Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Coming to Terms with Being an Oppressor

Mike is an 18 year female to male transman. He is currently studying psychology at The Evergreen State College between making quilts. He someday aspires to be a social worker, and in the mean time, he wants to fix the fact that not everyone is born with an inherent right to be themselves.

I have come across a whole lot of “allies” complaining about how all (able bodied, cisgender, white, straight) are not like that. I wanted to create a reality check for all of those people who don’t understand the anger coming from people who are oppressed, in addition to a checklist of things to keep in mind when trying to check your privilege. This is probably a bit 101, and I’ve synthesized it both from my own personal experience and from listening to other people who belong to different minorities. All errors, however, are my own.

The first thing to keep in mind, and one of the most important, is that you will ALWAYS have power. ALWAYS. The things that trans* people, disabled people, black people, gay people, and women say will ALWAYS have less of an impact than those said by those who are white, straight, cisgender, and male. That power exists in every space you visit, everywhere you go, and in absolutely every conversation you have. This is of course an unfair situation, and it can be difficult to keep track of all of the nuances of a specific oppression.
This brings us to rule number two. You are going to mess up. You are going to make mistakes, say things that reinforce different oppressions, whether inadvertently or on purpose. That’s okay. It’s not a perfect situation, but nothing is perfect. Mistakes happen all of the time. The problem is not the fact that you are going to mess up and make mistakes, the problem is what you do when they occur. If you mess up, apologize. If you don’t apologize, you become part of the problem. After you apologize, change your behavior. If you have to be reminded to change your behavior more than once or twice, you become part of the problem. Apologize, mean it, and change, that’s all there is to it to fixing your mistakes. There is no point in denying the fact that you said or did something oppressive, no one is trying to get you in trouble. No one is accusing you of being a terrible person; no one is accusing you of ANYTHING except a specific behavior that should be easy enough to change. Call outs are not personal attacks. They are designed to inform people who don’t know better that their actions are contributing to the oppression of a minority.

This is a lovely segue to rule number three. If it’s not about you DON’T MAKE IT ABOUT YOU. I am going to go ahead and say this again. IF THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU THEN DON’T MAKE IT ABOUT YOU. This is the most important rule. You are going to encounter trans* people, people of color, disabled people, queer people, and women ranting about how much (insert oppressor here) suck. And if you don’t suck, then clearly the post is not about you. YES, we know that not all (insert oppressor here) are like that. We live with them, work with them, have families made up with those people and have hundreds and thousands of interactions with people who have the power to oppress who are not complete and total douche bags. You don’t need to tell us. What you need to tell yourself is that if you are an ally (and I mean really an ally, allies don’t get to determine if they are allies or not) is that you don’t count. Taking steps to decolonize your mind and break down systems of oppression removes you from the suck list. It is the difference between an individual person who is white and the oppressive force of Whiteness. Keep your identity separate from those rants and that anger, because after all IF IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU DON’T MAKE IT ABOUT YOU. This also means that talking about how much it hurts your feelings to be lumped in with a group of people COMPLETELY derails important conversations about activism and suddenly makes it about your hurt fee fees. This wastes a whole bunch of time on behalf of everyone and keeps important conversations from getting off the ground, and boots you from the ally camp.

Going back to rule number one, sympathize and don’t empathize. Because you, as a person who is an oppressor in your constant state of power, are never, EVER going to understand the volume of the oppression. No matter what you go through, no matter how difficult your life is, you’re never going to get it. And that’s fine. We understand that you’re never, ever going to get it. But don’t tell us you know exactly how you feel. On an intellectual level, you can understand what we’re going through, but you’re never going to experience it.

Finally, you don’t get to decide the way that a movement against oppression works. It is not the job of minorities to come on bended knee and beg for rights. Rights are supposed to be inalienable, permanent, there regardless of conditions. When this is not the case, it is not a matter of begging, pleading, becoming a pet to the oppressor in order to attempt to change. It is a matter of hard work, legislative action, and educating people. It is a monumental struggle every day, trying to shift and change the way that people view members of minority communities. But here is the reality, and the kicker. No allies are better than crappy allies. Get all the way on board with the way that we are doing things, or get off. It’s that simple.