It should all be so simple: don’t be a jerk! So why do oppression and bigotry still happen all the time? And why does so much of it so often fly under the radar, often with little to no challenge, even from the people that are victims of it?
And, on the other side of the question, I know many people are asking: why are perfectly decent people often made out to be bigoted jerks just because they said something that didn’t sound quite right to someone?
This discussion is, by necessity, long and not pretty. But this is the “catch” to being a positive person. You must take it upon yourself to do the work necessary to understand suffering, and the ways people experience it, so that you can better understand where it comes from, what approaches to take to it, and how to be a healing, helping presence – or, as is sometimes necessary, how to simply and quietly withdraw your presence when it is not wanted.
This of course includes our own suffering; it’s hard to be positive if we can’t at least begin to understand and deal with our own suffering, and the journey will get ugly sometimes. But the more you figure out, the more you can own your own experiences, and the easier it becomes to “figure out where home is” in any situation, among any group of people – and to help others find “home” also. That’s a mighty good ability to have in this life.
So let’s talk.
We’ve got to start by openly admitting something that we all know is true, even as we often pretend otherwise.
We don’t all have equal opportunities in life.
Some folks have opportunities that others will never have, and many folks deal with problems every day that others will never face. This is the case everywhere.
Nobody likes the idea that we don’t all start out equal. It reminds those who are disadvantaged of their disadvantages, and can lead to feelings of unease, guilt, or undeservingness in everyone, privileged and not. It doesn’t jive with our idea of what a modern democratic society should be. But it is the truth. Acting as though it isn’t the truth, especially regarding oppressions other people face that you don’t, is in fact a bigoted act – it’s a denial of the reality that billions of people live every day. No amount of talk about “taking responsibility” and “working hard” ever changes that.
What does “oppression” really mean? The relationship between oppression and violence
The word “oppression” is not a synonym for “discomfort,” or “suffering,” or “inconvenience,” or “disadvantage,” or “deprivation,” or “hardship,” or “powerlessness,” or “obstacle,” and so on. Rather, it is a synonym of ALL of these words put together.
There is, built into every form of oppression, a sort of violence – often a silent violence, one that is hard to see from the outside, because it doesn’t always involve shouting or physical harm. But behind the quiet façade, there is always the threat of open violence somewhere down the line. This is the key factor that distinguishes mere wrong from oppression – for when it is oppression, there is always a threat of further violence and/or harm behind any more minor, preliminary injustices, especially if the individual or group dares to challenge the injustices done to them. And so an inbuilt reflex develops, among whole groups of people, not to do certain things or get into certain situations that are otherwise available [and usually quite ordinary and unremarkable] to the rest of the population.
Violence is often thought to happen only when somebody is being beaten, or otherwise physically affected against their will. But that’s not the only kind of violence. Other forms of violence include
- threats to a person’s safety or peace of mind
- blackmail and retaliatory actions
- insults, putdowns, epithets, and other comments that serve to make somebody feel bad about themself
- coercion; things that push a person into doing or accepting things they normally would not go along with
- withholding something a person needs from that person
There are other kinds of violence also; basically, the common thread is that the person or people committing the violence is/are exercising a kind of control or power over another person or group that that person or group does not agree to. When it involves sexual contact, we call this rape or sexual assault. If it’s in the context of a relationship between friends, family, coworkers, or significant others, we often call it abuse. At work, it’s often called harassment. At school, bullying. It’s all violence.
Violence is everywhere, yes, and there are people who suffer it that don’t necessarily fall into the stereotypical categories. But the violence associated with an oppression is specifically targeted towards somebody because of their membership in a perceived group – a membership whose existence and boundaries are always decided by the oppressor (i.e., normative society, or the norms of the community in which the person lives), and not by the person being targeted.
We all get exposed to most of these things somehow at points in our life. It becomes oppression when the threat of such violence is a standing threat – one that does not go away, that is always there, that serves as a deterrent to challenges to it with a threat of imminent harm.
This is often little understood about oppression: how “everywhere” and inescapable it is. How it’s not something you can just “switch off” and “pretend it doesn’t exist.” This is not some situational inconvenience or venue-specific disadvantage we are talking about here; this is a lifetime of being followed around, from start to finish, by example after example of harmful, restrictive, depriving, disempowering, destructive shit that alters what you are able to achieve and enjoy in life. And it goes even further: when you try to adjust your attitude, it often screws with those responses and adjustments that you do make, and forces you to spend even more time dealing and dealing and dealing – dealing with shit that other people, who do not face this oppression, often know nothing about.
When an oppression exists, it is always there. Even when a person is not directly suffering an oppression in a given moment, the ghost is still there, embedded in their consciousness.
Oppression is not a linear phenomenon; it is a recursive one.
