Explaining Privilege Part 3: The Scrutiny of Oppressed Groups

A dark blue wall frames a harsh neon sign that just says, “WORK HARDER”

We often talk about privilege in terms of the positives, the benefits you receive: Resources, freedom, trust, and benefit of the doubt are extremely common ones. But what about the flip side? The opposite of privileged groups receiving the benefit of the doubt is the scrutiny of oppressed groups. 

Content Note:

This article includes many links to external websites, including news coverage and videos of police brutality, and first-hand accounts of sexual assault and other trauma; Many links also lead to disturbing material, not all of which come with a content note of their own, so click with caution.

This article includes discussion of: Ableism, sexism, police brutality, racism, victim blaming, sexual assault, trans-antagonism, and fat-shaming.

In a world where success is highly correlated with good performance, hindrances to success in life can be assumed to be tied to personal responsibility. But if your successes in life are earned, that means that if you are not successful, you are doing something wrong.

What society considers success can include a lot of things: Good physical or mental health, high job performance, acceptance into good schools, financial stability, long lasting and happy relationships, receiving awards or other formal achievements in recreational activities like art, sports, or community service etc.

When someone encounters obstacles in pursuing success and has had seemingly ample time to overcome them, we assume that they must be failing to take responsibility for their problem, or lack the information to do so. The continuing obstacle gets framed as a personal failing rather than the result of circumstance.

A wide open parking lot sports a sign dictating “One-Way” is the only direction allowed

When we hear about someone’s failure to succeed, we immediately begin looking for what they have done wrong that has caused their difficulty. This tendency comes from an urge to be helpful and correct something that is wrong. We make judgments based on what we know about the topic and what the most likely root causes are, such as a lack of dedication, focus, information, or skill. We give the person our feedback, often without being asked, with the assumption that if they just applied themselves in a few simple ways, they would overcome these obstacles and succeed.

However, we do not live in a world where success is highly correlated with good performance. As I talked about in Part 1, privileged groups disproportionately receive certain benefits from society, which in turn leads them to achieve higher levels of success more frequently than their marginalized counterparts. And yet socially, we tend to follow the steps above because we’re taught that our successes in life are determined by skill or merit, not privilege. The side effect of this process is that we scrutinize the actions of people who are marginalized, even though their suffering is due to oppression, not just their own decisions.

What is Scrutiny?

Scrutiny is the process of undermining a person’s competence, assuming the worst explanation for a person’s behavior, and/or judging someone’s actions negatively without inside information. It’s a concept we use frequently in day to day life, sometimes deservedly and sometimes not.

If you’re managing an employee that has shown a history of problem behavior, it makes sense to watch them more closely in the future, so scrutiny in this instance is deserved. If someone holds a grudge against you, they might be quicker to criticize a small misstep on your part, even if the mistake is small, or an unusual occurrence, and you are not deserving of scrutiny for it.

But scrutiny is also frequently used as a tool to enforce and perpetuate oppression of a large range of marginalized groups regardless of whether it’s deserved. It often takes the form of a type of hyper-visibility making marginalized groups a target for criticism in social contexts. This criticism can manifest in a range of ways, from seemingly small microaggressions to life changing denial of opportunities. Here are some ways scrutiny is used in social contexts.

Undermining Someone’s Competence

Many life problems are heavily influenced by oppression. But when a marginalized person explains a problem that they have that is actually exacerbated by oppression, the mere existence of a problem often invites an offer of advice from someone who isn’t marginalized in that way. However, offering advice in this context can be disrespectful if there’s a reasonable chance the person with the problem is more knowledgeable on the topic than you are.

A banner ad for Kella's Etsy shop demonstrating social justice themed products: A brown apron covered in little baking illustrations and the words "Bake the world a better place," a sticker with five colorful intersecting circles and the words "The future is intersectional", a pink mug with a pair of ice cream cones making the shape of a heart and the text "you could never be ice cream you're too hot and a person."

Take this theoretical story as an example: Ada has a chronic illness that significantly inhibits her day to day activities. She is quite likely to seek solutions or help within her power to do so because it is in her best interest to look for ways to improve her quality of life. Perhaps she googles symptoms and home remedies, discusses her issues with a doctor, sees a specialist, or tries home-hacks suggested by friends and family. But her condition isn’t well known by doctors and currently, there’s not an easy treatment for it due to lack of research, which makes managing her illness time consuming and tiring.

One day Ada goes to a party and meets Sharon. Sharon asks, “Are you going to see that music performance?” Ada responds saying she would love to but no, she has no car and public transportation is spotty in the evening. Plus her chronic illness usually leaves her too tired to get out of the house at night. Sharon says, “Oh! Have you tried turmeric? It’s wonderful for your immune system, it decreases inflammation which can help with pain…..” and proceeds to spend several minutes informing Ada about a supplement she tried three years ago in month two of her symptoms.

