In a stunning essay on freedom and power, “What to an American Is the Fourth of July?”, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi writes the following:
[P]ower comes before freedom, not the other way around. Power creates freedom, not the other way around. We can’t be free unless we have power. Freedom is not the power to make choices. Freedom is the power to create choices.
This gets at the heart of what we’re fighting for in the United States today: power for all of us who are not wealthy white men so that we, too, can have real freedom. In a society in which women’s reproductive rights and health are governed by men, in which African Americans remain at the mercy of the people who are hired to “protect and serve,” in which we cage those who come to us in need instead of helping them, it is important to recognize that many of us lack the power we need to truly be free.
Kendi is talking about political power, but in addressing the struggle of those raised as girls in particular, I want to take this into the realm of personal power. One of the lies that keep women from claiming power in their daily lives and in the fight for real political power is the one that says women lack, and will always lack, the ability to protect themselves from male violence.
As long as we believe our only solution to male violence is to beg men to stop being violent, we lack power, because we will always believe that we have to be careful around men and men will always believe that they have violence in reserve should they want it. Certainly ending the toxic masculinity that underlies this violence is important, but neither our safety nor our power should be dependent on asking people to change their behavior, especially people who have shown little willingness to even consider they might be at fault.
The reality is that women and others who are not cis-gendered men are capable of defending themselves from all kinds of attacks, including violent ones. This includes physical fighting, and while that is only one aspect of it — and a small one, most of the time — understanding that we have the capacity to do that is both empowering and freeing.
This is power that we already have. We just need to recognize and claim it. It’s not the only power we need to be free, but it gives us a grounding as we fight for the power to control our bodies, to claim our gender, to take up space in public, to be treated fairly under the law. The more we believe we can fight in all the necessary ways, the harder we will fight for the power to create the choices that make us truly free.
Kendi says something else important:
As a resistant black man in America, I’ve never felt like a slave. But I’ve never felt free. And I understand why. I have the power to resist policy, a resistance that ensures I’m not a slave. But I don’t have the power to shape policy, a power that makes me free.
This is an important distinction, one relevant in all our struggles against a power structure trying to keep us in our places so that it can retain its unfair share. Many of us are in that same category of having the power to say no, but not the power to shape policy. It is important that we resist, that we demand power. Not only will that give us freedom, but also it will enable us to open the door to power for those who are in more difficult circumstances.
We can’t have a free society without power for all.