What oppression is

What may seem like a very small deal to you, to us may be yet another wearying and soul-destroying slight. -- Tami, "When Allies Fail"

Privatized terms so dominate the public discourse that it is difficult to see or appreciate social evil, communal wrong, states of affairs that implicate us whether we will it or not.... For people who don't believe that there is such a thing as institutional racism, statements alleging oppression sound like personal attacks, declarations of war. They seem to scrape deep from the cultural unconscious some childish feelings of wanting to belong by forever having others as extensions of oneself, of never being told of difference, of not being rent apart by the singularity of others, of the privilege of having the innocence of one's most whimsical likes respected. It is a feeling that many equate with the quintessence of freedom; this powerful fancy, the unconditionality of self-will alone. It is as if no others exist and no consequences redound; it is as if the world were like a mirror, silent and infinitely flat, rather than finite and rippled like a pool of water. -- Patricia Williams, "The Obliging Shell"

I'll be using the word "oppression" in this essay quite a bit to describe the ways in which dominant groups organize -- usually without any conscious intent -- to protect their position as dominant groups, usually making life more difficult for people in less privileged groups (otherwise known as oppressed classes) in the process. "Oppression" may seem like a strong word to people who have never been aware of experiencing it, but I make no apologies for that. Oppression means limiting someone else's choices through coercion; it can take many different forms, not just the violent, governmental ones we're used to thinking of when we hear "oppression", but also ostracism that's perpetuated by informal social structures. Both are about using power to let someone know they're not welcome in a particular space. The effect is to let people know they're not as human as the oppressors are, while also limiting where they can go and what they can do in a concrete way. It's oppression when someone else unfairly makes your life harder because they have the power to do so, rather than because you did anything wrong.

If you're not sure what it means to feel unwelcome in a community, this essay on queer people trying to find a place in a different community (that of people who like video games) might be helpful.

If my use of the word "oppression" makes you feel uncomfortable, or like you're being accused of something you don't think you did, I would encourage you to take some time to reflect on why you feel that way. Rather than blaming me for making you feel uncomfortable -- something that I don't think would be very productive -- ask yourself what combination of feelings and experiences within you is making you feel that way. Many people react to dialogue about oppression by centering their own feelings: they try to shift the discussion from the feelings and experiences of people who experience oppression to how they themselves feel about being called oppressors. Perhaps hearing the word "oppression" -- something they may have believed was reserved for describing past events (like slavery in the United States) or things that people far removed from themselves do (like genocide) -- used to describe behavior they have themselves engaged in makes them feel guilty.

"I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one's own actions or lack of action." -- Audre Lorde, "The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism"

The sort of binarist, black-and-white, essentialist thinking that is popular in American culture might lead you to believe that once you've been painted with the "oppressor" brush, you are forever irredeemable, so there's no point in even trying to be better. I suggest it's more conducive to justice to see yourself as a good person who may have done oppressive things, and to ask how to do fewer of them in the future. When I talk about my experiences of oppression and people in higher social positions than me refuse to hear me by dwelling in their own guilt and defensiveness, I just feel more locked into my subordinate status. When these people put aside their guilt and defensiveness long enough to listen, on the other hand, I feel that we can make progress. It's very frustrating to feel that you cannot speak out about your own suffering because you'll just be accused of hurting the people who are making you suffer, or because you'll be told that the people who are hurting you aren't doing it on purpose and therefore you're not allowed to stop them.

A person who I respect very much and whose intentions I'm confident are good asked me if there was a different word I could use other than "oppression". This person understood what I meant by it, but said that it turns some people off -- that it makes them stop listening. I thought about it for a while, and concluded that part of the nature of an oppressive social order is that it takes away the very words we might use to describe its effect.

And so on. Part of what it means to be silenced -- not by police or armies or other overt forms of majority power, but by the constant threat of social rejection -- is to be deprived of the language to talk about what has happened to you. Part of what it means is also to be deprived of the language to relate your experiences to those of others, so you can stop being alone, and so you can show that what happened to you is not an isolated incident. The ability to make connections, to see patterns, is at the very heart of what people in power want to take away from us when they say we shouldn't use accusatory words like "oppression". To describe the patterns is the first step towards organizing to redistribute power more effectively, which is exactly what those who have power under the current order don't want.

The problem is not the words that I use to describe the process by which people in some social groups dominate others. The problem is that challenging domination makes the people who are engaging in dominance insecure, defensive, and uncomfortable. The kind of domination I'm talking about is not the intentional kind, but rather, the kind that happens when you behave naturally and unthinkingly.

