Design from Pattern to Detail

“Not all men are abusive! I’ve never hit a woman!”

 “But I’m not a racist!”

“I’m not homophobic or anything. I mean, I HAVE gay friends.”

“I don’t see how this has anything to do with ___________.  I think you’re mis-understanding the situation.”

So often I hear these statements, again and again, when conversations of social justice and social patterns come up.  I feel sad and frustrated when I hear these things, because I believe that the people who say them want nothing more than to be part of the solution. They don’t want to be contributing to the social problems of the world. I empathize, it’s easy to feel like conversations about privileges you benefit from are an attack on YOU as a person, and that isn’t a good feeling! The good news is that oppression isn’t personal – it’s patterned, and our perceptions of personal attack and accusation are not always grounded in reality.

The dominant story about patterns of oppression tells us that misogyny, racism,  homophobia and other inequalities in our world stem from malicious individual action.  We see the details of overt discrimination and hate playing out. We see the isolated incidents of hate crimes like the murder of Mathew Shepard, blackface, burning crosses, the KKK, violent rape cases, brutal relationship violence, and racial and homophobic slurs slung about as the big, obvious  examples of the social ills of oppression.

All of these extreme and very specific actions are easy to identify, isolate, and judge.  The pain and the human suffering they cause is apparent. There is an obvious conclusion for many, especially those committed to changing the world for the better, that these detailed examples of oppression have a clear right and a clear wrong.  It’s horrifying to think that anybody, much less ourselves, would be capable of such things, and it is natural to want to distance ourselves from “those people” – the REAL bigots.  Hence, when confronted with oppression we, mere mortals with mortal emotions, feel a lot of guilt and shame.  Emotions run high, and the anxiety of being labeled as one of “those people” can put us into fight or flight mode.  Defensiveness, distancing, claiming expert knowledge when we don’t really have much lived experience, and a whole host of emotional coping strategies come into play as we attempt to turn away from any evidence that maybe, just maybe, those social problems that we’ve been marinating in have seeped into our bones, our brains, and our hearts.  It’s a hard pill to swallow.  Learning to hear hard things is never a graceful process, and for this, it is important to have compassion for ourselves. We’re human. We’re fallible, and we’re all starting where we are.

For a second, let’s take judgment out of the equation, and simply observe the patterns. David Holmgren explains The seventh design principle of permaculture as, “design from pattern to detail”, using the old parable that “sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees.”  Being focused on determining that we are NOT one of the trees keeps us from seeing the big picture, the larger dynamics at play.  So let’s just hover above the forest for a while, relax, and do what permies have a lot of experience doing. Let’s observe and listen to what we’re being told. Let’s step back from the personal, the guilt, the shame, and the fear. Privilege isn’t individual.  If it was, this would be easy. We could all decide to be nice. We could all just tick off a checklist, hold hands, sing koombaya, and go take a nap. It would be technical; simple, and straightforward.

It’s not. Oppression is systemic. It takes prolonged observation, deep listening, and emotional maturity to reconcile.

Let me stress that again. It’s not about YOU! Know that oppression is NOT all about an individual’s actions, though we have the power to change these patterns together. One person is not responsible for all the ills and evils of the world. We’re all reflecting back the realities of the world we were raised in, and raised to believe are true.  Good people with kind hearts and good intentions can be, and often are, part of oppression.  They can contribute to the problem, but they themselves are not the entirety of the issue – it’s the patterns of thought and behavior and more importantly, the patterns of power, that are at the root of oppression.

Fortunately for us, permaculture is a pattern thinking design practice.  We’re used to examining a holistic system, looking for local niche knowledge, and can embrace the role of generalist rather than specialist.

So how do we start to see patterns of oppression?  What is the pattern language of oppression? Once we’ve observed it, how do we start to build a new pattern language, one of equality, diversity, and solidarity among each other?

Here are a few patterns activists doing anti-oppression work have seen and continue to see around issues social justice.

Patterns of Oppression

Power gradients: White led, male led, or straight led organizations with privilege heavy administration, directors, boards and paid staff.  Those in control, who are calling the shots are not representative of the whole. They have “gatekeeper” positions and control the flow of resources to a community, how those resources are delivered, and how much.  In the permaculture world these people are teachers, publishers, authors, bosses on jobsites, farm owners, and directors of organizations, among others.  They may have extremely good intentions, but without lived experience and a deep cultural and social literacy that comes from sharing an identity with those in the margins, the odds are they will be blind to issues that inhibit an inclusive, equitable culture.  It’s hard to address an issue you can’t see. Often the very presence of privileged individuals in positions of power and influence can reinforce stereotypes that may have no grounding in the reality of an individual’s abilities, or the lack of abilities in their subordinates.

The power to define reality: Because privilege means not having to consider issues of oppression, those that don’t experience it often don’t see it as an everyday day-in/day-out reality, as do members of a target group. Second guessing people of color pointing out racism, women pointing out sexism, differently abled people pointing out ableism, trans people pointing out transphobia, etc … is an assertion of power over what is “real”.