A large blue button labeled “Scrutiny”! So easy to push.

Ada tries to explain that she has tried turmeric, it didn’t work, she can’t afford the more concentrated version of the supplement, but this suggestion is replaced with a different one. Ada feels increasingly defensive as she is pressured into providing sufficient explanation why each of Sharon’s suggestions won’t work for her life, why those options aren’t accessible to her, and that she’s already considered these options.

The impulse to offer advice for a problem that’s influenced by oppression assumes two key falsehoods: That the person with the problem has not already sought out and attempted solutions for the problem, and that a solution within the person’s control exists.

Asserting Unequal Standing

When you initiate a conversation and you assume that you know more than the other person does about their problem, you’re creating an uneven power dynamic. You’re undermining their knowledge and competence regarding their own problem, rather than listening to them speak expertly on a subject they’re very familiar with. It’s a bit like deciding that you’re someone’s teacher, without finding out if they want a teacher, or if they are even in need of instruction on that subject. Or worse, it’s like deciding you’re their teacher, without their input, on a topic you’re unfamiliar with and they’ve studied their whole life!

Other examples of this form of scrutiny include:

These are situations where the person receiving instructions is more likely to be knowledgeable on the subject than the person giving them, and they are also likely to have fully considered their options in order to better their situation. But because they have not succeeded in fixing their oppression induced problem, their behavior is scrutinized and they are assumed to be incompetent.

An employer stands over her employee, pointing a finger, and scolding as the employee looks up at her, frightened.

Explaining the Obvious

The funny thing is, there doesn’t even need to be a problem in order for this kind of scrutiny to occur. I once mentioned to my male co-worker that I would be walking home when I got off work, at 10 pm. He seemed shocked and encouraged me to find a ride instead of walking alone in the dark. I assured him that it was a safe neighborhood and I would be fine. He said, “Well, I don’t want to scare you but there are some pretty messed up people around campus right now and I just want you to be safe.”

I was flabbergasted, not because I didn’t believe him, but because this man was under the impression that as a 27-year-old woman, I was hearing for the first time that it’s unsafe for a woman to walk alone at night and that he was the first person to tell me.

I live in a pretty safe city, but even when I repeated to him that I’d been walking at alone at night in lots of neighborhoods for almost 10 years with no problems, he maintained his concern and insisted it just wasn’t safe. He ignored my direct and extensive experience of my own risk level, and he failed to realize that as a woman, I’ve been getting coached on how unsafe it is to be a woman at night on the street since I was 12 years old. He assumed that because I was making a decision that he would not have made, I must not have the knowledge or experience to make it, even when I told him that I did.

The above situation is a pretty good example of mansplaining: The social trend in which men explaining things to women in such a way that their input is uninvited and there’s a reasonable chance their input is not necessary. Whether they are explaining a topic regarding problems women experience and men never do or an activity where the woman is more of an expert than the man is, mansplaining is well documented and most women have experienced it. But as I explained in Part 2, it’s common for people from all privileged groups to talk to their marginalized counter parts in this way, not just men, which is why we also have the terms cis-splaining, whitesplaining, straightsplaining, etc. It’s all based on asserting an uneven power dynamic and assuming incompetence of the person you’re talking to, even if you have info to the contrary.

Assuming the Worst of Someone’s Behavior

In the examples above, scrutiny didn’t look like malice and it even may have been well intentioned. But scrutiny can look much more antagonistic. We’ve all been in a position where we assumed the worst possible interpretation of the behavior of someone we didn’t trust, like if a flaky co-worker calls in sick and we assume they’re faking in order to stay home and watch the big game. But this form of scrutiny is common, and undeserved, for marginalized people.

Two security cameras look pointedly at something

Comment sections, while upsetting, can be revealing of prevailing social attitudes. If you view the comments on videos and articles documenting the fatal violence police inflict on people of color, there is a list of responses you’ll see regarding the victim:

  • He should’ve shown the cop more respect.
  • He should’ve followed the cops directions more closely.
  • He looks dangerous.
  • He was carrying something, it could’ve been a weapon.
  • If he’s innocent why was he running?
  • Why was he so nervous?
  • He had a criminal record, so he was probably up to no good.
  • He broke X law, so killing him was warranted.

These comments are striking both because they frequently aren’t supported by information available to the police at the time, (ie: the cops didn’t know at the time of the shooting whether or not the person had broken a law, so breaking the law can’t be used to justify the shooting) they advocate an unethical or unjust point of view, (our justice system does not sentence people to death for minor crimes nor are police charged with determining and executing that sentence) and most importantly, these standards are never applied to white people, including white people who are aggressive and violent towards police officers. People of color are receiving heightened scrutiny because of their race, not their actions, even when they’ve just been killed.