To me, it's important to call oppression "oppression" and not give in to pressure to call it something less harsh, more accommodating, more considerate of the feelings of oppressors. How would you feel if you weren't free to talk about what has happened to you, if you constantly felt the weight of social norms that required you to moderate your self-reporting to accommodate the very people who benefit from your pain? Would you start silencing yourself? Would you eventually burst under the stress of having to censor yourself so thoroughly? Would you internalize what you'd been taught, and start hurting yourself? Would you speak up anyway, and be ostracized for it? Would you lose your livelihood for being honest about your life? If you're inclined to turn the discussion to your own feelings by telling me that I shouldn't call it oppression because it's really not that bad, please take a moment to try to take my point of view.

I imagine that some people will still be lost at this point, and that's okay; I don't need to reach everybody. If you still are more outraged that a queer person would describe the effects of repeated verbal violence that is legitimized by every level of the society in which they live as "oppression" than that some people have to live with a choice between honesty and social inclusion, you should probably stop reading at this point.

Oppression Is Not Offense

Frequently, people confuse oppressive speech with speech that "offends somebody" or "makes somebody take offense". However, characterizing oppression as simply "being offended" is a way for oppressors to trivialize it. The rhetorical trick here is to reframe oppression (which is only possible for someone in a group that's socially recognized as having power to do to people in a group that's socially recognized as being subordinate to the powerful group) as merely "being offended". Anyone can say something to offend anybody else, so replacing the concept of "oppression" with "offense" is a way of erasing power differences, of avoiding the need to talk about them and of attributing different outcomes that arise from systematic differences in power to the random vagaries of individual behavior.

To be anti-oppressive, it's a good idea to erase the concepts of "offense" and "being offended" from your vocabulary, at least when it comes to how you respond to accusations of being oppressive. Saying that you offended somebody when you actually oppressed them is a way of avoiding the need to take responsibility for your actions.

Words have power. It's words, after all, that are largely responsible for maintaining the subordinate status of gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, transgender, and transsexual Americans. One such word is "marriage", at least when it's defined as simultaneously being one of the most important ways an adult can take responsibility as a full member of society, and being something that is denied to people in visibly queer relationships. Defining "marriage" in a way that excludes queer people is one of the ways in which people influence others to continue thinking of queer people as lower and lesser. And the belief that queer people are their social inferiors is, in turn, what makes some heterosexual people feel empowered to commit acts of psychological and physical violence against them. When words foster hate, hate has a way of making itself known in real and concrete ways, and it would be disingenuous to claim that words had nothing to do with it.

In contrast, a queer person might cause a heterosexual person to feel offended by calling them a "breeder" (although a lot of heterosexual people would probably just laugh it off, thick-skinned beings as they are), but that momentary feeling of offense would not translate into any lasting, harmful consequences for the heterosexual person. The queer person does not have the power to maintain an overarching social structure that excludes heterosexual people from full participation and makes them feel like they are less valuable. The queer person certainly doesn't have the ability to inspire other queer people to engage in violence against heterosexual people that they will get away with. Violence is punished swiftly when it's committed by out-group members against in-group members. And the queer person has no ability to influence the educational system to teach children that heterosexual people are lesser beings, since heterosexual people run the educational system.

Words have consequences, and consequences are the difference between an oppressive comment and a merely offensive one. As Kinsey Hope wrote, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can mobilize an entire society in violent hate against me."

Oppression Is What Happens When You Do Nothing

A male in our society receives his exaggerated social valuation with the application of the pronoun "he" before he can even smile over it. A female receives her concomitant devaluation with the pronoun "she" well before she can protest.

Again: The system is not neutral. For every situation, verbal or nonverbal, that even approaches the sexual, the easy way to describe it, the comfortable way to respond to it, the normal way to act in it, the way that will draw the least attention to yourself -- if you are male -- is the sexist way. The same goes for women, with the difference that you are not quite so comfortable. Sexism is not primarily an active hostility in men towards women. It is a set of unquestioned social habits. Men become hostile when these habits are questioned as people become hostile when anything they are comfortable doing is suddenly branded as pernicious. ("But I didn't intend to hurt anyone; I was just doing what I always...")

A good many women have decided, finally, that the pain that accrues to them from everyone else's acceptance of the "acceptable" way is just not worth the reward of invisibility.

"I have never made a sexist editorial decision in my life."

There are no sexist decisions to be made.

