CN: extensive discussion of the mechanics of oppression, oppression-based violence and discrimination, and racism; brief discussion of ableism, sexism, trans-antagonism.
Note: This article was published after the first week of Black Lives Matter protests but it was written back in March. Due to seasonal health issues, from mid-May until September I am rendered almost completely incapable of writing new material which meant that I could not write a response to current events. A guest article centering black voices that is more directly about the current situation is on its way but I decided that rather than skipping a week of publishing, I’d publish this educational article that was both relevant to the uprisings and happened to feature a higher proportion of examples about how these concepts apply to racism. These are the reasons why the photos and links in this blog post refer to current events but the blog post itself does not.
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If you’ve spent any amount of time involved in public discussions of specific instances of racism, sexism, anti-LGBT antagonism, ableism, etc. chances are you’ve heard the phrase, “It goes both ways.”
A story: a family was pushing their disabled grandmother in her wheelchair around an airport when a staff member told them they needed to move the wheelchair out of the way. The woman pushing the chair tried to carefully edge around the staff member but he blocked her path and then accused her of ramming the wheelchair into him on purpose. Totally baffled by the event, the writer of the story theorized that a mixture of racism and ableism toward her grandmother was behind the staff member’s outburst.
After I read this story, I happened to glance at the comments (I know, I know, always a bad idea). While it’s well documented that wheelchair users are regularly subjected to ableist abuse, particularly regarding how much physical space they take up, one commenter took issue with focusing on this societal problem: “Given the number of times people in wheelchairs have rammed the back of my legs, I can assure you, it goes both ways.”
Ah, there it is, that familiar refrain. There will always be at least one person in any discussion of discrimination who insists that the poor treatment they’ve received, either from a marginalized person or a random stranger, is equivalent to the harm that marginalized groups suffer when they encounter a similar but notably bigotry-based situation.
“Why does the term “mansplaining” have to be so gendered? You don’t have to be a man to be condescending. I know lots of condescending women!”
“Once, I met a black man who hated ALL white people!”
“You don’t know for certain that they were treating you like that because you’re trans. People are just mean sometimes.”
And so comes into focus the issue of equating a life challenge with an instance of oppression. Were they really being bigoted or are they just being rude? Was this tragedy caused by your oppression or just by chance? Were you denied for the position because of your marginalized status or could it be because there was simply a competitive pool of candidates? While these questions don’t all have straight-forward answers, they are frequently used as a weapon to dilute the severity of oppression-based problems.
When we undermine someone’s life-altering issue by framing it as something that everyone deals with, we dismiss the magnitude of the societal problems that contextualize bigotry, we disrespect marginalized people’s ability to assess their own problems, we discourage the pursuit of solutions for widespread unearned suffering, and we sign off on allowing that suffering to continue.
Why Are These Two Ideas Mixed Up So Frequently?
When you are not a member of a marginalized group, there are many layers of the impact of oppression that you’re not aware of because society has actively hidden them from you. You don’t know the nuances of a marginalized group’s experiences, and you also don’t know what you don’t know.
As a result, we only see the manifestations of oppression and discrimination that are on the surface level or above, like looking at the tiny peak of the iceberg, which is the only part above the water. The only way oppression is visible to us is when it’s blatant and obvious. Without the context of the meters of ice in every direction under the water, we’re lead to believe that the problems of oppression start at the surface.
Image provided by the Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence
That commenter saw a scenario where a single person was unnecessarily rude to a disabled person. Since he’s experienced individual disabled people being unnecessarily rude to him too, he thought his experience was easily comparable to an issue that actually results in violence and harassment for wheelchair users on a daily basis.
The conflation of a life difficulty and an instance of oppression happens when people define oppression as an individual action intending to hurt or undermine you rather than a widespread cultural attitude that will be encouraged and enforced no matter where you go.
But because privilege protects us from an entire ecosystem of institutional, financial, and social discrimination, a privileged person only sees these individual instances of cruelty or disrespect. Rather than understanding that this disrespect is worsened by the background of oppression, they come to think that the disrespectful attitude on its own, with no context, is the problem.
How Is Oppression Different from Normal Life Challenges?
If a random person punched you in the face, for no reason, that would be horrible, painful, and potentially traumatizing. No one deserves to be treated that way. But if the event were truly random and not caused by any larger environmental or social problem, you wouldn’t have good reason to believe that it would happen again. If that same person punched you on multiple occasions, you have a bigger problem on your hands but as long as you find a way of handling that one person– reporting them to law enforcement, avoiding where that person spends time, etc– your problem would end. It would be a horrible series of events that would take time to recover from, but after it was over, you’d likely be able to move on from it.