Defensiveness and emotional distancing: Inability to see the pattern from a position of privilege can mean that potential allies, when oppression is pointed out, talked, or written about, can feel attacked. Often the response to this is to shut down emotionally, make excuses for the behavior of the oppressor, explore reasons to blame the victim (of rape, domestic abuse, police brutality, or hate crimes and homophobic and transphobic violence), or shift the conversation from one about the problem and potential ways to support the targets of oppression and actions for allies, to a conversation about how they feel victimized as being named in the privilege group.

For example, a conversation about ways to support female identified survivors of domestic violence being derailed by a male identified individual who feels attacked and confused by the conversation, and needs validation that he himself isn’t a bad person – “not all men”.  This leaves the female identified folks in the conversation left to do emotional caretaking for him, rather than focus on strategies for their own liberation.  It may inhibit conversation from delving deeper and exploring solutions or strategies that would undermine oppression, and perpetuates male privilege – he becomes the center of attention and the energy of the rest of the group is diverted to him.  This can happen in groups discussing homophobia, racism, transphobia, fatphobia – just about anything that can feel personal.

Power to define nature of work/gendered work: Tasks are often delineated by our identity. I recently had to talk with a traditional landscape crew, and was talking with the light skinned bilingual, and well paid crew leader who simply watched all day as his subordinates, dark-skinned Spanish-speaking,  poorly paid workers toiled in the hot Texas sun. I felt deeply uncomfortable watching what felt like and overseer managing slaves.  Minutes later, a crack at my gender was made in relation to the carpentry work I was doing nearby.  Choosing to cook, to provide childcare, to do the heavy manual labor, the grant writing, the emotional work, the group dynamic/emotional tending, etc… is often expected to fall along gendered and racial lines.  Choice and expectation are very different, and leaving space for real choice to step outside what is expected is important. In fact, it has very real consequences.

For example, if a heterosexual couple falls into traditional gendered divisions of labor, the woman often ends up doing the domestic work in addition, potentially, to holding down a full time or part time job and caring for children, while the man makes and holds control over finances.  The effort and energy being put into everyday tasks needed to make the family function often fall disproportionately on the woman, while the man maintains financial control – a gatekeeper.   If this is the legitimate choice and power and work balance is struck, that is one thing, but if we are not making room for a man to explore the joys of cooking without being mocked for being feminine (therefore less-than), or the potential for a woman to be a carpenter and work with tools without being mocked, that is another thing entirely.

In terms of gender, this division of labor has real consequences that can contribute to domestic violence situations. A lack of work history, no control or access to savings/half of income can trap women in abusive situations with no means of escape. If they do leave without financial independence, marketable skills, work history etc . . . they may face homelessness and/or have to give up their children, either to the father or to the foster care system.  A wide range of skills, carpentry, plumbing, farming, welding, cooking, baking, child-rearing etc… are important for people of all strokes to have legitimate choice to engage with – without fear of being mocked by those around them.

Power to define “normal”:  When diversity or anti-oppression policy is added to an organization or course agenda, it is often seen by the dominant group as supplemental, additional, or abnormal.  Defining the terms of what is “normal”, who the normal people are, the default identity and default concerns, is a very powerful role.  If an organization is in a majority POC community, and 51% of the national population is female, issues of race and gender should be a normalized part of their conversation. If “normal” in the wider world is discriminatory towards queer and differently abled people, poor people or other marginalized groups and the organization or movement in question want’s their norms to be more inclusive, discussions of oppression and privilege must be engaged as part of that – oppression is an everyday, normal conversation among marginalized groups.

Power to define “appropriate emotional response”:  Oppression is an emotional thing to discuss, not just for those with privilege who may feel attacked and implicated, but also, and more so, for those who are exhausted from having to put up with it every day.  Yes, there are patterns that underlie all of this, and it’s not all about YOU. HOWEVER it is personal for those whose lives it has deeply affected.  Yes, it’s perhaps more constructive – bridge building etc… to have these conversations without anger. HOWEVER, anger is a perfectly reasonable emotion to feel when thinking about the dehumanizing effects of oppression in its many manifestations. Telling a person of color to “calm down” when discussing racism they’ve experienced sends a message that you don’t see that anger as warranted.  It minimizes their experience, and the potential to connect and empathize with that person’s story and feelings about it.  Same goes for dismissing a woman as “too emotional”, or a gay man as “overdramatic”. When hearing stories of oppression from anybody, it’s important that we focus on empathy, and refrain from critique of the form the story comes in.

Myth of equal ground/equal power: Often the idea that now, after the women’s movement, the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement of the 60’s and 70’s, everything is as it should be.  The idea of “reverse racism” is grounded in this assumption – that people of all races and ethnicities are on the same footing – that “colorblindness” is politically correct, or that we live in “post-racial” America.  Disproportionality in income, wealth, mortality rates, experiences of police brutality, and other factors is proof that we are not all on equal ground, and that prejudice is still functioning within a topographical map of power – our ground isn’t level.