I’m not asking for a pity party here for victims, or trying to make anyone feel guilty. I’m a pretty privileged person myself; I just want to start an honest conversation about oppression. Moreover, I want to have an honest conversation about why it’s so fucking hard to have a conversation about oppression in the first place.
The oppression that you can see and talk about is nothing compared to the things that are left unsaid.
I recently saw a theater play on the Black experience in the U.S., one that went into many facets of what being Black means and has meant, and one line stuck with me: “where does it hurt?” It was a dramatic, subconscious recognition that oppression runs so deep sometimes that those who suffer it can have little to no idea about what the problem is, even as they sense that something is not right.
Oppression doesn’t stop at simply making people feel oppressed – it goes deeper, taking away a person’s ability to understand themself, the world around them, and where they fit in. This is why, for every oppression issue that is out in the open and being talked about, there are dozens that aren’t – because so often, the people suffering an oppression, as a result of that oppression, have neither the chance to fully grasp the reality of their life, nor the vocabulary available to articulate it for others to understand. The threat of harm to well-being often discourages people from questioning their situation, denying them opportunities to lessen their oppression. And so an ignorance gets forced upon them, one that is itself a product of generations of the very same oppression.
Ignorance does exist everywhere, yes – but it’s different when oppression is driving it. Ignorance is not the worst thing in the world if it doesn’t stop you from feeling empowered, and being empowered in life – this is the meaning of privilege, when “what you don’t know can’t hurt you.” But folks who face oppression don’t have that luxury. Instead, there is a constant feeling of not knowing despite needing to know, because the unknowns out there can and will hurt you.
This is why, for example, in the debates over feminism, it is wrong to equate men and women’s situations at large. Although I agree that there are ways in which men do suffer, especially when they are also disadvantaged in other ways at the same time (like class, physical appearance, and sexual orientation), it is far more often the case that women are facing a systematic, all-around network of threats, and thus oppression, solely because they are women (leaving aside any other factor such as physical appearance or class) in all societies. This doesn’t mean talking about men’s issues is unimportant – but it is necessary to point out.
Any oppressive effect is multiplied when you add on other oppressions – class, coming from a broken family, physical [racial/bodily] appearance, native language, physical ability, sexual orientation, and so on. It all conspires to make all of us ignorant – but that ignorance will hurt those who are more oppressed a great deal more than it hurts those that face less oppression. Oppression multiplies the harm to such an extent that it becomes hard to keep up with.
Oppression is not a choice. It’s about not having a choice. It’s about being violated.
You know those people that sometimes just can’t seem to lighten up, take a joke, or simply go with the flow, right? They are not making a “choice” to be sullen, angry outcasts; they don’t have this choice. They probably never have had, and in many cases never will have, such a choice. Something has made them feel violated.
People who react negatively to “everyday” stuff feel the way they feel because, for right or for wrong, certain factors over the course of their lives have turned what might seem like an “ordinary” or “funny” issue to some into a traumatic one for them. What a person feels and the way they feel it is not something that can be negotiated in the moment – it just happens. Belittling, berating, or making fun of somebody for their feelings is bigoted behavior that only helps to continue the cycle of oppression rather than healing it – because feelings are never wrong, even if they are inconvenient or sometimes inspire wrong behaviors.
We’ve all had those moments when our reflexes tense up, a flood of feelings muddle up our mind, and it becomes impossible to stay totally “cool” and “collected.” Well – have some understanding for folks that have traumatic responses to things you don’t – they are not faking it! When oppression gets in the mix, this kind of thing can happen a lot sooner, a lot quicker, and a lot more often – frequently without the person even knowing why. It’s vitally important to respect this reality! Either you show that you respect what someone feels and listen and being present with the feelings – or else, by challenging the validity of such feelings (sometimes even with nothing more than the word “but”), you become an agent of the oppressive norm. It happens that quickly. Which side do you want to be on?
I hear some people possibly saying that there are folks out there who use “feelings” as a way to manipulate others. Sure there are. But that’s no excuse. There are also people out there who use kitchen knives as weapons – does this mean all knives should forever be banned from kitchens?
Sometimes there is no one-shot easy solution. Sometimes, it’s a neverending journey. That’s the nature of wrestling with oppression.
Bigotry and prejudice are manifested everywhere and through everyone, no matter how nice, thoughtful, enlightened, or themself oppressed an individual person is.
It’s not like we are all sinners, doomed to be evil, or any rubbish like that; it’s just reality. Here’s an example from my own experience – one in which I had no idea about the bigotry I was channelling:
One day a long time ago, when I was much younger and more innocent about the world, I ran into somebody I didn’t know that well but was on friendly terms with. I said hi to him and noticed he had a nearly empty plastic bag in his hand. So I joked, “you been selling drugs in that thing?” From my young mind, this was an innocent joke with absolutely no malice attached to it. But this guy did not find my joke funny; he suddenly became serious, and the next thing he said was “don’t disrespect me like that.”
I realized what had happened: this man, being Black and Haitian in the United States and speaking English with a heavy accent, had quite possibly spent disproportionate time under watch or suspicion from law enforcement, and/or other people in general. Though I didn’t get to ask him, it seemed pretty likely to me that the offense he took to my little joke had to do with having often been suspected in the past of drug-related or other criminal activity, and having had to bear the ensuing harassment (as other Haitian contemporaries of mine in the United States had suffered, I realized). Or it could have been due to something else in his past – but whatever it was, my little joke backfired big time: rather than making nice, suddenly here I was being bigoted – with little recourse to being able to pre-empt myself because I had not known that this would offend him like that.
The best thing that I could do in this situation was to admit how society’s racism had been unintentionally manifested through me – without my even realizing it in the moment – and apologize right away for offending him. Sometimes, that’s all you can do. The quicker you do this – apologize right away for the unintentionally bigoted character of something you’ve said or done WITHOUT “defending” yourself as though you are under attack – the more likely it is that you will be able to make amends and put such unpleasant episodes behind you (and help others feel ready to do the same).
And no matter who you are, no matter what position you occupy, society’s oppression can and will be channelled through you towards others at some point.
Being disadvantaged does not exempt a person from acting in a racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise bigoted manner towards others, or even members of their “own” group.
Social prejudice doesn’t just take place when somebody is bigoted toward “other” groups of people; a tremendous amount of the problem also occurs within affected groups: women slut-shaming other women, trans people putting down other trans people, people of color prejudging other people of color, immigrants stereotyping other immigrants, someone with a cognitive disorder referring to another person as a “retard,” and so forth.
This intra-group prejudice and bigotry is no less important than the one-group-versus-another kind; it’s part of the system of oppression – and sometimes, it’s more present in day-to-day life, especially if the affected group is segregated away from the rest of society in its own communities. Although the context of such intra-group prejudice is different from the more “obvious” kinds of prejudice, there is no guarantee it will be less hurtful. One dark-skinned immigrant from the Caribbean to the United States told me “I was ready for some discrimination from white Americans, but what really messed with me was the prejudice and awful treatment I got from Black Americans.” Being dark-skinned and visibly of presumably African descent, he saw himself as belonging to the “Black” people, and the society in which he was living usually agreed with this characterization – so when some of those fellow “Black” people did not accept him, he was shocked in addition to being offended.
Now, this was one individual’s experience. Another person, even of the same background in the same situation, might have had a completely different experience. But that brings me to my next point.
Oppression and bigotry are not black-and-white, easy-to-understand phenomena. You cannot always tell beforehand what is bigoted and what isn’t.
This is a hard one for many people to swallow. The notion that you don’t know beforehand what may offend another person is unsettling especially for people who are not used to thinking about this. But it’s also unsettling, to say the least, for those that do have to think about it. Those folks don’t have a choice not to.
If you want as much as possible to avoid being bigoted, always honor a person’s boundaries, and the ways in which a person self-identifies. The act of using your speech and actions to shoehorn a person into a category they do not agree to belong in is a bigoted act – no matter who you or they are.
A while back I wrote an article about this issue, at the end of which a commenter made a very important point: “It is not essential that you understand or even agree with those identities” – but when you honor somebody’s self-identity, you show them that you respect them as an individual human being, that you do not see them simply as part of some blob that society has decided to construct around them in order to reduce their humanity to a more easily processable simplicity.
This “simplicity” gets directly in the way of a good understanding of how oppression works. It is never simple. Different oppressions and social currents in society mix together and create unique experiences for everyone.
For example, we could take a white male who excels at what he does for a living, steadily makes more money each year and has never been a victim of racism or sexism. Free of oppression, is he? Well, when you consider that this same white male both (1) is gay and in the closet about it, afraid to reveal this about himself in his community, and (2) is HIV positive, it kind of changes things a bit.
Or you could imagine a straight, well-educated woman with a brown-skinned complexion from a stable family who has a law degree and claims she has never been a victim of racism. Well … now I’ll tell you that this is the case possibly because she lives in a country in which the majority of people have brown skin – but some people in this country believe that women shouldn’t be educated and outspoken. So she was attacked, blinded, and physically crippled by somebody who didn’t like the advocacy work she was doing helping other girls and women.
Though oppression often has local emphasis more in one part of the world than another, it still has a global reach – and in a globalized world, we must remember that. To take feminism as an example, even if you live in the most feministic of areas, it’s still a reality for all women, on the world scale, that there are many, many places out there in which being a woman entails all kinds of restrictions on everything from where you can go to what you may do, to whether you must be accompanied by somebody, to whether you will be a sexual target – all this being backed by a strong latent threat of violence should a woman try to flout these norms. By and large, this does not happen to men. If more people had this in mind when debating whether feminism is necessary, the debate would look very different.
The inequalities behind a lot of this injustice happen in many more ways than we even have names for.
The fact that you are reading this article right now means that you have at least three key privileges straightaway: you are not blind, you are able to read, and you are proficient in English. Some of this might not seem like much if most of your life is spent around literate English-speakers who can see, but you just go asking people who don’t have these privileges for their perspective and you will get a whole different picture: Things are infinitely easier for a seeing, literate person than for a blind or illiterate one, and I know of no other language besides English that is in such demand today that one can pretty much go to any non-English-speaking country in the world and have an automatic advantage jobwise solely because of one’s ability to speak and read English (come to think of it, this also applies to the English-speaking countries). Chances are, whoever you are, you belong to a good number of privileged groups. We all do!
There are all kinds of stereotypes, prejudices, and oppressions going on out there, based on everything from one’s country of origin, to one’s immigration status, to one’s physical appearance (facial features, stature, hair texture, weight, body type, etc), to one’s class status, family, and educational background, one’s state of health, genetic history, and health prognosis, one’s intellectual capabilities, job skills, and behavioral habits. Just because these things are not as talked about does not mean we should be any less mindful of them, or that they matter any less.
The learning process about these things never ends. You can always become wiser and better informed by listening, and listening with an open mind, ready to modify or even throw away many of the assumptions you have been holding about who is who and what is what.
I have known many folks that carefully avoid the most “obvious” sins of bigotry (you know, avoiding slurs and crude remarks), but otherwise have no problem being bigoted. But there is no excuse for gratuitously nasty behavior, even if it appears “nice” on the surface. Anytime that somebody does something that can make another person feel ashamed of who they are – it is bigotry, pure and simple! And when already existing wounds are aggravated, the repercussions go a lot deeper than just momentary hurt feelings.
The big-news cases of bigotry may not always do the most damage; the smaller, ongoing examples are often a whole lot worse.
The reminders. The reminders are everywhere. There are so many ways in which assumptions get made and stereotypes predominate about how a person should be or act; one example might involve not getting encouragement or support for pursuing a certain career or course of higher education – because “people like you don’t generally do as well,” or get as far in such things. Women around the world have had this line thrown in their face any number of times, as have many minorities and people of other differing backgrounds; such a situation either involves a blatantly prejudicial lie (that keeps getting told again and again), or else it reflects a deeply discriminatory reality, in which career and educational opportunities really are heavily affected by one’s membership in certain groups. Often both. And either way, you are dealing with an entrenched phenomenon that leads to prejudices – which will come up again and again and again in situation after situation.
Discrimination and bigotry are not simply some cut-and-dry thing like name-calling and hate crimes by one particular group. Bigotry can be felt from anywhere – it can come from a stranger, a colleague, a friend, a member of your family, or even someone you are in love with. It can come from anyone of any race, gender, color, creed, nationality, sexual orientation, or ability. 99% of the time, bigotry doesn’t happen because somebody cooks up some conscious plan to be bigoted. It happens, most often, because ugly injustices of all kinds already exist in society – and this is amplified by the collective [and usually unintentional] ignorance of how these injustices develop, because it isn’t a very easy issue to talk about.
It’s one thing to contemplate the more abstract idea that one group of people has a lower success rate at something than another; it’s another thing to be reminded of this all the time, by everything from popular culture to friendly conversations. For people who are affected by issues of prejudice and oppression, it is a question of their day-to-day life.
This underlying, hard-to-pin-down form of bigotry that accumulates bit by bit over the lifetime of the person who suffers it over and over again – THIS is what can lead to a sense of social entrapment and demoralization. It can feel like a person’s sense of self is being completely shoved aside and denied, again and again and again. No matter how much they want to move forward and leave behind these tired old stereotypes – they keep on coming up. Even when one can transcend such stereotypes in some circumstances, the thoughts still lurk in the background: No matter what I do, the first thing most people see in me / assume about me is (stereotype X).
The way oppression works traps those suffering from it into thinking that the suffering is their own fault.
It is often said that if the same problem comes up between you and several other people, you are the common denominator, and thus you are most likely where the problem lies. Victims of consistent bigotry not only have to deal with the bigotry itself – they also have to deal with this constant feeling of self-shaming and doubt: is it just me? Am I crazy or something for feeling wronged? Anywhere there is a question of dealing with the causes of an oppression, there is always an internal counterargument that says “stop whining, complaining, and making excuses. Life isn’t always fair. Get over it.”
Most people do not want to be whiners and bother others with the problems they face. Many times, it can be hard for someone to find that line between an internal issue that can or should be worked out internally and something that must unmistakably be addressed more publicly. Which brings me to my next point…
Challenging prejudice and bigotry is incredibly hard. Often, it’s not desirable or even possible to do so.
The process of dealing with, correcting, or pushing back against bigotry is a long and lonely one. Those that are specially oppressed have the responsibility automatically attributed to them to deal with it, because they cannot count on people who don’t experience it to notice. So by default, it is their responsibility alone to start the dialogue, often in an ignorant, hostile, or otherwise non-understanding environment. It’s like having the burden on you to prove that the Earth is round in a room full of nothing but flat-Earthers – even when the flat-Earthers may be “nice” or “gentle” people, they still disbelieve you by default. Which implies either that you are a liar or that you don’t know what you’re talking about. And unlike the subject of the Earth’s shape, bigotry directly involves value judgments of a person and their self-worth – so it is far more immediate and personal.
Anyone wanting to call out bigotry also faces an uphill battle for the simple reason that nobody likes to be a party pooper. Nobody wants to be that person that upsets others by telling them they’re being bigoted, and truly, few people want to be labeled a bigot by others. So when somebody comes out and confronts bigotry, they have to be ready and hardened for an unpleasant, potentially nasty moment – again and again and again.
And all this is without even taking into account the power elements involved in these things. Yes, it is becoming more and more uncool to publicly wave certain bigoted attitudes around. However, if somebody experiencing inferior treatment publicly contradicts the “we’re all equal here” kumbaya (which we established at the beginning of this article is not true), those that are in positions of power relative to them can and will very often retaliate – often unwittingly, without seeing how their power affects the situation.
And unlike most people, the fact that higher-ups hold the positions of power and influence means that they don’t have to be very loud and obvious about what they are doing – it is very easy for them to have their way without a lot of struggle, i.e., without other people noticing what’s actually going on. They often get used to acting this way. It happens all the time, especially in work situations. Anybody who dares to speak out their truth, especially when a sensitive issue around oppression is involved, becomes susceptible to this phenomenon – something that no amount of laws, anti-discrimination bureaus, diversity trainings, anonymous hotlines, or task forces is always able to overcome, as important as these things are.
From a victim of bigotry’s point of view, whether it’s worth it or not to say or do anything often looks like a crapshoot. What if the person acting bigoted (1) doesn’t care / doesn’t listen, (2) tries to listen, but still doesn’t get it, (3) turns on you, or (4) what if you just don’t feel like being the beast of burden to have to harden up and explain the same thing for the million-and-tenth time?
Authentic responses to oppression will not always take what you think is the most “logical” angle on things.
Often, a key step to fighting back against an oppression, even before anything is said, is for the affected person or group not to let the oppression dictate how they respond. This is one reason why some folks respond to oppression in what might look like weird or unpleasant ways to others.
A major part of the battle involves a disadvantaged person or group keeping the power to choose how and when they are ready to challenge bigotry: the whole reason we use words like oppression to describe this stuff is because of the way it conspires to take power away from those affected, all the way down to the way a person responds. This is why autonomy of response, even before something gets fully addressed, is so important.
Respect a person’s power to define their own issues for themself. For example, if a transgender or transsexual person is on a dating website but chooses not to reveal their trans status upfront – that’s their prerogative and nobody else’s. Some trans folks do reveal these things pretty immediately – heck, it’s nice to get such a loaded issue off the table! But whether a trans person chooses to disclose or not, or when they choose, should be their decision only, and nobody else’s.
There are other good examples of autonomy of response: For example, when LGBT folks have put together the PRIDE demonstrations that are so well-known now, it definitely made many people uncomfortable. It still does. But the original point of these PRIDE marches and celebrations was to establish a sense of visibility – that LGBT folks do exist everywhere, and that this existence should not be something that one is forced to keep “in the closet.” These were the issues that LGBT people were directly dealing with in their own lives, and that’s why this idea caught on: it was their own response to their own issues.
No oppression or inequality can be effectively dealt with unless those affected by it have recourse to a safe space separate from the rest of society.
These issues can be very intimate. It’s not always easy to talk about oppression, even in a safer environment. Like I said before, nobody wants to be the Debbie Downer that complains on and on about their problems. Many who might not feel empowered in mixed company to speak out about their experiences will come forth and speak out in an environment for them and by them, specifically focusing on their particular issues. We need to respect separate safe-spaces until the day those who use them truly feel safe enough to let them go.
A safe space is not the same as an intentionally exclusionary space, because it’s not about exclusion – it’s about creating an environment in which the oppression of the outside world does not apply, or is minimized as much as possible. Often, a safe space does not necessarily exclude anybody. In some cases, folks may not think it is necessary to set such a safe space up. However, that does not change that they should feel free to do so in the future – and that, if it is felt necessary, they should make such spaces as free as possible of stressors, which might include people that do not belong to the group.
You want equality? This is what it will take, in great part. Inequality exists because society is tipped against certain people. It’s not at all a level playing field. Any pro-equality effort will need to take this into account and push back significantly – otherwise, it’s not truly pro-equality.
My oppression is worse than yours! A word about “Oppression Olympics”
“Oppression Olympics” is when people make claims that one person’s oppression is worse than another’s, often oppositionally, as if to say “you aren’t really suffering that bad. Look at the oppression Person X suffers. [S]he’s got it way worse than you.” This is often rightly discouraged, because it can serve to minimize the validity of the experiences people go through by making them feel that their struggles are somehow less important or less deserving of attention. Anything that does this – minimizes the validity of another person’s experiences – is in itself oppressive.
However, there is a flip side to this: yes, Oppression Olympics should not be used to shut down another’s self-expression – but neither should opposition to Oppression Olympics, either! There is often this creeping phenomenon whereby people (often more privileged people) say “oh, let’s not compare oppressions like this” but the effect this has is to interrupt somebody else’s expression of their own experience with oppression – once again shutting off discussion about oppressions. There is nothing wrong with comparing and contrasting our experiences in a collaborative, learning environment – but any time either Oppression Olympics or anti-Oppression Olympics (or anything else, for that matter) is used to muffle free self-expression, it becomes part of the problem.
Class oppression: always the background to all the rest
In the society of winners and losers we live in [as opposed to a society of equality of opportunity], hierarchy is the rule: we become stratified into different levels of opportunity. And most of us end up thinking that enforced inequality must be right and normal somehow, because it’s everywhere. Just look at social class status – literally a measurement of “what you’re worth.” As if some people are “worth” more than others!
This normalization of class structure (something that humanity went over 99% of its history without) provides the ultimate template for us to value some people higher than others, and to devalue those others; to form other snap judgments along similar hierarchical lines in regards to gender, skin color, sexual orientation, language, body shape, and so on. It is a completely normalized train of thought, because society is built on this hierarchy of class.
And though class intersects with other forms of oppression, this intersection is not always even. There’s a lot of straight white men out there that might think to themselves, “geez, well I’ll be damned if I am supposedly privileged and Oprah Winfrey is not.” Good point. I am certainly not taking away from Oprah Winfrey, but I also think she’d be the first to say that her wealth and connections do make a huge difference, and she is definitely a great deal more privileged than almost anybody else on the planet, at the same time as she is still a Black woman and thus still deals with racism and sexism – something that we must not use her privilege in other areas to deny.
When somebody is subject to a non-class oppression, it never completely goes away, even if they are wealthy – but it is 110% true that the higher the class status you occupy in society, the more manageable any oppression you face becomes – and, conversely, the further down you are in society’s hierarchy, the more any difficulties and oppressions you face will magnify and multiply. Higher class status represents, very much, a ticket to minimizing oppression on an individual scale.
The fight against class oppression is the great uniter – it’s where we can find common cause with so many other people whose struggles may be very different from our own. Because unless you are very very rich, you are quite likely feeling the oppression associated with not being able to live your life as you want it, not being able to provide for those you love, not being able to afford things you need, and so on. This class oppression affects people to varying degrees; being unable to afford your dream home is not the same as not being able to complete your education – which is not the same as not being able to feed and clothe yourself and your family; but despite these difference in perception, there is still a lot of common ground to be had.
Today’s world is set up in such a way that the wealth of the top 2,000 or so people could, if redistributed, completely get rid of hunger and scarcity throughout the entire planet. That is an unimaginably monstrous inequality – and an oppression that, no matter where you live, leaves a massive imprint on your life, perceptions, aspirations, and values. Even if – especially if – you feel like the most normal, ordinary person on earth.
Why is oppression so important to talk about? Does talking about it ever really get anywhere?
Above and beyond all the inequalities and injustices out there … does thinking and talking about oppression really have any benefit to offer us? Are we doomed to just constantly point out injustice after injustice, with little chance of actually solving any of it?
It’s a fair question to ask. After all, the fight against oppression can look pretty titanically hopeless sometimes. You look out there and you see starving children, homeless people, refugees, people lacking access to basic resources, hate crimes, social norms and taboos that shame and threaten people that don’t fit in, senseless violent acts, deadly military conflicts, and so on. It’s easy to just give up and say “what can I do about all this? Fuck it, I’m just gonna live my life” and just tune out, unplug from all the conversation about oppression, and spend as little of your life worrying about it as possible. Won’t life be better that way? It’s an understandable response to such an overwhelming phenomenon.