But what if it was a different person punching you every day? Some of them punch you. Some of them kick you. Some of them pretend they’re about to punch you and then pull back at the last second and laugh. Some of them don’t punch you but you can never tell by looking at them who wants to punch you and who will just walk by.
To avoid the incessant violence, you move to a different neighborhood but the people there quickly begin to punch you too. A coworker punches you. You report your coworker to your boss but your boss threatens to punch you if you don’t drop it. The staff at retail stores and banks follow you around looking for an opportunity to punch you. You try to keep your head down, be invisible, but people say you’re acting suspicious and that probably means you deserve to be punched. You try to report the violence to law enforcement but when the police show up, they ignore your attacker and punch you instead. No amount of adjusting your own behavior or location or relationships makes the punching stop. The source of the danger is everywhere and there is no way to hold anyone accountable for hurting you because the people in charge of handling those problems also want to punch you.
A single specific dangerous person punching you randomly is a “life challenge.” The problem was legitimately terrible, the danger was real, the impact on your well-being was severe but the problem was also specific to that person. Once that person was removed from the equation, the problem ended. Perhaps over the course of your life, you run into a handful of dangerous people like that, but more often then not, without the influence of existing social issues, you can count on strangers not to punch you.
The second scenario of inescapable punching from every direction is “oppression.” The problem is not the individual people doing the punching but the system and environment that everyone moves through, and as a result, it is not within the power of the victim to do anything to eliminate the danger they face.
That’s a pretty exaggerated example (although I encourage you to click on the links to see real-life manifestations of this thought experiment) so let’s look at some concrete differences in the mechanics of oppression vs. life difficulties everyone has.
Responsibility is Placed on the Group Instead of the Individual
It’s pretty intuitive that there is a difference between someone being mean to you and being racist/sexist/fill in the blank _ist to you. But what exactly is that difference?
Being mean to someone usually entails blaming/criticizing someone for their actions (rightly or wrongly). Being _ist entails placing the blame for the problem behavior on the fact that they are part of a marginalized group, and, frequently, that criticism is not necessarily based on the person’s actual behavior.
By referencing a stigmatized group as part of your criticism, you can easily interpret any behavior through a filter of stigma and turn it into something to criticize. By emphasizing their marginalized status, you are putting responsibility, not just for their actions, but for the actions of the entire group they are part of (typically through no choice of their own) onto their shoulders.
But because the “source” of the stigma is actually the larger marginalized group, not the individual’s actions, the marginalized person has no avenue to adjust their behavior and fix the problem.
There Is No Simple Avenue to Resolution
Imagine that there’s someone that you dislike, and over time, your bias towards them becomes disproportionate to the original actions that caused the dislike in the first place. You’ll see their mistakes in the worst possible light, you’ll dismiss their better moments as flukes, etc. This is a set of behaviors we’ve all fallen prey to at some point in our lives.
When we have power over this person, the decisions that we make about what resources to give and to withhold, what to reward, and what to punish, are going to get skewed. We might feel like this child is whiny and demanding and as a result, we might miss it when they truly need help. We might believe this employee to be lacking in drive and team spirit and decide to pass over them for a promotion they were actually an excellent fit for. When we have power over someone, our bias can cause a lot more undeserved damage to them.
Holding this kind of unfounded or exaggerated bias against someone is unethical, but typically, the problem behaviors are directed toward just one person. In theory, you might be able to expand your understanding of the person and reduce the impact of your bias or else they may able to leave behind the relationship with you for something better.
But if your bias is caused by their marginalized status, there’s nothing they can do to work that out with you. There is nothing they can improve on because their actions are completely irrelevant to your opinion of them (otherwise, the same actions coming from a non-marginalized person would equally bother you), which means the only way to resolve the issue is for you to deprogram your bigotry.
Additionally, the consequences of bigotry-based bias are rarely exclusive to just one person. What happens when you hold a bias against every employee or patient or child that looks like they are part of that marginalized group? What happens when the majority of society holds a bias against that marginalized group? What happens when all of them are manifesting their bias, in all sorts of little ways, throughout their life? What happens when everyone has a bias toward the same group of people at the same time?
