by Kelly Hansen
I love the lunch room scene of the movie Mean Girls where Janis Ian gives the new girl, Cady Heron, an insider tour of the cafeteria at lunch. Without embarrassment or apology, Janis just lays out the social hierarchy. This whole movie is calling out all the rules our parents never taught us about being a high school girl. In this one scene, Janis Ian is doing what I think we all should do in order to make a more equitable society: call out the codes of power as they exist, and give everyone the rules to navigate them.
Codes of power are the unwritten conventions in the culture of power. Explanation: there are many cultures. All are legitimate. Some have more power within dominant culture. To navigate the rules we must acknowledge this power exists and is afforded to some at the expense of others. The best way to navigate codes of power is to be explicitly told that they exist. Power is stratified by gender, regional location, race, class, ethnicity, language and sexual orientation. Power is often deployed via unwritten rules, and situated knowledge. Navigating the system of power by codeswitching variations of languages, social conventions and gaining access to the unwritten rules is a method of working the system to meet your needs.
This handshake is an example of a code of power. Other examples of codes of power is language, clothing, “manners,” even what subjects are okay to talk about. They are all real rules people follow to navigate the culture of power.
I didn’t make up the concept of codes of power. My favorite person who writes about them is the Educational Scholar, Lisa Delpit (Lisa’s The Silenced Dialogue is a must-read for educators - it blew my mind). Because she says it better than I could, here’s her codes of power points straight from her essay:
She explains this so well in her essay. Go read this right now. Seriously.
So, what do codes of power have to do with college access?
In Mean Girls, Janis ignored the lies adults would have given Cady (You’ll do great, just be nice, people will like your true self) and gave her the truth (There is a Queen Bee, people will backstab, joining the Mathletes is social suicide). The truth is uncomfortable. And the truth was necessary for her to navigate and climb to highest ranks of Girl World.
In terms of college access, the lie we like to hear and repeat is that getting a degree is a ticket out of poverty. If people work hard and focus on school, they’ll be successful. The uncomfortable truth is that college is an indicator of success because it means you can successfully navigate the culture of power. The system is rigged, it’s not a meritocracy. College is just as much about developing social capital, building a resume, and learning life skills as it is about that certificate. But by ignoring the multifaceted nature of college, we don’t set our student up for success.
In Mean Girls, Janis tells the truth by drawing Cady a map of the school cafeteria, telling her what’s really important. At Vox Siren, we were inspired by the Mean Girls map of the cafeteria, so we made a map, too. It’s an attempt to show youth all the parts of college they should be aware of, and subsystems they’ll need to learn more unspoken rules to.
Who has access to the rules of this complex college system? As Delpit said, the rules are a reflection of those in power. Therefore, if you're a first generation college student, you don't already have the situated knowledge to help you navigate each arm of the map. So educators: let's share the systems and knowledge with our students, even when it means admitting an unjust hierarchy. We can't change what we don't acknowledge. With these efforts, we can hope that our students work toward a future much like the end of Mean Girls: dismantling power structures at prom in a Mathlete's letter(wo)man jacket.
I'd like to dissect each one of the many arms of the Map, but we both are looking at it, and now that we all know the importance of leveling, I can tell the truth and say that would take about 40 blogposts. What I can do is offer an exciting and interactive workshop on dissecting codes of power specific to your workplace, institution, or organization.
Get in touch with us to learn more about how we can work to support you!
Flatball Radio | Kelly Hansen – “Why I Hate Self Officiation”
by Matt Mastrantuono
July 27 2015
Mural Shows Legacy of Black Women in History
by Donovan M. Smith
July 23 2015
A Rightful Place
by Olivia Olivia
The Portland Observer
July 21, 2015
Mural Unveiled Saturday In Portland Highlights Achievements Of Black Women
by Christina Belasco
Oregon Public Broadcasting