But then you get reminded, somehow, that this stuff doesn’t go away, even if you ignore it. Moreover, trying to ignore reality and pretending it doesn’t exist often contributes more to the problem. But part of the problem has to do with the sense of personal disconnect that overwhelming things can provoke, even before we might make any decisions to consciously withdraw. When you feel disconnected, it becomes hard to find your way back to solid ground – or even to believe in there being a way back to solid ground.
Disconnection and reconnecting
Even when you do engage it and push back, oppression by nature promotes a kind of dissociation. The variations in people’s experiences are not always easy to visualize, and during most frank discussions about oppression, all these heavy words and verbiage come into play: privilege, discrimination, patriarchy, racism, prejudice, cissexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, sizeism, ageism, consciousness, and so on. These words are necessary for the discussion – but it can become easy to see these concepts in a detached fashion – as something that happens “out there” as opposed to “right here.” Additionally, oppression often takes away a person’s sense of belonging, of being a part of a community; it atomizes us and encourages the formation of communities of category over communities of humanity. This is something we need to counteract when our thoughts become too dissociated from our feelings – because when you are too much inside your head, dealing only in cerebral thought, it becomes frighteningly easy to ignore things you should be noticing!
If you strip away the conceptual terms for a moment and look at things on a more human, more emotional, more personal scale, it’s very different. As complicated as the forms oppression can take are, we’re often talking about everyday problems here. Stuff that we’ve all experienced and seen others go through:
- Being harmed / hurt / debilitated
- Being violated, assaulted, humiliated; stripped of your dignity in some way
- Being left out or excluded
- Suffering a notable disadvantage or inequality
- Being shamed for who you are, how you speak, or what you look like
- Being made to feel unsafe, bullied, or threatened
- Being automatically distrusted, devalued, or disrespected, even before you open your mouth
- Feeling like nobody understands or cares about you
- Feeling like you don’t have a place
This is nothing new, is it? Some of the best tools for dealing with oppression are the same basic life skills needed to form healthy relationships and community. When you peel back the layers of rhetoric, what is truly, sorely needed is a whole lot of solidarity.
It’s about more than just “fighting oppression”
Most of the discussions I hear that talk about oppression do not often acknowledge “compassion” as a way of dealing with it, given the way “compassion” can be misused in a condescending fashion toward “victims.” But real compassion has its place. The whole nature of oppression coerces us to be in a constant state of fight (or flight) – and sometimes, the most liberating ways to respond may involve simply refusing to be forced into thinking in terms of “fighting.” Some of us are always fighting; at times what we really hunger for is a healing space – a place to disarm and let go for a bit.
Of course we need to fight, to confront, to resist. Those moments when you feel the pull to stick your neck out and speak truth to injustice, or show solidarity with somebody when no one else does – this is very necessary! Demonstrations, petitions, meetings, sit-ins, strikes, solidarity actions, fundraising – mass actions like these are the best, most far-reaching forms of active compassion. But unfortunately, these things don’t happen all the time, and when we find ourselves in environments that don’t offer immediate ambient solidarity, we need to find it on a micro level.
The murkiness and constantly shifted boundaries around these issues make it hard. When is a ribald joke funny, and when is it offensive? Do we have to be constantly afraid that what we do will oppress someone? How can you tell, in everyday life, what kind of interpersonal conflict is good and what kind is not?
Having a conversation is the first step – and often half the battle
There is a general stigma around talking about oppression. It’s not an easy topic, everybody has different [often contradictory] experiences with it, and it usually doesn’t make people smile or have fun to talk about. So many of our cultural norms and institutions are inherently set up in such a way as to deprive, shame, marginalize, exclude, and put down ourselves and others, no matter who you are, and then make you feel bad for wanting to address it. This is unacceptable. We have things we need to say, and we must say them. And – even more importantly – we must listen for them.
When I speak of having a conversation, I’m not talking about just any old discussion in which people speak their minds. So many of those “conversations” are nothing but exercises in theatrics and jabber-jabber-jabber; listening is not happening. When I say conversation, I’m talking about a partnership between speaker and listeners, with the goal of reaching new understandings, rather than “being right.” In conversation, it’s almost always better to aim for understanding rather than aiming to be right. How can we expect people to share their truths and say what they need to say if we don’t show a willingness and desire to put aside our own conceptions and listen?
Listening and holding space
I must give credit to a friend of mine for introducing me to the concept of “holding space,” because it’s such an apt description of what is so often badly needed. I have written before about the need for good listening, but “holding space” is an even more exact metaphor for this situation. Holding space involves:
- Entering a mind-space in which it isn’t all about you
- Committing yourself to listening to the other/others
- Letting go of judgments about them that form in your mind
- Allowing other(s) to set the tone, boundaries, and limits of their interaction with you as they so choose
- Honoring the needs and wants of the other person – which may include wanting/needing you to go away
In other words … it’s all about them, for the time being.Thanks to DailyOM and Spiritual Awakening Process for help with this list above.
