Posts Tagged ‘oppression’

Apparently people should have identical needs

I know I’m a little late to the party on this one, but I usually gloss over headlines like “Home Depot Embraces Sharia Law” and for once actually decided to see what was being blown out of proportion myself. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, one Home Depot in an area with a large Muslim population decided to educate their employees so they could better serve that particular sub-group of customers. One article on it asks if a business shouldn’t be trying to better serve all of its customers. Of course it should–it’s never wise to upset your clientele when they have other options–but that doesn’t mean the best way to serve one customer is the best way to serve every customer.

This is a familiar form of privilege distress, which is often described as being preferential treatment. People often ask why we need a Department of Women’s Health, or a Black History Month, and when we can get a Department of Men’s Health and a White History month. But these things are not an attempt to give preferential treatment to those groups of people, they’re meant to counter the centuries of ignorance that has surrounded them. Women’s health has long been ignored, to the detriment of women being treated by doctors whose knowledge of medicine is based primarily on male physiology. History, it is said, is written by the victors, or perhaps more accurately the ruling class, and that has long meant white men in our part of the world. We don’t need a White History Month because essentially that’s EVERY month. This can be seen over and over again, in virtually every arena where acknowledgements of inequality exists. The privileged group wonders why they don’t get such special treatment without realizing that special treatment towards them is the default mode of operations. Everything is already geared towards what suits them best, but that state of affairs is invisible because it’s the default.

Treating people equally often requires recognizing and accounting for differences. If you randomly started handing out peanut butter sandwiches to strangers, you’d have a number of people grateful for the free sandwich, but others would wind up sick because they’re allergic to peanuts. While the action towards both groups is the same, the results are quite different and certainly cannot be considered equal. Offering those with an allergy a tuna sandwich instead is a different action, but it is more equal than only offering food they can’t eat.


Intimate knowledge

Ever feel like your life is being appropriated for someone else’s agenda?

I’ve been involved in a conversation elsewhere about whether or not to vaccinate your children, and–big surprise–the conversation turned towards autism and vaccines. I kind of knew that it would be a bit of a trainwreck going in, but vaccination is important to me as a community health issue, so it was hard for me to stay out of it. As things became more and more autism related, a couple things happened, both of which struck me as being on some level fundamentally wrong.

1) As things became more and more autism-centered, I felt less and less like I should be contributing to the conversation. Let’s let that sink in for a moment–I felt out of place participating in a conversation that was partly about people like me. It’s hard for me to really pin down why that happened–maybe because I’m fairly mildly affected, maybe because I didn’t feel I’d be listened to, maybe because I didn’t want to have to drop the information that I’m on the spectrum because I didn’t think it’s truly relevant to the argument–but the fact that it happened at all bugs me.

2) A person on the other side commented that ze typically would asked people if they knew a child with autism before getting into the conversation, saying that ze wasn’t interested if you didn’t have ‘intimate knowledge’ of the condition. While I will acknowledge that this person is more familiar with it than most people, it was the term ‘intimate’ that bugged me. I’m on the spectrum–I live with it in a way more intimate than this person possibly can, and it felt like ze was appropriating an experience that isn’t truly hirs. And it struck me as one of the ways that autistic people, particularly adults, are frequently de-centralised from conversations about autism. There’s a lot of stories from the perspectives of parents and caregivers talking about the struggles they’ve dealt with, how hard it is to have a family member with autism, and I don’t want to discount that it does profoundly affect their lives. But there are far fewer stories that look at what it’s like to be autistic, and when someone does try to get inside of that experience it tends to be in a fairly clinical way, not from a perspective of personal experience. It’s largely the families of autistics who drive the conversation, making autistics themselves secondary characters to the stories of their own lives.

I also noted that the person used the word ‘child’, not ‘person’. Since the conversation tends to be driven by parents, it tends to be centered on issues about how to help children, since that’s their particular concern–sadly, this isn’t confined to the autism community but extends other disability communities as well. While there’s been some advances in developing programs to help children transition into adulthood, there really isn’t much out there once you’re past school age, and those transitional programs aren’t helpful if you’re already an adult when you get diagnosed. Being diagnosed has been helpful in connecting me to a community about people like me, and I try to contribute by relating my experiences, hoping to help improve the lives of those behind me. It doesn’t feel like much, and I often wish I could do more. It’s hard to feel too guilty about doing so little, though, because the truth is that the community offers me even less in return. Autistic children tend to get de-centralised from the conversation, but autistic adults are almost entirely invisible.