There are antisexist decisions to be made. And they require tremendous energy and self-scrutiny, as well as moral stamina in the face of the basic embarrassment campaign which is the tactic of those assured of their politically superior position.
-- Samuel R. Delany, "Shadows"

One thing that confuses some people about the word "oppression" is that they imagine slavery in the US, or Stalinism in Russia: powerful, government-backed systems where a group of people set out quite deliberately (or so we think in hindsight) to oppress other people. I talk about structural oppression to emphasize that the kind of oppression I'm talking about isn't like that. Structural oppression of women by men, or of queer people by heterosexual people, or of transgender people and people who have transsexual bodies by cisgender people who have cissexual bodies, are all systems of oppression that people in the oppressor class participate in by default. They participate in these systems because it's more socially comfortable to oppress than to challenge oppression. For example, if you're a man who ends up marrying a woman, it's still more socially comfortable to pressure your spouse into changing her last name to yours; supporting her choice to keep her own last name would be making waves, and taking her last name or deciding that both of you will take a new shared last name would be causing even more trouble. For women, too, it's often simply more comfortable to go along with patriarchy. That's what structural oppression looks like.

An example of structural oppression of queer people is the tacit assumption that queer people's relationships with each other are just about sex, while hetero people's relationships are about family and commitment. When someone sees nothing illogical in saying "I don't mind queer people as long as they don't flaunt it in public!" -- while tolerating heterosexuals' public "flaunting" of wedding rings, pictures of their children, and so on -- that is a person who has accepted the devaluation of queer relationships without thinking about it critically. Why would they, when this devaluation benefits heterosexual people by giving them confidence that no matter how low they sink, they will never be queer?

Many people react to discussions of structural oppression as if they're being asked to accept "a conspiracy theory". Because I'm talking about -- in Delany's words -- a "set of unquestioned social habits" when I talk about oppression, it's clear that the "conspiracy theory" response is a misunderstanding. People learn from a very young age to accept this set of social habits, and they pass it on to their children later on because it's just what they're been taught. No conscious action is necessary, and the notion of a "conspiracy" connotes deliberate action. The reason no action is necessary is, as Delany says, because oppression means the absence of decisions not to be oppressive.

On an individual level, abuse survivors know that abusers never say "I'm here to abuse you". Usually, as when abusers are your parents or romantic partners, they tell you that they love you and want to help you. So a person's protestations that they have no specific malice against an oppressed class mean nothing as to whether or not that person is participating in structural oppression.

"This isn't about mutual tolerance because there's nothing mutual about it. If we agree to disagree on this issue, you walk away a full member of this society and I don't... Asking for 'mutual tolerance' on this like running up to a bully beating a kid to death on the playground and scolding them both for not getting along. I'm not trying to dissolve Mr. Cathy's marriage or make his sex illegal. I'm not trying to make him a second-class citizen, or get him killed. He's doing that to me, folks; I'm just fighting back." -- Wayne Self
You may wonder why I chose the Rebecca Solnit quotation to lead the main article. My analytical framework is that of intersectional feminism. Much has been written about intersectionality, and is as easy to find as typing the word into the search box of your favorite Web browser. To put it in geeky terms, intersectionality entails that there's an underlying machine language of oppression, or, perhaps, a design pattern of an oppressed/oppressor relationship that underlies all forms of oppression: for example, racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, or transphobia (not an exhaustive list). Intersectional feminism contrasts with radical feminism (as it's usually formulated), which says that all oppressions inherit from a fundamental power imbalance between cis men and cis women; as well as with liberal feminism, which is often indifferent to the way in which multiple oppressions combine in a way that isn't just additive. One of the insights that intersectionality helps us see is that the same person can be oppressed or the oppressor, depending on the social context.

In Rebecca Solnit's quotation, in my opinion, "women" could just as well be replaced with "queer people", "disabled people", "people of color", or any other oppressed group. People in all of these groups share the experience of having their voices discredited, undermined and devalued, while mainstream culture elevates a specific perspective shared by many white, cis, heterosexual, temporarily able-bodied, middle-to-upper-class men as universal and objective. As I'll discuss later on, in the tech community, I believe that essentially the same forces are at work to exclude women and queer people from participation.

Throughout this collection of essays, I use a lot of quotations from feminist writers to illustrate my points. I am not trying to argue that women's struggle for self-determination in the face of oppression by men is the same as queer people's struggle for self-determination in a heternormative society; there are many differences. It's just that a lot of the writing about the relationships between oppressed and oppressor classes that resonates for me was done by feminists, so I would find it a shame not to refer to the work that has inspired me. Likewise, I have also quoted writers who were writing about racism. As a white person, it's always tricky for me to draw comparisons between struggles I've experienced, and struggles I have not experienced, since I benefit from systematic racism whether I like it or not. I have tried not to draw direct comparisons between racism and homophobia. Nevertheless, I still find it useful to present some of these quotations to show that I am writing as part of a larger tradition. One of the books that was most encouraging for me in writing this piece was Patricia J. Williams' The Alchemy of Race and Rights; I've quoted from several of the essays in it throughout.

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Last modified: Wed Sep 5 08:26:57 PDT 2012