Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Follow The Power, Stupid

(Photo by ©Liza Cowan.)

Follow The Power, Stupid

Once again, it becomes necessary to do some ABC training on the actual definitions of oppression and "isms". I do this not to answer all the white Right currently throwing around charges of racism -- because we know they are, in fact, racists by belief and deed. Nor do I seek to educate those who would listen to such opinions, because if you look for insight about race from the likes of Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter, you are looking for confirmation of a bias you already hold. It is akin to asking Hugh Hefner for insight about respectful relationships with women.

I'm going back over this ground to correct profound misunderstanding within progressive communities about how to effectively work against oppression, especially in a collaborative, non-guilty manner.

I use the theoretical framework taught to me by anti-racism activist Ricky Sherover-Marcuse. One of her fundamental definitions is: "Oppression is the systematic and pervasive mistreatment of individuals on the basis of their membership in various groups, which are disadvantaged by the institutionalized imbalances in social power in a particular society."

Point one: Note the key words systematic and institutionalized. It is not an oppression if those factors are absent.

Point two: All "isms" are referring to oppression, not preferences or discrimination in the sense of differentiating between two things. "Ism" means a power imbalance, i.e., it has a systematic and institutionalized mistreatment aspect.

Thus, any of the well-understood oppressions or "isms" have one group advantaged with regard to power and all other groups in that category disadvantaged. Power does not flow in both directions when it comes to oppression. There is no such thing as a "revere"-ism. When people of color talk about white people, no matter what they say, they are not capable of being racist because there is no systematic and institutionalized mistreatment of white people in this society. There is no threat to back up their language or beliefs. The power goes in the opposite direction.

This is simply not that hard to understand. When we are growing up, we learn very early which groups are "real people", i.e., advantaged by the power structure and which groups are not. We KNOW who these groups are: Males, whites, middle to upper class, adults (but not elders), Christians, able-bodied, and heterosexual. Or convincingly appearing to belong to those groups, since our culture values appearance far above actual content of character.

As children, when we are being taught these systems of oppression, we are powerless to completely hold onto our own clarity and sense of justice. We resist to the point where our own survival is at stake before we capitulate and accept lies into our world view. This is true of every human being who has ever lived. As we take in the lies, many different kinds of confusion can and do occur. Once we become adults, we have an opportunity (and responsibility) to clear our confusion, as best we can. It will take the rest of our lives, the burden of growing up under oppression.

The lies we ingest are just as likely to be about the groups to which we belong as they are about the "other". When we absorb as truth forced misinformation about our own identity, this is called internalized oppression. But if we act on those beliefs, we are playing into the system, not "becoming the oppressor to our own people". The "oppressor" is the system. Yes, it is human beings who maintain the system, but it will also be human beings from every group who will ultimately dismantle it. We are all allies in this task.

Another common form of confusion is personalizing our mistreatment to the individual doling it out. For example, many boys grow up with abusive mother figures who use any tool available to act out their adultism. Such a boy, when grown, may insist that "women" are equally oppressive to men in the realm of sexism. But humiliating a boy because of his gender is, at baseline, adultism using gender as a tool. It is critically important that each of us sort out our growing-up experiences into actual systems of oppression rather than relying on anecdotal experience, however devastating that experience may be. Empowerment comes from taking on a system, not from simply naming past hurt and remaining mired in confusion. This is particularly necessary if, as adults, we acquire membership in groups which are privileged by the institutions of oppression.

This practice requires maturity, of course. It requires a mindset that can embrace something other than polarities and binaries (including so-called subverted or queered binaries, which are still binaries if you believe they have a basis in reality). It requires accountability and reciprocity, not rhetoric or intentions. It requires street smarts in equal measure to academic theory. It requires a comfort with or preference for pluralism and diversity. It is, thus, a practice found among liberals, if it is found at all.

Dismantling an interrelated system of institutionalized oppressions will require we never engage in trying to compare oppressions -- for instance, is it harder to be a black man or a white woman. (Sound familiar?) There is no way to quantify oppressions against each other, and anybody who engages in this activity is, to put it charitably, giving us a roadmap to how they have been hurt and confused.

Dismantling an interrelated system of institutionalized oppressions will require we not confuse "biological/cultural/ethnic/sexual/religious/age differences between human beings" as a reason or excuse for oppression.

Dismantling an interrelated system of institutionalized oppressions will require we identify all those arenas where we as individuals are non-target for oppression and then act as allies to those who are target in every way we can imagine, not from charity but because it is our liberation we seek.

Begin by interrupting any charge of racism or sexism being leveled against those targeted for these oppressions by those who are non-target. It is bogus and designed to perpetuate confusion. Once we actually HAVE a level playing field, we can at that point discuss whether power is flowing backwards. But that day is not going to arrive in the spring and summer of 2009.