If I can’t fit in in spaces that concern people like myself, where can I belong?

“Better” requires a “worse”

Some people don’t seem to think through the implications of what they’re saying. Take Maggie Gallagher. Now I understand why she’s saying what she’s saying–anti-marriage-equality folks are trying to make their message more palatable by showing that they don’t have anything against same-sex couples, just that they think their way is better.

Ultimately, though, they can’t.

“It is possible to affirm an ideal without stigmatizing the alternatives — to affirm in the positive without pushing the negative.”

The problem with the new spin people like Gallagher are trying to put on being pro-“traditional”-marriage is that it always comes down to placing opposite-sex relationships as being better than same-sex relationships. It’s relational–the idea isn’t that same-sex relationships are bad, just that opposite-sex ones are better. And when you’re making it relational, there’s no way to push the positive of one without putting a negative connotation on the other. If “traditional” marriage is better, than “non-traditional” marriage has to be, if not bad, at least worse. This is implicit in the messaging, and they can push the positive aspects all they want but they will never be able to avoid the negative messages about non-straight couples and the stigma they create because it’s inherent to the message.

It would be one thing if they were simply trying to say that they thought opposite-sex relationships were good–being in one myself, there’s no way I could argue–because it doesn’t carry the implicit meaning that same-sex relationships are bad (though, to be fair, most people who bother with saying the former DO mean the latter). It’s possible for multiple options to be good. But once you start using words like “ideal” you’ve created a scenario where anything else is at least somewhat negative, and human beings tend to be bad at understanding that “not ideal” isn’t the same as “bad”. So no, Gallagher, you cannot affirm the positive without pushing the negative, because as long as you’re placing one thing as “better” you will equally be saying that any alternative is “worse”. And it’s that last part that people are upset about.

Refusing privilege

I was poking around Finally, a Feminism 101 blog and a couple comments caught my eye. They were about how to handle being part of a privileged group.

The first one, unfortunately, doesn’t really have an answer. The questioner was asking how to ensure that he was being judged based on merit, rather than identity. There isn’t really any way to do that, as either his status was a member of many privileged groups will be known, or he will be assumed to be a member of those groups. Most of us, when we think of a generic ‘person’, imagine a straight, white, cis-gendered, likely Christian, male. So when we are unsure of the identity of a person, we tend to fill in the unknowns with the appropriate ‘normal’. As a result, even hiding aspects of our identities when possible doesn’t really change anything if you are privileged in that respect.

The second commenter asked how he could use his privilege to make the world more equitable. The short answer is, follow the lead of feminists (anti-racists, gay rights activists…just insert your social justice movement of choice here). Call out instances of bias when you notice them. Work towards changing biased policies.  A member of a privileged group doing these things helps in two ways. One is alleviating the work that has to be done by oppressed groups, who usually wind up doing the lion’s share of activist work and often have to weigh the benefits of speaking up and trying to make change against the chance of becoming ‘that person’ who is always talking about oppression. The second, and I hate saying this but it’s still true in our world, is that members of privileged groups have more power to actually effect changes.

That last sentence has a trap in it that needs to be kept in sight, however–try not to speak for members of groups you don’t belong to. People with privilege tend to dominate in discussions of how to help oppressed groups–just a couple weeks ago the US congress held a panel of reproductive rights that didn’t include a single woman. Some of the best-known anti-racism activists around today are white. Members of oppressed groups often get shut down as being ‘biased’, and ‘non-objective’, as if being white, straight and male means that one is unbiased and objective. It is true that being a member of a minority group gives one a different way of looking at things, a different perspective, but that is by no means a less objective or more biased perspective. We’re all biased. An African-American knows more about what it’s like to be a black person in America than I ever will. I can read and learn as much as I want, I will never fully understand that person’s life. I can’t. So as a white person, part of my role in working for equality is to know when to shut up and let the people in question speak for themselves*. “Nothing about us without us,” is a common line among social justice movements, for good reason–far too often minorities are spoken for, rather than listened to.


