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Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of White people screaming about racism.
I wish these were anti-racist ally White people who were speaking about the prison industrial complex or about systems of privilege and oppression, but no.
These are White folks who are claiming that the Obamacare tax on tanning beds is “racist” against White people. These are White folks who are claiming that affirmative action is racist against them. These are the White folks who honestly believe they suffer more racism than people of Color.
And every time I hear these folks cry racism, I can’t help but think:
And it’s not just people of racial privilege who are doing this!
Certain Christians claim they are being religiously oppressed because the rights of Lesbian and Gay people are now being recognized at federal and state levels. The entire Men’s Rights Movement is basically predicated on the idea that men are far more oppressed than women (or transgender people or genderqueer people or really anyone who isn’t a cisgender man).
Now aside from the mountains of evidence that makes someone look a little silly when they claim that those with seemingly endless identity privilege are widely oppressed in society, I am realizing more and more that we have a problem of language precision.
Too often, when people are talking about racism or sexism or heterosexism or any other form of oppression, they’re simply referring to when a person was made to feel bad for or about their identity.
There is absolutely no acknowledgement of wider systems of oppression and power.
And this is no accident.
But whenever we say things like “Well, sometimes women can be just as sexist as men,” we are contributing to the problem.
Precision of Language
Yes. Any person of any identity can be an asshole to any person of any other identity. But that doesn’t make it oppression. It doesn’t even make it racism or sexism or heterosexim or any other -ism.
There is a profound danger in watering down our discussion of identity by removing any mention of societal power, oppression, and privilege.
Doing so ensures that the conversation remains about interpersonal slights rather than about the larger systems of oppression that are the true problem.
Now, this is not to say, that the real issue is the system, so I can say whatever I want, and it shouldn’t matter. Not at all.
Our interpersonal interactions are reflections of and support structures for the larger problems of systematic inequality and oppression.
Instead, we need to recognize that not all hurtful words or deeds are equal when certain ones are backed by a history and current system of domination, violence, oppression, repression, dehumanization, and degradation.
We need to be clear that when we are talking about oppression or a particular -ism, we are not simply talking about an interpersonal slight. We are talking about something much bigger.
“But Why Can’t I Say the N-Word?”
Take, for instance, the recent outrage from Fox News and others on the political Right over Charlie Rangel, a Black man, using the word “cracker” to describe Whites who violently resisted integration in the South.
There are cries of “double standard” that White folks can be called “cracker” by people of Color, yet Whites can’t call Black people the “n-word.”
Now, if no historical or current systems of oppression and marginalization existed as context, then sure, maybe those words would be the same thing. After all, on face value, they both seem to insult someone based on their race.
But, of course, there’s a little thing called context.
There’s that whole 600 year time period where Black people were sold as chattel by Europeans who reinforced their system through violence and repression and who recreated their same systems of domination through Jim Crow and the Prison Industrial Complex when slavery was made illegal.
And there’s that inconvenient fact that the “n-word” was created solely by White people as a pejorative for Black slaves.
And there’s that other inconvenient fact that the word “cracker” literally refers to White power and supremacy in its reference to the overseer who cracked the whip.
And there’s the context of the daily assault on Black bodies and livelihoods (and the bodies and livelihoods of all people of Color) at the hands of a White power structure that continually makes said usage of the “n-word” hurtful and relevant.
So when we consider the context of power, oppression, and privilege, the use of these two words in two different ways does not create a double standard. As Jay Smooth puts it, that’s a standard.
Shifting the Conversation
A young person with whom I am friends on Facebook recently posted the following as his status: “Why is it that all of a sudden the worst thing in the world you can be is a white, straight, middle class, christian? [sic]”
And I engaged him. Because I’m hearing this sentiment more and more from folks of privilege: There is a tremendous fear (no matter how grounded in fiction it may be) that they are under attack.
It is a fear peddled by conservative media and in daily conversation. It is a fear that what was once promised to us as people of identity privilege (often at the expense of others) is no longer a guarantee.
It is a fear that speaks to the progress –humble in some areas and significant in others – that has been made (and continues to be made) in overturning (or at least reforming) systems that were built fundamentally for the benefit of a tiny few.
But it is also a fear that speaks to the kind of resistance we can expect as we move forward in these struggles.
As we went round and round, my initial tact was to prove to him just how wrong he was about his sentiment.
He expressed that White people are discriminated against in job and education applications because of affirmative action, and I showed him the data that he’s wrong.
He complained that Christians are under attack because of the Gay rights movement, and I explained how it changes nothing for them or their rights to allow others to have full legal recognition.
This only seemed to make him angrier and more frustrated.
So I took a different route.
“None of this is to say that people with identity privilege do not struggle,” I said. “Plenty of us are struggling with real and tough things. Plenty of middle class White families are fighting in a system that is working against anyone who isn’t rich. It is just important to keep perspective about the relativity of privilege.”
This shifted the conversation considerably.
I don’t think I convinced him that he’s not under attack. But I do think this statement helped him see that, as he put it, “the problem is a broken and incompetent system.”
Call It Out, Call People In
So now, whenever I hear people make these types of statements, ones that ignore the reality of power structures and oppression, I try to use the “call it out, call them in” method.
The language that denies systemic oppression they are using must be called out as problematic and silencing to the experiences of those actually experiencing oppression.
But that doesn’t mean the person saying that language can’t be brought into a thoughtful conversation about the nature of oppression in the world around us.
In the case of the young man above, perhaps his family is struggling with the class inequality that is ever more present for middle class people of all races and he is projecting those concerns onto issues of race, religion, and sexual orientation.
Well, if I simply write him off as a bigoted jerk who doesn’t understand power structures, where do we go?
Instead, it is my responsibility as a person of privilege striving to be an ally to call him into discussion.
It is my responsibility to at least attempt to bring him to a place where his words are less hurtful, and – who knows? – perhaps doing so will help him along the path to being an ally himself.
Because while we fight tooth and nail to make powerful change to systems of oppression, we need to ensure that if people who benefit from these systems are not actively acting in solidarity, at least they aren’t in the way.
And this is primarily the work of other people of privilege.
It’s time for us to call our people in.
Jamie Utt is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. Jamie is a diversity and inclusion consultant and sexual violence prevention educator based in Minneapolis, MN. He lives with his loving partner and his funtastic dog. He blogs weekly at Change from Within. Learn more about his work at his website here and follow him on Twitter @utt_jamie. Read his articles here and book him for speaking engagements here.