Let me see if I can unpack what I mean by that.
First of all, some quick definitional groundwork: As far as I understand it, things like relations of gender oppression, relations of white supremacy, the social relations that exploit the work of many for the benefit of a few, colonial relations, relations of heterosexism, and so on, are social in very important ways. It's not just 'bad people doing bad things' that can be cured by education. Challenging these things means challenging how our lives, our communities, and our societies are socially organized. However, we also reproduce these relations in our interpersonal interactions with other human beings. Because these things are social and depend on co-creation by many, the actions of one cannot eradicate them, even in interpersonal interactions of which that one is a part. But everyday we make choices to go along quietly with that or to refuse and resist.
Next, a disclaimer: I'm sure I didn't come up with what I'm about to write on my own. I'm sure people -- in particular, people who experience oppressions that privilege me -- that I know in real life and people whose words I have read have made this kind of point many times before, but I don't remember when and where I first encountered it, probably because the first few (dozen) times it just didn't sink in or I didn't get how important it was. So I can't give specific credit, but I fully acknowledge this is nothing I thought up on my own.
Finally, the point: It is pretty easy for those of us with a fair amount of privilege to understand oppressive behaviour in interpersonal contexts as somehow distinct from, or a rupture with, 'normal' behaviour. We see someone else behave in a way we can see as "sexist", for instance, and we use that label not just to name oppression (which we should be doing) but also as a substitute for understanding where it came from. The label becomes its own explanation, the behaviour an expression of an essence rather than an effect produced by causes. Not that people who experience a particular oppression should feel any obligation whatsoever to be concerned with the details of the origins of specific behaviours in specific situations that they experience as oppressive -- nobody has an obligation to figure out their oppressors' "stuff" for them. But those of us who are privileged in those ways have an obligation to do that work, I think, so that we can keep challenging ourselves to grow politically and so that we can support others as they do likewise.
And in that spirit, I think it is key to understand that one of the important ways in which oppressive interpersonal behaviour happens is exactly through things we would be feeling and doing anyway, though often modulated in tone or intensity or character in some way.
Let me give some examples that are all related to one of the key features of me: I am pretty socially reserved, some might say "shy", and at times can get quite anxious about social situations. This is not debilitating -- it doesn't keep me from leaving the house or anything even close to that -- but it is a constant presence in my consciousness, and it definitely shapes my behaviours and decisions in important ways. It is something that is always there. Yet it is an important ingredient to many instances where I behave in some interpersonally oppressive way. Here are some recent examples:
- Several months ago I said one of those Stupid Things White People Say to a woman of colour that I did and do not know at all. (No, I'm not going to reproduce it here.) Part of that was undoubtedly about white privilege, in that it came from one of those places of oppressive ignorance that white folks carry around inside of us that are preserved and nurtured by the experiences of privilege that shape us. But it also very much happened because I was socially anxious. I would have been socially anxious regardless of the racial background of this other person. But my anxiety had a particular flavour because she was a woman of colour. And our respective experiences of privilege and oppression also made it possible for what came out of my mouth not just to be socially awkward but to be socially awkward in an unintentionally racist way.
- Also in the not too distant past I was navigating a collective situation involving some conflict. One of the ways in which my reserve and anxiety about social situations expresses itself is that I don't like conflict and I try to avoid it. However, there have been lots of situations in the past, both in activist settings and in interpersonal settings, where I have participated actively in difficult and intense discussions and have, if I do say so myself, done an okay job. In this particular situation, there was lots of other stuff going on, but I just want to mention this one aspect. That is, I was constantly frustrated at how poor a job I was doing at navigating this conflictual atmosphere, principally because I would disengage and/or shut down. And this was the case because the situation was shaped by the ways in which patriarchal relations are expressed in how men relate to one another, and train us into automatic distance and disengagement (my usual mode) or furious, aggressive conflict (which is rarely me) with each other. In this case, my general tendency to avoid conflict to a certain degree was enhanced and given a particular character by my reaction to another party to the conflict, a man with particular practices of masculinity that I find particularly hard to deal with. This part of what was going on wasn't directly oppressive to any individual, exactly, but it was very much me being complicit in patriarchal relations messing with a collective space.
