Andrew Johnson’s Choice, Agency and Power

I am sitting here working through a paper on Foucault and Christian ethics and a quote from Foucault on the concept of domination struck me, particularly as many of us are thinking through the incident involving Andrew Johnson, the high school wrestler who was given an ultimatum from his referee to either cut his ‘locs or forfeit the match. Johnson’s ‘locs were then cut in public, in front of everyone, by a white woman based on this order from a referee with a history of being racist. Some have asked why didn’t Andrew just forfeit the match, presuming it should’ve been an easy decision because he is an agential being. But such a presumption does not take into consideration the variables that Andrew was weighing in regard to his choice. It does not take into consideration that having agency does not always mean that one can be fully agential.

Andrew had agency but I argue that it was agency under constraint because of the power dynamics above him and whatever “good” was connected to him wrestling the match as opposed to forfeiting it. It is possible that Andrew chose to have his ‘locs cut because he did not think he had another choice. When faced with a choice that is presented to you by someone with more power than you, the decision is not an easy one, particularly not when there is a possibility that you may have more to lose than they do. Maybe, as I told someone who is also wrestling with Andrew’s choice, Andrew made the choice he did because there was some “good” connected to it, for instance his performance on the team could put him in a good position to earn a scholarship. Or maybe his performance on the team makes it so that they maintain good stats for the season and he does not want to be the one responsible for ruining that. And so, like many Black and Brown people whose back became the bridge on which many walked over to success, Andrew, unfortunately, sacrificed himself for what he thought was the good of the team. Some have erroneously called this, Andrew being a team player. I disagree with that statement because a team should never let you make a decision like that or allow their teammate to be publicly humiliated–is there any good reason why his ‘locs were cut in front of everyone like that? I know the reason and am not afraid to call it what it is, racism. And one of the insidious ways that racism works in this country is through micro and macro-aggressions. Racism and racist practices persist because of relations of power between white people–or the people of whiteness as coined by my colleague-friend Jeremy Posadas–and Black and Brown people. Many Black and Brown people, despite having what many liberals might consider agency, only have agency to the extent that those they are in relationship with share power in mutually beneficial ways.

Being under constraint, particularly the constraints presented by power dynamics, warp an individual’s ability to make the best personal decision. This is doubly the case for a young Black man faced with a choice presented to him by a white man in a position of power over him. One cannot discuss agency and choice without discussing relations to power and who better–well, as far as I know at this moment–to put words to this than Michel Foucault. And I know that it can be trite to trot out Foucault when it comes to discussing power, but I promise that I didn’t go searching for this, it jumped out at me as I was working through one of his texts for a paper. Nevertheless, what I am trying to get at in my own claim that Andrew Johnson is an agential being whose ability to choose was constrained by his relation to power is perfectly summed up in Foucault’s words on the concept of domination and relations to power. And so I will conclude with his words.

“Power relations are extremely widespread in human relationships. Now, this mean not that political power is everywhere, but that there is in human relationships a whole range of power relations that may come into play among individuals, within families, in pedagogical relationships, political life, and so on. The analysis of power relations is an extremely complex area; one sometimes encounters what may be called situations or states of domination in which the power relations, instead of being mobile, allowing various participants to adopt strategies modifying them, remain blocked, frozen. When an individual or social group succeeds in blocking a field of power relations, immobilizing them and preventing any reversibility of movement by economic, political, or military means, one is faced with what may be called a state of domination. In such a state, it is certain that practices of freedom do not exist or exist only unilaterally or are extremely constrained and limited.”

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: