What is up with the trouble people have hearing and believing other people's experiences of oppression? This is a pattern I've noticed recently and I'm trying to figure out what the deal is.
The part that really puzzles me is hearing this sort of dismissal or denial from people who would not deny that oppression exists, in general; they only deny it in whatever specific case they're hearing about right then.
After Prof. Gates was arrested by the Cambridge, Mass. police (Google it if you don't know, I'm too lazy to link anything right now) I heard a lot of white folks saying something along the lines of oh, this probably wasn't really racism; it was just two men being jerks; why jump to a conclusion of racism; and other things like that.
Similarly, FG was telling a relative recently about the hostility we'd encountered from our last landlady, which seemed almost certain to be rooted in homophobia. "Oh, surely you jest," the relative protested, and another backed her up: "It's just so hard to believe." I've had this experience, too; one relative was extremely dubious that anyone ever stared at me on public transit. Even when I assured her that it was a nearly daily experience, she wanted to insist that I was probably misinterpreting the situation.
I'm trying to watch out for this instinct in myself now, too. I found myself thinking, of a local woman-owned business that was trying to raise money to meet an unexpected tax bill: oh, they must have done something wrong. I stopped myself there, a) since there's no reason to make that assmption, b) unexpected tax bills do in fact happen, and c) even if they messed up, so what? They're a good business and a good presence in the community.
I think my reaction was rooted in a desire to believe that the world is fundamentally just and that the system works. I want to believe that if I do the right thing, I will be rewarded. I want to believe that I am not at the mercy of structures and systems that care nothing for me as a person, at best, and are informed by oppression & prejudice against me, at worst. And on the other hand, as a white person who's had some major advantages, such as parents who were willing to invest in a college education for me, I suppose I would prefer to believe that I've just been a personal success, rather than benefiting from unfair systems, too.
I wonder, though, how we can get past that reflexive defensiveness. I suspect it's crucial to progress. How can someone really take homophobia/racism/classism/sexism seriously if they only concede it as an abstract concept and deny it, and blame the victim, in every immediate circumstance in their lives?