- Also relevant was a situation that occurred four or five months ago in which I failed to intervene in racist talk. I was in a new part-time job, talking to two white people that I did not really know and who were employed by the same employer, though our conditions of work meant we weren't exactly "co-workers" in the literal sense of working together in a day-to-day way. I was experiencing what I usually experience in a social situation with people I don't know very well and it was augmented by the desire to make a good impression in a new workplace with people whose goodwill could play a role in my future in that workplace. There was some talk from one of these people that was not conscious hate speech but that ended up reproducing pretty common assumptions in the dominant white imagination about countries that have populations in which the majority of people are racialized and the majority of people are poor. My mind was frantically spinning and trying to come up with something to say; the conversation moved on with me having done nothing to interrupt this racism. Part of what held me back from intervening was undoubtedly about whiteness, and the ways in which white people are trained so deeply in racial solidarity with other white people, however much we might deny it. But getting to the point of speaking was also inhibited by the more general social anxiety I was feeling in that moment.
I could go on. I could think up lots of other examples of how this particular tendency in me has played out in lots of situations. I could also come up with lots of tendencies I've witnessed in lots of different people that can function in analagous ways: talking too much, talking 'big', being unable to express anger, having no emotional register except anger, drinking too much, never listening, avoiding anything resembling self-critical reflection, jumping straight and only to guilt, dealing with everything in life through book learning, and lots of others. More examples: None of us likes to be challenged politically, and often we react (depending on who we are) with defensiveness or anger or tears regardless of who is doing the challenging; but often the character or intensity of that response varies depending upon whether the challenger is white or racialized, male or female or otherwise gender oppressed, class privileged or poor, temporarily able bodied or disabled. Or, take the tendency that some white men have to interrupt, talk over people, and take up too much space, for instance -- for many men, this is a pretty broadly exhibited behaviour. I can remember a long, hilarious car ride I took many years ago with two older white men who spent the entire way interrupting each other, talking over each other, and competing aggressively for space. But how it happens, the intensity with which it happens, when it happens, whether it is done with a certain odd kind of respect or with dismissal or contempt, and so on, depends a lot on who is being interrupted, who is being talked over, and whose space in a collective setting is being stolen. All of these, when enacted in a given situation by a person who is in an oppressor role in that situation, can be a means by which the oppressive relation is enacted.
Now, some people could read this as excuse-making, but that is precisely the opposite of the point that I am trying to make. The point is not that this is an everyday practice rather than an oppressive behaviour; the point is that it is an oppressive outcome produced by an everyday practice. Maybe the details of this behaviour are exactly the same as every other time you have done it, but only the context is different and that makes its outcome oppressive. Usually I doubt that, but even if it is true, well, context matters, and the sooner all of us learn that, the better. But more likely, something about the tone or character or intensity or timing of this particular instance of the practice was in response to the histories of privilege and oppression of those people who were involved.
At the same time, this idea that oppressive relations are often reproduced in interpersonal spaces through modulation of things we'd be feeling and doing anyway is important to addressing them. We don't want to for a moment to lose explicit focus on, say, racism and sexism as we reflect on what we do every day and how we try to change the world. But I think it is important to making progress on these things to also understand that it is about figuring out our "stuff" more generally -- the ways we are broken, the ways we fail to connect with our fellow human beings, the things that trigger us, the things we always do, the things we never see. In very real ways, dealing with all of that "me-stuff" is as much a part of the overall process of developing anti-oppressive political practice as thinking specifically about the various oppressions in which you are complicit.
At least two of the people I interviewed for this made similar points. One woman, a Cree elder, shared with me the idea that "If you heal yourself, you do the universe a favour." I think this is the sort of thing she meant. And an older white lesbian woman, a veteran of feminist struggle, made a similar point not with quite so pithy a quote, but basically saying that if depression or anxiety or whatever else is keeping you from acting in the world as you know you should be, don't use it as an excuse to do nothing but deal with it already and get back to doing what needs to be done.
All of which, as always, is easier said than done.
[And, btw, on the offhand chance that someone who is reading thinks they might have been a participant in one of the examples listed above and feels a need to communicate with me about it, please do so by email and not by commenting on the post. Thanks! -- SN]