I — like so many other people, especially white people — was socialized into believing there are no systems of oppression, especially racism. For a long time I was under the impression all that stuff ended a long time ago, and I never really thought about it or talked about. And on the rare occasion when I had a conversation about racism with other white people, it usually went something like this:
“Remember Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? That was his whole thing you know, ending racism. We got rid of slavery and Jim Crow laws and passed the Civil Rights Act, so it’s all good. And because there’s no racism there’s nothing else wrong, and people who are poor or don’t have health care or whatever are just bad people who didn’t work hard because we have equality now and they should be doing just fine. Plus, I work with a black guy, and therefore interact with someone of a different race than me everyday and it doesn’t like end in a lynching, so I’m cool.”
It took me a long time for me to realize our society is messed up. Then I started reading books and blogs, and the next thing I know I was freaking out because I realized I was a terrible racist, ableist, transphobic person with internalized misogyny, classism and fatphobia this entire time. I contributed to the oppression of others, even though I did it inadvertently and with kindness in my heart.
And I was queer. I was a member of an oppressed group and I was an oppressor. How could this be?
I’m not alone: As members of our society, we have all contributed to oppression and privilege. It’s impossible not to when we’ve been socialized our entire lives into racist, ableist, transphobic, misogynistic, classist, agist, heterosexist and body negative institutions that create oppressive social rules, classes and statuses that privilege some and oppress others. These social structures are so ingrained in us, because they’re so pervasive and they’ve always been a part of our lives, that it’s hard for us to even realize they exist, let alone acknowledge them and question them.
I don’t know who to blame, and I don’t want to waste my time on that. I want to do what I can to change it, and that starts with talking about it. And I’m starting right here at home, with my queer and LGBT communities.
We have to talk about our issues. We can’t not. I know, these are not exactly topics of polite conversation. It’s not fun or easy—no difficult subject ever is. But we can’t keep on thinking these problems don’t exist just because it’s uncomfortable to talk about them. It’s hard enough getting people to believe racism still exists, let alone the myriad of other problems we have within our community, and if we can’t confront them, how can we counteract them?
My skin is white. I contribute to white supremacy all the time just by interacting in the world as a white person, because our society and subcultures still value whiteness over all other races and ethnicities. That gives me privilege whether I like it or not.
Ignoring that doesn’t make it go away. No one wants to admit they have privilege or that entire groups of people generally have privilege because of their identity or what people perceive to be their identity. Every single workshop I’ve ever been to about power, privilege and oppression, there’s at least one person who derails the presenter with a comment like, “Well, you say white people have economic privilege, but my best friend’s uncle is white and he lives off welfare and food stamps, so you’re wrong.”
Right. There are exceptions to every rule. Why is everyone so quick to deny privilege and take pointing out privilege as a personal attack because they belong to the privileged class? Maybe it’s a symptom of the Oppression Olympics. At any rate, these are societal systems of oppression that effect individual’s lives everyday, even if it effects them differently. It’s usually very subtle; it’s not something that’s always tangible, but it’s there. Pretending they don’t exist or finding an exception doesn’t make it go away.
Anyway, the point is, I can fight against white supremacy. As a white person, my skin color is considered normal and is considered desirable; therefore, my opinion carries more weight and is taken more seriously by other people, especially white people. I must use that power to openly confront issues of race, call out racism, deconstruct white privilege and amplify, but not trample over, the input of others that is dismissed because they are not in the privileged group. This same idea applies to my cisgender privilege, and all other systems of privilege and oppression in society. When discussing allyship, this is what I mean.
It’s no accident we organize around identity — people are more likely to find common ground or solace with someone with the same identity. While that is important, it breeds tunnel vision, allowing us to ignore all other identities, groups and issues because we’re focusing on what only applies specifically to our identity group. But no person can be equated to one identity — we’re all a complex mix of histories, oppression, privilege and circumstance. Acknowledging the intersectionality of our community, approaching organizing with an open mind, educating ourselves on our differences, striving to be inclusive and facing our problems is the only way we can move forward.
Here is some basic further reading. I couldn’t find great resources on everything I wanted to cover, so please leave additional suggestions in the comments:
- Checking Your Privilege 101
- White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
- Racism and White Supremacy
- How We Are Socialized
- Five Things You Should Know About Ableism
- What is Classism?
- Transgender 101