Friday, 7 August 2009

Thoughts on Denial of Oppression

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?


CAB said...

Maybe I've missed the point, but I think most people react with disbelief because it's very difficult to put yourself in someone else's shoes and to see what they are experiencing, partially because in doing so it often requires introspection that can be scary.

It's much easier to assume the world is fair and just.

Leo MacCool said...

@ CAB: yeah, i think that's right. i guess my ultimate question is, how can people learn / be taught to react differently & see from others' perspectives more easily? how to make that safer or more natural? because i think that doing that is a necessary step on the road to greater justice. but that's just my opinion, man.

alphafemme said...

I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that these kinds of reactions are "rooted in a desire to believe that the world is fundamentally just and that the system works." Because if we acknowledge that it's a faulty system, it's like peering over the edge of a huge cliff and looking down and realizing, that's quite a fall. It's a HUGE responsibility to realize the system doesn't work and we're all responsible. Huge. Also, for me anyway, I *prefer* to think the best of people, so I'm always hopefully presenting alternatives to people just being prejudiced. But, well... I think mostly people *are* prejudiced. Sigh.

Haizey said...

I think that one of the ways to try and change this situation is to continue to explain that your experience is exactly that, something that you have experienced not something that you think may happen. Great post Leo! said...

Maybe I'm more cynical. I assume they are telling the truth.

...unless they cry wolf a lot. I know people who think EVERYONE'S after them because of their race/gender/sexuality.

In every story where someone indicates a person's race in the story then later come to find it had no relevance to the story all the way up to outright bashing.

I see it everywhere.

Possibly even when it's not there. I can't be sure.

The only way to stop it is stop doing it yourself and educate others to do the same.

So you're already making a giant leap. :)

My word verification: de tick em.


nattnightly said...

I think the other thing this highlights is often people's lack of awareness about their own privilege, whether that manifest as economic, educational, class, race or any other form.

Melissa Harris Lacewell said something that I feel was very insightful about racial privileged when she was talking about Katrina. She observed that a lot of people were very angry about the aftermath of the hurricane and the failure of response teams, etc, but that people of color tended to see it as a race issue, while white people tended to see it as a bureaucratic issue.

I don't think white people are asked to think critically about our race on a day to day basis for the most part. We only become aware that we even HAVE a race when it's pointed out to us. It's similar to the way some men don't think of themselves as having a gender (ie they don't go around critically thinking about the fact that they're male and that such a fact informs their experience.)

I think the first step towards understanding the discrimination of others to to be critical of ourselves and promote awareness of how our own situations inform everything we know. I can't say I think it's going to be safe. For myself, my awareness came with me dragging my feet. I didn't want to think about how the fact that I had the opportunity to college was a privileged, or that growing up in an upper middle class family informed certain judgments I made.

The inwardly critical gaze I think is necessary because if we're really honest with ourselves, we have to take ownership of the things we say and do in new and difficult ways. Ways that may be exhausting, or unpleasant. It means actively pushing against the problematic structures in place, and not acquiescing or letting things go automatically.

I'm not saying necessarily that we become militant and angry, but that we foster awareness in ourselves about the implications of our words and actions, and learn to articulate them, framed by self, in a way that allows us to reach out to others and ask them to think critically about their own experiences as well.

Eli said...

great post. and i agree with alphafeme: "It's a HUGE responsibility to realize the system doesn't work and we're all responsible."

of course, by denying others' experiences of oppression, people are only perpetuating the patterns of oppression that they don't want to believe exists...