Power and Privilege; To Patronize? Part 2″

Power misappropriated becomes patronizing

patr…by telling others what they should do without accounting for their needs and wishes.  To patronize is to treat others as children, needing to be cared for and unable to make good decisions.   However, unlike my friend Manuel, (SEE PREVIOUS POST) many who have less social power (race, class and education) will often not speak up to defend their desires.   Often because of internalized racism, lack of confidence, or a fear of losing a resource they need, people will “accept” what they are being told by the person in “power”.

Without thoughtful protection short term “mission trips” and non-profits can easily fall into this trap.

On my first trip to Mexico I fell into the patronizing trap of declaring what I thought was a good idea, without consulting with the people I wanted to “help.”  On our last night together, in the border town of Piedras Negras, the church held a large youth rally. We played games, worshiped, ate and had some sweet fellowship. Our multiracial youth from Minneapolis and the members of this community were together as brothers and sisters. As the night wore on we left the church building and gathered around a bonfire. There we talked and sang until dawn began to break across the North Mexican desert sky.

Off in the distance I saw the lights of McDonalds. We had extra money in our budget; I knew what we could do! Let’s load everyone up in our van and a few other cars – we could all go get breakfast under the Golden Arches. We could buy for everyone as our farewell gift. I proudly announced what WE could do. I began to waken those who had drifted off to sleep. I was excited for a Sausage McMuffin… but I noticed something strange: most of the Mexican youth suddenly had reasons they needed to go home.

I asked my new friend Armando, “Why is everyone leaving?” He looked at me  “Marcos, ellos no pueden venir; esta en el otro lado”

“Marque, they can’t come; it’s on the other side”

I was heartbroken – why can’t my friends eat McMuffins with me?

I was angry – what right does a river have to say who can cross and who can’t?

I was embarrassed – why didn’t I think before I talked?

To break it down more, white people, people with money and people with education need to be careful  in how we go about trying to “help” – or else we make problems worse by silencing others from sharing their desires and needs and in result we can shame people, enforce internalized racism, and short-cut their own learning and development.

Patronizing will breed either dependency or hostility, and  neither  have a place in Beloved Community.

What are are danger signs that a relationship is patronizing rather than empowering?

  • It is clear who is in power, who makes decisions and who is the recipient of “charity”
  • The “recipient” is unwilling to express their true feelings for fear of loosing financial or emotional support –  or because they doubt their own ability to make sound decisions. (often as a result of internalized racism)
  • The one in power determines what will be done, when and where – without significantly consulting the ones they desire to help.

Often patronizing people are “good intentioned  yet their intentions are blinded by their own privilege and attitudes about race and culture.  Behind the desire to help is the belief that they know what is best, frequently bolstered by unacknowledged racism.

If you have the tools to read this, you have power of access and education.  Many of you also have the power of racial privilege and class, how can you create checks to limit your patronizing and increase your empowerment?

  • Ask questions before you declare your desire.
  • Never make plans plans FOR others WITHOUT others
    • REMEMBER: “Nothing ABOUT us, WITHOUT us, is FOR us!”  – slogan used by oppressed people around the world
  • Leave room for others to disagree, invite disagreement and criticism – and leave room to change the plan as needed.

“To whom much is given, much will be required” (Jesus of Nazareth) this extends past our intentions to do well and to the very processes that can either empower people or leave them feeling less-powerful.  How you engage is often more important than what you do.


Living with Privilege in a World of Misfortune



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