drop the i-word

Taking On the Invisible “Man”: How Art Confronts Power

This is Part 2 in a series on Art and Power.

If our arts and cultural work is to truly bring about social change, we need to understand what we are up against. There are multiple kinds of power wielded by the powerful, some more conducive to artistic intervention than others.

According to a theory first put forward by Steven Lukes, and further developed by John Gaventa and others, power has three faces. The most visible face is the power to win out in formal decision making, whether in congress or in the board room. This is sometimes called visible power, and some have made the mistake of thinking this is the only kind of power there is. Visible power can be engaged with through formal channels such as lobbying. The arts have been used occasionally in the realm of visible power — for example, Augusto Boal’s Legislative Theater.

There is a second kind of dominating power called hidden power. This is the power to decide who is at the table when visible decisions are made, and which issues can be raised. Much of the work of activist and organizing groups is focused on getting new voices to the table, and raising ignored issues. The arts can help amplify these voices, and frame issues — for example, through political posters or grassroots media.

But there is also a third, more insidious, kind of power: invisible power. This is the power to control what people even think is possible. Invisible power hides the very fact that power is at work. We can see its effects when we begin to think that poverty or racism, for example, are natural: “just the way things are.” This power does not need to be used intentionally — it exists in the culture and shapes all of us. Arts and other forms of cultural work are at their most potent in the invisible realm — in fact, they may be essential to confronting invisible power.

I think of invisible power in two different ways, each of which suggests a different kind of creative intervention. From a traditional psychological perspective, invisible power acts within a person’s mind. For example, it creates feelings of inferiority and the internalization of stereotypes; also called internalized oppression. The remedy is to engage in internal consciousness-raising processes such as political education, radical healing, or conscientization.

Artistic and cultural practices can serve as spaces for this kind of transformative work. Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed techniques are specifically geared towards conscientization, but many art forms can be used to help us explore our struggles, and collectively begin to imagine a different world. Philosopher Maxine Greene has written eloquently about how experiences with the arts can help us develop our social imagination — the ability “to bring alternative realities into consciousness, to look at things as if they could be otherwise.” Furthermore, many groups use traditional practices and rituals to  draw strength from shared histories and identities, and counter this kind of oppression.

Another way to think about invisible power is through a discursive lens, like that of Foucault. In this sense, invisible power exists in not in our heads, but in our culture. It acts as a set of narratives that are taken as true, or common sense. For example, in the US this power works through the myth of meritocracy that says anyone can make it if they work hard enough — thus making us feel that when we do not succeed, it is all our fault. If we think of invisible power this way, then the response is to introduce alternative discourses, or counter narratives, that challenge, shift, and replace these dominant stories.

To do this, we can call upon the arts as powerful storytelling media. Just as advertising companies wield invisible power by saturating our lives with narratives of consumption, artists can develop and spread alternative stories — through plays, murals, creative actions, posters, and more. And social media have created ever more accessible ways of spreading these new narratives into the public sphere — though more traditional modes of public and street art can still hold particular strength. We see this kind of work being done by groups like SmartMeme, with their story-telling strategies, or with the “Drop the I-Word” campaign.

The power to oppress is often at its strongest when it is least visible. Cultural organizing, and other forms of arts activism, might be our best chances to uncover it, and face it.

Drop the I-Word: From Paint to Pixels

67 Sueños mural, by Pancho Pescador in collaboration with the Community Rejuvenation Project, San Francisco

In honor of the recent International Workers Day (May Day) celebrations, I write today about immigrant justice. While May Day’s long history is centered around workers rights more broadly, our workforce has always been made up of a large number of recent immigrants — particularly in the most exploitative jobs. And it was the immigrant rights movement that revitalized the holiday in the US in 2006 with its strike, “A Day Without Immigrants.”

The struggle for immigrant justice is of course a political one. But it is also cultural. It is about changing the way we think about immigrants, and the stories we tell. Despite being a nation founded on immigration from Europe and the genocide of native peoples, the dominant narrative today is of dangerous, unlawful, and above all “illegal” immigrants coming to take what is rightfully “ours.” We have moved from talking about “illegal immigration” to talking about “illegal immigrants” — a small but important shift in subject. In the process, the word “illegal” has become more than a judicial term; it has become a racial epithet, and shorthand for this dominant — and false — story.

Mark Vallen’s Original 1988 Poster

But a counter-story has emerged, finding its most condensed form in the powerful slogan “No Human Being Is Illegal.” While I’m not sure where the phrase originally emerged, it seems to have been popularized by a particular piece of art. The poster, seen to the right, was used in 1988 as part of a campaign by the Central American Resource Center in LA, fighting for the rights of Central American war refugees. It features a stirring image by artist Mark Vallen. In 2010 the poster was republished, to support the current fight for immigrant rights.

The phrase has spread like wildfire, serving as a call for humanization across the world. It has spawned murals, t-shirts, posters, graffitti, and more.

Oakland Poster

Bronx Mural by DASIC


The most recent iteration of this struggle is the Drop the I-Word campaign. An effort that started with paint and posters is now taking advantage of social media and digital video. Launched by the Applied Research Center and its (excellent) website Colorlines, the Drop the I-Word campaign calls on media outlets, as well as other organizations and individuals, to pledge to stop using the term “illegal” to refer to people. As they state on their site:

Use of the i-word ignores the fact that our laws are unjustly applied. Immigrants without documents are regularly hired as cheap, exploited labor. No one else who benefits from the set up, including the employers who recruit and hire these migrants, is labeled this way. No one should ever be labeled this way. No human being is illegal.

So in honor of May Day, or just because it is a Thursday and it feels right, pledge to drop the i-word. Absolutely no human being is illegal.