And how is a marginalized person supposed to cope with this situation? As I discussed in “Power Dynamics Part 2: Privilege and Power“:
“Marginalized people simply don’t have the same ability to control the narrative or enforce consequences the way privileged people do…They are also discouraged from reporting the problems or otherwise bringing authority into the problem in part because the scrutiny and judgment of a marginalized person is not exclusive to this one person harassing them. Those same patterns are likely present (often unconsciously, sometimes not) in any authority figure the marginalized person may seek out for support… and their authority figures are more likely to have a background of privilege and therefore identify with the privileged person’s position more than with the marginalized person, making it extremely difficult to get control over your own narrative.”
When your options for recourse are controlled by people with more power than you, and all of them have an unconscious bias against you and everyone like you, you have no recourse or way of permanently resolving issues that result from the bias. Even if one particular manifestation of oppression is resolved, the same issue will manifest in another way in another part of your life later on.
The Challenge of Dealing with Marginalization in Addition to a Life Crisis
In addition to handling oppression and bigotry-based problems, marginalized people also experience the kind of normal chance-based problems that affect everyone regardless of background on top of that. They encounter people who are mean just because, they experience sudden devastating loss, they handle random instances of bad luck. But they have to manage both normal life problems and marginalization.
And unfortunately, that marginalization makes coping with ordinary problems a lot harder. Being marginalized, your chances of encountering conflicts are automatically higher due to prevailing societal bigotry. Less privilege means fewer sources of assistance which means that you have fewer resources to spend on pre-emptively preventing potential crisis’, which then makes you more vulnerable to them.
When these crises inevitably occur, you may not receive any kind of institutional help to deal with them and may even suffer outright antagonism from the institutions you try to seek help from. The risk of potential conflict due to your marginalization also continues after something bad has already happened, which means you may suffer additional abuse during your process of attempting to recover, making that process slower. Social scrutiny of marginalized groups can manifest as harassment and blame for not handling your conflict better or not bouncing back faster.
With all these added complications, the overall damage the life crisis does will be more severe for a marginalized person than for a privileged person handling the same problem. The worse the damage, the harder it is to avoid the next one.
Hurting the Vulnerable Because They Are Vulnerable
Being the victim of cruelty or abuse is always horrible, but being the victim of harassment, violence, or severe negligence because you are marginalized is inherently different than being the victim due to luck, general malice, or a specific rude person.
Bullies pick on the smallest, weakest, least popular kids because they are the easiest to bully without consequences and because the bullying will have the most impact on the weak ones. It would be wrong and hurtful for any kid to be bullied but the decision to bully the most vulnerable kid is more unethical precisely because more damage can be done to them. “You shouldn’t kick someone when they’re down,” means, you shouldn’t enact further harm on someone who’s already suffering and less able to defend themselves. For this reason, being the victim of bigotry based discrimination in inherently worse than being the victim of random malice.
The Harm this Problem Causes
The differences between life challenges and oppression-based challenges are clear but why is it so important that we don’t conflate the two? What’s wrong with offering our own (privileged) perspective about our vaguely similar experience during a conversation about bigotry?
Undermining Marginalized People’s Ability to Assess Their Own Problems
When we dismiss someone else’s experience of bigotry as just a normal part of life, in addition to undermining the severity, we’re also dismissing marginalized people’s ability to assess their own life experiences.
When you aren’t the member of a given marginalized group, you’re not typically aware of the degree to which oppression impacts every social interaction marginalized people encounter. Bigotry is a “normal” part of life for them, in addition to the life challenges everyone else goes through.
But there is no guidebook to help you determine which problems are bigotry based and which ones are random, which means marginalized people spend their entire lives honing their ability to tell the difference. The people in the best position to tell which version they are experiencing at a given moment are the people that have the most relevant experience making that judgment call.
So when we tell a marginalized person, “There are rude people of every gender,” or, “yeah, I’ve been turned down for jobs before too,” we’re not just downplaying their current suffering. We’re dismissing their lifelong expertise on a subject that we likely have had very little experience handling. The person who is the least qualified to tell whether an action is bigotry-based or not is the person who has never been the recipient of that kind of bigotry.
Concealing the True Nature and Purpose of Oppression
Because of the frequent conflation of life difficulties with sources of oppression, the nature and purpose of oppression are frequently misunderstood. Taking racism as an example of a more overarching problem, white people often like to describe racism as meaning that you are judging someone based on the color of their skin, that racism is primarily about judgment, about only engaging with someone as they appear on the surface rather than as they are as a whole person. But this characterization of racism misses key aspects of the problem.