One such comment that stuck out to me was on a video of a police officer shooting and killing a black man. The supposed provocation for the shot was that the black man began running away when he saw police nearby. The comment said just that the police officer was saving a lot of lives by taking out this dangerous man.

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Let’s dissect that. The police had no information that the victim was violent, either from recent behavior or from criminal records. A police officer used fatal violence against the victim, in response to non-life-threatening provocation. Based off of this information, the commenter assumed the black man was violent enough to have killed or have been planning on killing multiple people.

No such judgment was made on the police officer who had just killed someone, in a non-self-defense situation. In other words, a person who was killed for no obvious reason was assumed to be more dangerous than the person who had just killed them. The black man’s motives were assumed to be the worst possible, even though there was no info to support those assumptions.

People of color suffer a great deal of this form of scrutiny, from being killed over a traffic stop, to having the cops called on them for doing their job or entering their own house, to getting followed in a grocery store because they’re suspected of shoplifting. Even children of color experience this kind of deadly scrutiny. Not only is it extremely common for people to assume the worst of the behavior of people of color, specifically, people of color are assumed to be dangerous, criminals, and untrustworthy.

A dirty, dented police car drives past

Scrutiny of Sexual Assault Victims

Similarly, comments on news stories about women who’ve been sexually assaulted are filled with scrutiny of the actions of the victim, and surprisingly little commentary on the actions of the perpetrator. Comments such as:

  • What was she wearing?
  • Why didn’t she go straight to the police?
  • She shouldn’t have been drinking

The victim’s actions directly before and after the assault are picked over with a fine tooth comb, looking for the victim’s shortcomings.

In these discussions, it’s often asserted that the woman should’ve done more to fight off her attacker, that her actions were directly responsible for the assault (otherwise known as victim blaming), or that the woman was lying in order to get attention/ruin the man’s life. Despite the discussion revolving around a horrible and traumatic event, and even if there is significant evidence that the perpetrator engaged in violent and boundary violating behavior, it is the actions of the woman that are undermined and criticized.

Judging Actions Without Inside Information

Something I’m often amused by is how often financially stable people advise me on what I’m doing wrong with my money and how I should fix it without knowing anything about my expenses, my income, or my life circumstances. I’m very curious why they think they can make an accurate assessment of my finances with absolutely no inside information, except for the fact that I’m poor. But despite that, poor people experience this barrage of financial advice surprisingly frequently.

In discussions about the movement to make minimum wage a living wage, several opposing arguments are very common:

  • The minimum wage isn’t meant to be a living wage.
  • Minimum wage jobs are meant for high schoolers, not adults.
  • If you can’t pay your bills with a minimum wage job, then get a second job.
  • If you want to be paid more, then get a different job.
  • Work hard, do your job well, climb the ladder, get paid more.

But just a few minutes of examining these points shows how much information these arguments lack.

What if the high schooler is supporting their family? What if the hours of your first job aren’t compatible with a second job? What if someone can’t work a second job because of a disability, or child care, or school, or transportation? What if there aren’t enough open positions for everyone who needs one to get a second job?

What if a person is regularly denied additional or better employment opportunities because of lack of education, lack of job experience, the city they live in, or employers who illegally discriminate against a protected class? What if a person’s employer refuses to give raises, gives small infrequent raises, or denies raises based on a personal grudge?

What about paying for health insurance and medical bills? What about the rising costs of housing in big cities? What about having to support a family on a single income? What do you do when your car breaks down or your phone stops working? What about children, and getting sick, and hobbies, and doctor’s appointments?

A sad looking person wearing glasses is surrounded by fingers pointing at her in shame

There are hundreds of variables that go into the life decisions that a person makes regarding their finances that influence the financial position they end up in. Assuming you can determine what life decisions a person should be making to fix their finances isn’t just seriously lacking in basic information, it’s condescending and extremely dehumanizing. People with small incomes are expected to behave like robots instead of people in order to earn enough to pay their bills, and if they do not behave robotically enough, they are considered lazy and a failure.

Despite the wealth of information that shows otherwise, low-income folk hear over and over again what it is that they are doing wrong that keeps them poor, no matter how little the person “educating” them knows about their situation.

Contradictory Expectations

In many cases, scrutiny of marginalized groups is so extreme that suggestions for how their behavior should change contradict themselves.

  • People of color are told that black men are killed by police when they fail to comply with the police’s instructions. But in other cases, black men are killed for moving their hands, after the police instructed them to do so, and it’s asserted that they shouldn’t have done that either.
  • When ”Millennials” talk about the poverty they face, older generations will critique their spending habits, blaming their lack of money on buying trivial things like coffee and going out to eat. But Millennials are also criticized for “killing” businesses such as chain restaurants, the diamond industry, even vacation resorts, by not spending enough money on them.
  • Women are criticized when they are hesitant to trust an unknown man and accused of being frigid or unkind but also blamed for bad judgment if they do trust a strange man who later assaults them.