Saviorism: (The power to save/power from saving)  It’s fairly common for folks with privilege to decide to “use it for good” and “help the under-privileged”. They may work at a soup kitchen, go to the third world on a mission trip, help build an African orphanage, etc.  These desires are grounded in good intentions, and those that decide they would like to help generally are coming from a kind, loving place.  However, sometimes these endeavors can assume that poor people, women, those living in the third world and other marginalized communities are hopeless and helpless. They often have a tinge of paternalism and internalized superiority on the part of the helpers.  Those being helped, as a consequence of the headspace of their benefactors, often don’t have much say or agency over how they are helped, and this can reinforce internalized inferiority and internalized superiority on the part of the privileged and entrenched power dynamics that are closer to the root of the problem while only serving to address its symptoms in a short term and un-sustained way.

Pattern Language of Alliance:

Curiosity: Rather than shame, judgment, and guilt, a spirit of curiosity about how white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and other socialization factors have affected one’s feelings, thoughts, and relationships in the world can be far more productive.

Gratitude: Openness about the real lived experience of racial, gender, homophobic, transphobic, or ability based oppression takes courage and energy on the part of those that are sharing that lived experience.  Knowing that they might be met with second guessing, victim-blaming, or other forms of derailment, they have opted instead to reach out and share something they’ve observed or lived through.  It might be hard to swallow, but trust that they know what they have lived through, and if you’re being called out, take a deep breath and stay curious.  Thank them for sharing that insight, it’s not easy to point it out, and ultimately, it’s a sign that this person cares about and believes in your capacity to grow and become a better ally.

Respect of lived experience and expertise: Not having to think about issues you’re on the privileged end of means that you don’t always even see the benefits of navigating the world with that privilege.  Straight folks may not have to think about conversations about family and significant others as something that could jeopardize their job, as LGBTQ individuals do, for example.  Being unable to see and experience things from all angles means that we have work together and listen to and respect the lived experience of each other in order to see the whole.  If a queer person is explaining to you why something is hetero-normative, respect their expert niche knowledge on the subject. They can’t speak for everybody, but they themselves have a lived experience closer to the issue at hand, and have a unique perspective that you may have not heard before.

Self-education: It’s important that in building alliances and solidarity we take the time to educate ourselves on the history of the folks we seek to stand beside. It is not their job to get us up to date on the history of their oppression – just think! To survive and navigate through the extra hurdles and hoops in the world is enough, to do so while explaining the obstacle course to somebody who can’t see it is just another challenge in that course.  If we want to make things a little more equal, as allies we can educate ourselves on the hurdles marginalized folks face, and listen for how we can best address those hurdles and help folks take them down together.

Power-sharing/re-balancing:  The obvious solution to power gradients and imbalances within an organization is to seek to give positions of power to people with lived experiences of oppression, and support anti-oppressive policy throughout the organization as a whole.  The first North American Permaculture Convergence worked to give exposure to a gender balanced group of workshop leaders. Many people of color were chosen to present as well. While simply placing marginalized individuals in gatekeeper roles doesn’t tear down the gates and eliminate power gradients all together, it can be a bridge. Re-defining neutral/normal standards for organizational policy to include, by default the concerns of marginalized groups rather than just the concerns of dominant groups can support a culture where marginalized individuals and communities can be included in real and meaningful ways.

Solidarity rather than charity: Work to change the conditions that contribute to oppression rather simply giving to its victims after devastating things happen.  Don’t just give money to the domestic violence shelter, support prevention programs.  Don’t just serve soup at the homeless shelter. Also advocate for a basic living wage, an end to predatory lending, and support the growth and development of worked owned cooperative businesses.

Find the edge: Turn outward with your process with social issues and talk with friends and family, people you know and trust, about forms of oppression they don’t see or have to worry about. Do it enough that it becomes a skill. Be brave, ask uncomfortable questions without accusation, and when it feels right, engage those around you.

Intersectionality:  The ways we experience the world are influenced not just by our race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, size, religion etc… but also by the confluence of all of these factors together. How women of color experience sexism might differ from how white women experience it, or how queer women experience it.   Within our various experiences of the world and its myriad oppressions, we can listen and build intersectional solidarity. We can find common threads and overlaps, advocate for less amplified voices to be heard, and together build examples of the inclusive culture we are working for in our movements.

Walk the walk: Show up for justice, every day. If you’re white, go to an immigrant rights march and listen, support them. Push your edges and examine your own feelings with curiosity. Go to a history lecture about black farmers in the south, or the first cooperatives in the US. If you’re a man, consider serving as a clinic escort, call out rape jokes and explain to friends why they’re not okay, tell your daughters they’re smart and strong, not just pretty, and teach them to use tools, weld, and bake too so they can decide what they truly enjoy rather than be limited in options because of gender norms.  Teach your sons to use tools too, and bake, and clean and cook, and teach them emotions are okay to express, and vulnerability can be strength.  If you’re straight, get vocal about equality. Mourn hate crimes against the queer community publicly, openly. Support the queer community without judgment.  Lobby your workplace and your government for anti-discrimination laws. If you’re able bodied, point out the need for ADA accessibility in your garden designs.  Amplify the voices of those who seek their own liberation, don’t speak on their behalf.


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