The purpose of racism (and all the other isms) isn’t just cruelty. The purpose is profit.
When you have a society designed around the oppression of people of color, it’s not a coincidence that white people are given the majority of the ability to make the decisions about how our society is run, the majority of the money, and the majority of the social trust. It’s not a coincidence that it is substantially easier to become successful, to gain access to resources, or to escape consequences for your actions when you’re white in a white supremacist society.
The point of white supremacy is to ensure that white people have constant access to these privileges by consistently denying them to people of color. The point is to create a society in which white people get whatever they want, which can only happen if those resources are given out unequally.
Cruelty is certainly relevant to racism and the other isms, but not the way Martin Luther King assemblies performed for white children might lead you to believe. The cruelty is not just the result of bad people who enjoy being mean. The cruelty serves a very specific and calculated purpose.
Designing a system to not just disadvantage but punish people of color for achieving any kind of success, freedom, or autonomy, ensures that people of color are discouraged from fighting back. Cruelty breaks peoples’ spirits, which makes them much easier to control, much easier to continue to oppress. Having the freedom to engage in this cruelty also serves as a morale booster for white people by reinforcing that they are part of the “in-group” as a result of their supposedly inherent superiority.
The cruelty is not the result of random people being mean. It’s a calculated tool used to preserve white people’s freedom and access to infinite resources, regardless of their merit. Misrepresenting this intricate system as simple disrespect allows white people, and all other privileged groups, to blame racism, or other forms of marginalization, on bad individuals and ignore the root of the problem.
Abdicating Responsibility for a Serious but Fixable Problem
The purpose of the phrase “it goes both ways” is to conflate systemic oppression with a personal problem, thereby undermining the seriousness of a marginalized person’s experience with bigotry, and enabling privileged people to use the word “oppression” to describe their personal struggles.
Let’s say that during a discussion about racial discrimination, I claimed that individual black people being distrustful of me, a white person, is just as much of a problem as institutional racism toward people of color.
Rather than directing awareness and energy toward fixing a serious problem that doesn’t affect me, I’d be centering myself and my own problems. I’d effectively be asking for that energy to be directed toward me, even if my problem was a one time issue and not a culture-wide system that’s been used for thousands of years. By centering myself in a conversation that’s not about me, I’m saying that my problems are the most important andthat we should stop spending time focusing on people far more vulnerable than me. As long as we’re talking about me, a privileged person, we are also neglecting the suffering of marginalized people. That is the intended purpose of the phrase, “it goes both ways.”
For those whose goal it is to deny the very real consequences of oppression and our part in perpetuating them, it is very much in their best interest to demote oppression based problems to the status of an average difficulty. By recategorizing aspects of oppression as just a part of life that everyone goes through, they’re able to avoid reckoning with the seriousness of the problem and abdicate any responsibility they might have as an individual to address the problem.
This choice is very convenient to individuals who would be otherwise unaffected by systemic racism (and other isms) and this choice ensures that the problems at the root of oppression will continue to be ignored and will never get solved.
Dismissing acts of oppression as just part of life helps conceal the fact that the structures that enforce and encourage oppression can be changed. For example, you can’t stop a hurricane from coming. You can ensure that you have well-developed systems for getting people to safety, repairing the damage, and ensuring everyone has the resources they need to survive.
By pretending that a lack of institutional support after a national disaster is an inherent part of that type of crisis, you allow those problems to go unaddressed and cause unlimited amounts of damage. By pretending that racism is just a collection of individual mean people acting independently, we allow the continuation of racially motivated police brutality, the school to prison pipeline, voter suppression, hate crimes, medical neglect, wage inequality, housing instability, and many other life-threatening racially-based problems. We allow the continuation of all these problems and many more as they disproportionately affect women, LGBT folks, the cognitively and physically disabled, those of non-christian religions and lack thereof, and poor people.
We have a choice about whether we allow these problems to continue or not. We have the ability to reduce them or stop them altogether. If we have the option to reduce suffering for people whose lives are dangerous through no fault of their own, we should choose harm reduction.
About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. In addition to creating a collection of educational resources for social justice, she works as a freelance writer specializing in content about her experience with disability, chronic illness, mental health, and trauma. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, Betty’s Battleground, and Splain You a Thing. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Instagram.