Tuesday, December 06, 2005

One Piece of Everyday Oppression

I've been thinking recently about one very particular kind of use to which oppressive statements get put, one that I really do not get to witness all that often these days. I can think of one social context that I still occasionally inhabit in which it occurs, and one or perhaps two other contexts which used to be part of my life. It is an interesting example because it functions somewhat differently than most instances of people with privilege making oppressive statements amongst ourselves, and it illustrates a particular way in which different oppressions interact with each other.

Most of the time when we are in a group consisting solely of others who do or are presumed to share privilege along a certain dimension, most of the oppressive statements that we hear (and, let's be honest, at least occasionally make, no matter how well developed we think our politics are) are made with either no conscious understanding that they are oppressive or with a kind of semi-conscious invokation of complicity among the privileged people who are present. Those kinds of statements happen all the time, in all contexts of which we are a part.

In this instance, I'm thinking about the relatively rare (in my experience, at least) situation in which a statement is deliberately made precisely because it is known by the speaker and the listeners to be oppressive. It is made deliberately because its oppressive nature is seen by the speaker as being transgressive, because most of the listeners would rather it was not being said. In the contexts in which I have experienced this, most often these statements are racist but occasionally homophobia is also used this way, and even more occasionally a subset of sexist statement which carefully objectifies women in general or some other specific woman or class of women but could (in a sexist way, of course) be argued to have nothing to do with those women who are present. In any case, it is important to how these statements function that they are not perceived as being directly oppressive to anyone actually hearing them (whether or not this is actually true). The contexts in which I have seen this happen are ones in which all of the people present are white or presumed to be straight, but the majority of people present would object to such blatantly oppressive use of language, albeit mostly not in a way with any overtly political basis.

The people who use these statements, in my experience, tend to be older white men who occupy a position of power within the context.

These deliberately oppressive and transgressive racist or homophobic statements are used to assert and reinforce patriarchal power within the context in question. The speaker knows that most people present would object in some way to the statement, and he makes them precisely to assert that he has the power to exert decisive influence over the content and boundaries of this social context. Gender-based power is signified and reinforced by racially or sexually oppressive statements.

In my experience, these statements have usually remained unchallenged. Over the lifetime of the social contexts in which I have experienced this kind of statement, I can recall some early efforts to engage with them, before the contexts had settled into the form in which these statements were a defining feature. These efforts at engagement usually resulted in conflict in which the gendered power inherent in the context was asserted more directly, failed to effectively challenge that gendered power, did not stop such statements from occuring again, and soon enough were no longer attempted. Once or twice since the still-current context attained its current shape, I have witnessed a response which tries to address the blatant racism of the original statement with a counter-statement crafted in such a way as to disagree with its content in a way that replaces blatant racism with liberal orientalist racism, and that makes clear in its conciliatory manner an acceptance of the underlying patriarchal structure of the interaction. When this has happened, it has not been well received by the original speaker, and obviously it is responding to the transgressive (i.e. impolite, "not tasteful") nature of the original statement rather than its oppressive nature as a whole.

I should add that this kind of situation is among those in which I do the worst job of responding to oppressive statements, I'm not proud to say. In general, everyone present -- subordinate males, women, children -- has made decisions to navigate that particular social context by enduring rather than challenging its underlying patriarchal structure. I tend to exist in the contexts I'm talking about in this post in a very detached way, so I'm not generally part of the conversations in which such statements arise, merely a weary witness who mostly isn't paying much attention. All of this makes it much more difficult to respond to in a constructive and politically appropriate way, I find, than if it is peers talking over a pint or whatever. Which doesn't excuse inaction, of course, for anyone who tries to claim the label "ally."

But still, one part of figuring out how to respond in situations like this is recognizing that doing so involves challenging a very intimate, personal, gendered assertion of a right to dominate a social space. It is important to consider such situations in advance because the power structure most personally relevant to how we respond is not the one that the statement itself is about, and we need to figure out what that means for how we respond.


Anonymous said...

Good points.

I've had the same sort of thing happen to me every so often (mild homophobia usually presented as an ironic critique of The Village People) in one of my RPGing groups.

Since they're playing super-heroes, I've been thinking of having a flamingly gay super hero save their collective ass (no pun intended) some time.


rabfish said...

do you have an example of such a statement?

Scott said...

An example? Well, the ones I remember most clearly are also the most recent, and as you can probably tell from the very abstracted approach I took to writing the post, I'm doing my best to avoid including any detail that might identify the contexts that I'm talking about to any other participants in those contexts that might happen to stumble across this blog.

That said, I think one class of such statements would be things that were regular part of discourse for the older white men in question when they were kids. The world has changed, and the ways that it is acceptable/invisible to be complicit in racism in all-white liberal contexts has changed since then. I would imagine that part of the purpose of such statements, which seem to be chosen and deployed with the intention of being visible and rankling other occupants of the context, is as a kind of petulant assertion of self in response to misperceptions of a world turned against them through excesses of "political correctness" or whatever. In the meantime, as I said, the speakers retain decisive power to shape the spaces in question.

And they are certainly, as I kind of said in the post, statements to which one would quite rightly say, "Why didn't you say something?" Which is why I was thinking hard about this rather narrow category of situation to begin with.

Anonymous said...

If you're among friends (or at least people you associate with a lot), it's emotionally more difficult to take a critical stance, and they'll probably wonder why you bothered if you do since you're "just all friends" and that kind of talk is "just talk".

It's a wrench.


Scott said...

Well, yes and no...it's always too easy to find reasons not to engage with issues of oppressive speech (our own or another's). But I think that there are ways in which a relatively warm, safe, non-hierarchical peer group can be a pretty good space for engaging with such statements. I find it so, anyway, at least sometimes. Partly that's because in that kind of group I'm more likely to just be myself, so power and privilege stuff is more likely to be a part of my conversation just through talking about the world in general. And because it gets talked about in general, it isn't quite as shocking to raise it in the context of a particular statement or action by someone present. And, I hope, it's easier for others to raise such issues in the context of my speech and actions, too.

The other reasons that kind of group might be a better environment than others to raise such issues is that the existence of fairly safe and equal and stable relationships can provide a less threatening grounding for talking in productive (as opposed to just conflictual, condemnatory, and alienating) ways about what can be a difficult and threatening thing. Again, that hopefully works both ways.

But in the original post above, the situation I talk about is somewhat different (albeit, as I've noted in my previous comment, perhaps not clearly explained because of the abstracted approach I took to writing it). In that case I'm thinking specifically of situations in which there is a hierarchy that is already strongly present, and which has already alienated me from being engaged in interpersonal interactions. In such situations I don't tend to show much of myself, don't talk about politics or power and privilege (or much of anything important, for that matter) in general, and don't tend to challenge the hierarchy shaping the context even on my own behalf. This obviously creates a difficult environment for intervening as an ally, and it was musing on the specific features of that kind of environment that, as I said, got me started on this post to begin with.