*This is why I mostly write about feminism, autism/disability and occasionally poverty when I write about specific movements. Those are my particular areas of interest, but more importantly those are the oppressions I am most familiar with (and even then, I’ve been fairly fortunate in all three areas). This does not mean that I do not care about other social justice movements–as I’ve posted before, I see them all as one large movement–just that I lack the perspective and knowledge to write about them with any sort of authority.

Language and Microagressions

Geek Feminism has a good post up right now titled I feel like you are trying to tell me something, which lists various ways that our world can often tell females (especially geeky females–geek culture is at least as sexist as society at large, but less likely to admit it) that we’re ‘other’, that male is the default and being female makes us part of a special group, nevermind that we’re half the population.

Language is often an issue for members of oppressed populations. For one, it often contains unpleasant reminders that we are not members of the privileged class. Also, language can affect the way we think. This can be used for good purposes (many social justice movements are trying to reclaim or change problematic language) but often reinforces the status quo. A few examples:

  • Though language is slowly adapting, terms like ‘police officer’ and ‘firefighter’ are still sometimes replaced with ‘policeman’ and ‘fireman’
  • Peach or light tan colours are often labeled as ‘flesh’ or ‘nude’, othering people with darker skin tones.
  • Transgender individuals often have problems with people using the wrong pronoun
  • The disability community has been pushing for ‘person first’ language, replacing ‘disabled people’ with ‘people with disabilities’ and other similar changes

These things are termed ‘microagressions’ because they are small, tiny things that aren’t always noticed, and are frequently wholly unintentional. That doesn’t stop them from othering people, though, and reminding oppressed individuals that we are not the assumed default of white, straight, able-bodied, cis-gender, (add adjective here) male. Changing language is an important step towards true equality.

Someone’s got some ‘splaining to do

Anyone who has spent any amount of time around the feminist blogosphere has probably heard the term ‘mansplain’. For the rest of you, it is easily summed up as when a person (usually male) enters a discussion about a feminist issue and describes how the issue at hand ‘isn’t really sexism’. This is currently very common in the discussions around Siri’s issues with certain subjects. I tend to prefer shortening to term to simply ‘splain because while it may have originated in feminist discussions, it is a universal problem common to any social justice movement. The underlying assumption when it shows up is that the people complaining are only looking at the issue through the lens of oppression, and it’s colouring how they see the issue. Thus, we need an outside, objective viewpoint to show us the error in our thinking. Unfortunately, such attemtps at correcting others usually ignores one thing.

We know.

We know how to look at things through the eyes of the dominant group. We know this because it’s now most of the world is presented to us. We learn to identify with the straight, white, male perspective because we don’t have a choice. Take a look at your local movie theater–odds are the majority of the posters you see are for movies about a man, and it’s rare that even one of the rest will be a ‘mainstream’ film–they’re all ‘chick flicks’, or maybe ‘family’ films For some reason, it’s expected that women can identify with men, but not vice versa. You will see other commonalities too–the majority of the protagonists are white, straight, and able-bodied, to name the most obvious.

When women (or people of colour, LGBT people…well, just anybody who isn’t ‘normal’) are complaining about the oppression they face, don’t assume that we don’t understand the world through the eyes of men (Caucasians/straights/etc), because it’s not really possible for us to NOT be able to. The whole world is filtered through that lens.

And many of today’s oppressions aren’t intentional, or even necessarily large. But they are patterns. Women and minorities don’t see ourselves represented in mainstream media. Our needs are considered to be ‘special’ issues. And it’s easy to point to any one instance and ferret out why that one case isn’t a case of oppression. Taken alone, most of them aren’t. But it’s in the aggregate where in problem lies. Is a single story about a straight, white, able-bodied male a problem in and of itself? No. Is the majority of mainstream media being stories of straight, white, able-bodied males a problem? Oh hell yes.

Stop sweeping problems like Siri’s inattention to female-centered issues under the rug with a handwave and a ‘well, they didn’t mean to’. Because intentional or not, they are problems and they need to be fixed.