of the wider range of intersectional vulnerabilities faced by just about everyone that is not an able-bodied heterosexual cis-gender white male.

That knowledge gap, of course, has not prevented many of those who are of privilege from actively shutting down discussions around the extent to which existing narratives, frameworks, processes, and practices fail to serve and create space for those who are not.

We have all seen that play out in the planning community in a number of egregious and obvious ways.

When women, and particularly women of color, have spoken up about the way they are silenced, men have often been quick to announce that, actually, they knew better – because they worked with women, because infrastructure had no gender, because women of color were sowing divisions between women, or because the women, distracted by social issues and political correctness, simply were not particularly good at their jobs.

Efforts to shed light on the extent to which people of color, immigrants, or others on the margins are more vulnerable in the public space have often been met with virulently drawn lines in the sand, with those of privilege proclaiming that such concerns have zero to do with the “real issues,” play to “identity politics” and celebrate “victimhood,” delay the pursuit of “safety,” and are part of some crusade by “social justice warriors” who won’t allow anything to be built until racism is solved.

Those speaking up about how past discriminatory planning practices have rendered many lower-income residents of color vulnerable to erasure from city landscapes (and, thus, more vulnerable to abuses) have been met with accusations of NIMBYism, of not caring enough about their neighborhoods to clean them up themselves, of not understanding basic supply and demand, and of not understanding the gravity of the housing crisis (implying vulnerable folks should take one for the team).

You get the idea: we’re really not good at hearing voices on the margins about some of the most easily observable vulnerabilities.

And as extreme as some of those responses might sound, it’s important to recognize that those are not outliers. The core assumption underlying them – the notion that the physical landscape is independent of socio-economic and cultural ones – is the same one that undergirds so many of planning’s common frameworks and narratives. Namely, it colors the expectation that infrastructure or greater housing supply is a great equalizer (squashing discussions of access or displacement). It limits efforts to reduce barriers to access and “reclaim streets for people” to questions of traffic-calming and design (leaving little space for consideration of racial profiling, gender-based violence, gang violence, or community trust levels). And it ties visions of livability and community to walkability and bikability while struggling to acknowledge or value forms of community built outside of the public space.

These more subtle incarnations of that core assumption are just as effective, if not more so, at precluding exploration of past discriminatory policies and the barriers to access, participation, power, and voice they subsequently generated. Why? Because with complicated social issues effectively rendered tangential in this more “objective” way, it becomes easier to argue, as The Color of Law author Richard Rothstein did, for example, that not only would discussing the impact of the deliberate centering of whiteness in planning make whites “feel guilty for policies they are not responsible for,” it could also harm coalition-building efforts, thereby hindering efforts to remedy inequities.

The idea that acknowledging and addressing power and voice differentials harms the capacity of those in power to assist the very folks who are trying to be heard is, of course, ludicrous.

Yet, it remains deeply embedded in policy and practice as a way to contain and manage challenges to the status quo: the way advocates from marginalized groups are tokenized within agencies and organizations and muted when they don’t speak within the given parameters; the way equity is put on a separate track in programming instead of interwoven throughout entities’ planning processes; the way that marginalized voices are brought in at the tail end of a process so their ability to problematize or shape it is limited; the use of gatekeepers (people that can be counted on not to question the status quo) to approximate diversity and the discrediting of more radical elements who might push back at existing frameworks; the structuring of funding in such a way that forces marginalized groups to frame their problems to fit the solutions being offered; and the significant disparities in power and fees paid to consultants and the “local people” a project is supposed to benefit (and who are rarely adequately compensated for their labor and knowledge).

Essentially, privileged voices have laid out the terms upon which they are willing to be engaged and have limited the opportunities of marginalized groups to do anything other than confirm their expectations. Each added layer of distance from power and resources makes it that much more unlikely that the voices of those on the margins will be heard unfiltered or that their actual needs – as they see and understand them – will be deemed valid and addressed.

If folks do not have the space to speak up on some of these more easily identifiable issues they and their communities face, then it is unlikely that more insidious abuses they suffer will ever have the space to come to light.

This is not to say things are not changing or that there are not great folks and allies within the field that are working hard to push at its boundaries.

But it is to say that inertia is a b*tch.

We saw that here in Los Angeles just this past year, when the attacks a popular bike advocate/city council candidate made on advocates of color and policy positions aimed at creating safer streets for all weren’t acknowledged by the larger community until he was found to have been spending time in racist, misogynist, and fat-shaming online forums. Even then, the community found itself divided. The first instinct of too many was to explain away the biases and the bullying as being part of the fight for the greater good. Many of those same people argued that they had never seen him exhibit that behavior, so therefore it couldn’t be that consequential or have caused that much harm. And still others suggested we all have accidentally stumbled into racist forums and said repugnant things because locker room talk.

Unsurprisingly, voices of color and those of other marginalized groups were largely absent from that intra-community conversation. Not because they thought it was unimportant, but because there was no room for them. Many had long known he was problematic and a bully, but saw him as one of many in a community that made them feel second-class. Others had long since grown weary of trying to be heard and of having racism or misogyny or what constitutes a “real” issue in planning explained to them by those of privilege yet again. And few saw the point of standing up just to be shouted down – given that little would change in the end.

This community still has a long way to go with regard to seeing voices on the margins as valid, in other words. Meaning they have yet to really begin to understand what constitutes harm to those folks.

And in this, the two thousand seventeenth batsh*t insane year of our lord, that’s a hard pill to swallow.

If those on the margins can’t speak about what makes them vulnerable, how can those in power be attuned to the threats they face – planning-related or otherwise?

If their forms of vulnerability aren’t validated and incorporated into our frameworks, how can resources be called upon to remedy the problem? To ensure they won’t be harmed again? To prevent harm to others who are similarly vulnerable? Or to identify and root out sources of potential harm altogether?

If privilege continues to go unexamined, power isn’t shared, and voices on the margins continue to be denied a hand in shaping policy, how will our cities, our institutions, our forums, or our public spaces ever become more just and welcoming to all?

I’m not suggesting that revisiting the way things are done in urban planning will magically rid the world of predatory Weinsteins and orange dotards.

But the fact that they are a product of skewed power structures means that we can begin to cut into the base from which they draw their power and shine more light into the places they tend to hide.

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*This story features interviews with a number of youth. Some are named. Others requested they remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the information divulged. This story is the second in a series on the impact of generational disenfranchisement and trauma and repressive policing. The first, “Death and All His Friends,” can be found here. […]