A lot of this is counter-intuitive for many people. We get trained all our lives to be afraid that somebody might might use our kindness as a weakness and take advantage of us, or even hurt us. And indeed, there are limits – don’t hold space for another person if they mess with you, and don’t try to hold space you don’t have. Sometimes, you need to hold a little space for yourself first. It’s very important to feel safe!
Holding space is not just a purely healing action; sometimes, it’s a quiet firmness in the face of oppressive thinking – for example, when white musician Dave Brubeck was told that the Black band members of the Dave Brubeck Quartet could not enter a white-only club to play, he simply responded that the club had booked “The Dave Brubeck Quartet” and that this included all of its members, Black and non-Black. This created an anti-racist ‘space’ in the sense that now it was established that there was a challenge to the club owner’s racism.
It took a white person in that situation to speak up in order to get that anti-racist space, in a way that a nonwhite could not have done. If anybody ever tells you you’re privileged, that’s what you can do. Privileged people have the privilege of being able to hold space that those without such privileges often cannot, and this kind of solidarity is badly needed more often. It’s part of the solution. You are part of the solution.
What’s in it for the “privileged” folks?
If we want a world free of oppression, then those of us that play oppressive roles in society (pretty much all of us at one time or another), whether or not those roles are intentional, need to learn to stop oppressing. I think we also need to remember why this learning is important – for us as well as for the world in general.
From an oppressed standpoint, it’s easy to look at people with privilege relative to you and feel that they have nothing to complain about. But as many doors as having a privilege opens for somebody, it can also create a great deal of stress and discomfort as well.
Why is it so hard sometimes to talk about privilege? Well, first of all, because it is always invisible to the people who have it – so when they find out about their relative privilege, it suddenly messes with their thinking that we were all on the same page here, all brothers and sisters able to interact on equal ground. Few people truly rejoice in having a privilege that they did not have any sense of earning; rather, there is this creeping feeling that things are out of balance somehow, that something is not right – which the privileged person often responds to in a variety of negative ways: feeling guilty for their privilege, adamantly denying the existence of their privilege, or even just ignoring it and pretending it doesn’t exist. None of these responses help to bridge the gap between privileged and oppressed.
And while these coping mechanisms for the stress of inequality are not necessary to the same degree that coping with an oppression is required, still, the privileged/oppressed dichotomy also takes a toll on the privileged. And the only way out of this is complete solidarity with those on the oppressed side of the dichotomy. Anything less only validates the unequal status quo.
Above and beyond statistics, what we are looking for in life is intimacy. This is part of the point of listening and holding space: To understand and be understood. To understand ourselves. To connect. To feel and be included, to be welcome, to be supported and cared about. To feel meaning and be at peace.
Stop and think for a moment. This is the meaning of life. It doesn’t matter how statistically advantaged you are or much money you have – if you are lonely and disconnected and unable to feel at peace and fulfilled, it’s all a wash. You will be miserable, and you will find yourself asking what the point of continuing to live is, no matter how privileged you are.
And here is the key point: while having privileges does give many benefits, having too much privilege will make you lonelier and less happy in life. It cuts you off from truth and connection with others, distorting and falsifying the life experience.
When you become acutely aware of privilege, you will either take steps to dismantle / minimize / relinquish your privilege, or you will try to guard it. There is no “neutral” – neutral is simply another form of guarding one’s privilege. And this is why those who have privilege have homework to do: listen to those with different experiences, learn from them – never stop – and watch how you change as a person. Because if you’re doing it right, you will change – a great deal. 🙂
We can’t always eliminate every injustice everywhere, just like we can’t eliminate all bad weather everywhere. But we can be on guard. When you are aware and have aware people around you, it’s like having a solid plan for the bad weather you can’t always avoid – it’s not perfect, but it’s a whole lot better than having no plan at all, and when the energy of even a few people in a community is actively applied in a progressive, anti-oppresive fashion, everybody else can feel safer and freer to be themselves, even if only a little bit. What role do you want to play?
- About violence, how often it happens, and what it takes to stop it
- About respecting feelings, both your own and others’ feelings
- About listening, being there, and holding space
- About showing honor for the way a person chooses to self-identify
- About learning how to speak without making unnecessary judgments
- About privilege
- About how to forgive somebody when forgiving doesn’t come easy
- About how to say you’re sorry authentically, without conditions
- About how to say you’re sorry without letting somebody take advantage of you for showing vulnerability
- About avoiding dogma (“this is always the right way, and other ways are wrong”)
- About rejecting either-or notions
- About seeing deeper than labels and appearances (a poem and a short article)
- About how the loudest voice is usually not the most important or thoughtful voice, and why we need to change how we orient to softer voices.