Failure to Listen

Consistent throughout these three forms of scrutiny is that when a privileged person scrutinizes the actions of a marginalized person based on false assumptions of competence, intention, or relevant information, the privileged person’s assumptions could be corrected with one easy fix: listening to the marginalized person.

When Sharon was informing Ada about how she should treat her own illness, she could’ve listened to Ada’s explanations and realized she was already fully informed on the subject and didn’t need advice. Sharon could have offered support and empathy instead, or even a ride to the show.

After the black man was killed by police, the commenter could’ve listened to the evidence that suggested the police officer had acted inappropriately, and the lack of evidence that the victim was violent, and realized that the victim was killed unjustly. The commenter could have learned some new information and used it to help raise awareness of the racially driven issue of police brutality.

The people who explain my finances to me could listen when I tell them that I’m not physically able to work more than 20 hours a week, realize there’s a reason my income is low, and stop insisting my failure is due to personal responsibility. They could point me to employers that are especially flexible in accommodating people with disabilities instead.

A warm colored orange and red neon sign in cursive letters says “Change”

After listening and processing that they were wrong, the privileged groups could have changed their response and actually been helpful to the root problem. However, this is not what happens. As I talked about in Part 2, privileged people have been socialized to prioritize their own needs above marginalized people, and talk louder than they listen. We are socialized to dismiss the opinions of marginalized people, even regarding their own marginalization, while the marginalized are encouraged to let us talk over them. Something as simple as listening is exceedingly rare in these circumstances as a result.

Scrutiny Is Everywhere

I’ve only touched on a tiny fraction of the ways scrutiny plays out for oppressed groups, but here are a few more:

The more marginalized groups you are a member of, the more likely your behavior is to be questioned, undermined, and distrusted regardless of exonerating evidence to the contrary.

Why It Matters

In Part 4, I’ll be looking at the flip side of this coin: marginalized people suffer scrutiny, but in the same circumstances, privileged people receive get-out-of-jail-free cards, regardless of their actions or behavioral patterns.

As I mentioned in the beginning, scrutiny follows marginalized people because we conflate success with merit: If you are succeeding, that means you must have things figured out. But success often implies a few other things too: You’re skilled, you’re competent, you’re dedicated, you’re ethical, you’re trustworthy, and that is way you have succeeded. If you are failing, it means you’re doing something wrong, but also: You’re incompetent, you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re lazy, your behavior is harmful to yourself or others, you can’t be trusted, and your actions have rightly kept you from succeeding.

Even knowing that it isn’t always the case, assuming skill and dedication go along with success makes sense, but when morality starts to creep into our assumptions about successful people, we run into problems. We aren’t just making a judgment about good or bad behavior, we’re making a judgment about good or bad people.

We assume that people who have money, who are attractive, who have good jobs, who have an education are good people, whereas people who are poor, who don’t fit society’s expectations for appearance, who work low paying jobs or are unemployed, or who are uneducated are bad people. Success implies moral virtue as well as skill.

A banner ad for Kella's Etsy shop demonstrating social justice themed products: A brown apron covered in little baking illustrations and the words "Bake the world a better place," a sticker with five colorful intersecting circles and the words "The future is intersectional", a pink mug with a pair of ice cream cones making the shape of a heart and the text "you could never be ice cream you're too hot and a person."

Our society promotes people who are white, male, cis, able-bodied, attractive, Christian, and wealthy much more frequently than their marginalized counterparts, meaning they are much more likely to be successful and to be seen as examples of good people. Which means that we associate being white, male, cisgender, able-bodied, attractive or Christian with being a good person. We associate being a person of color, female or nonbinary, genderqueer, disabled, unattractive, poor, atheist, religious but non-Christian, or anything not the default with being a bad person. This pattern, in turn, encourages us to scrutinize the second set of groups even further.

Our social patterns reinforce the oppression of people whose actions and character are not accurately assessed. We dismiss, distrust and dehumanize marginalized people and use our faulty conclusions to explain our failure to promote them to positions of success in the first place. We then turn around and use their lack of success as evidence that their entire demographic is lacking in virtue. We keep marginalized people oppressed and blame them for not bootstrapping their way out of the cage that we built for them.

This article is Part 3 in an educational series called Explaining Privilege:


About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. She specializes in educational writing about civil rights, disability, chronic illness, abuse, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, and Splain You a Thing and in 2022, she released a self-published book of poetry, “Pet: the Journey from Abuse to Recovery“. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Medium, and Twitter.

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