You perpetuate oppression if you call yourself “anti-oppressive”


It’s true. The title is true. I’m not lying–I promise. I wouldn’t do that to you!

And it sucks. But it’ll be okay, I promise. Hang in there, stay for the whole feature, and we will come out through the other side together, holding hands and feeling good that we. CAN. fight. oppression.

I Tried to Avoid This…

I wasn’t going to write this post. I wanted my blog to be a source of pure, unadulterated happiness. Cycling makes me happy, and I wanted my blog to reflect that.

warm fuzzies for everyone! (source)

Sure, going into this I knew that my goal was to focus on women and cycling. By default, that meant that I’d have to address the problems of power and privilege and oppression somehow (see earlier posts for more detail). But, I wanted to try and find a way to do so with a positive spin. Or, at least in a way that didn’t increase my blood pressure.

How’s that going, you ask? Not so good, is my reply. In fact, a couple comments on one of my early posts made me feel that I finally needed to talk about this. I can wait no longer. I must get it out in the open. Shout it out. Then, perhaps, I can move on into stories of basking in the sunlight on a set of two wheels.

If you’re gonna dream…dream big!

The “Anti-Oppressive” People

People who identify themselves as any synonym of the above (e.g., “anti-racist,” “pro-equality”)  are often the people who actually perpetuate oppression.

I know what you’re thinking…

But let me explain.

The flat-out -ists people (e.g., racists, sexist, heterosexists) will come right out and admit their hatred. They will say they think that women are biologically inferior, that Black people are genetically less intelligent, and so on. In a more egalitarian society, however, these people are less accepted by society at large. It no longer becomes acceptable to say (or think) these things. We know too much. We have too many atrocities riddled in our history. We have too much science. (I’m speaking from the perspective of living in the United States. I am much less knowledgable about global oppression).

And research (mostly polls) supports this argument–this type of hatred is no longer popular and remains only within a small minority of the population. This is, of course, wonderful. More people currently identify themselves as anti-oppressive. This may seem wonderful, but it’s where the problem occurs. But first, a little tangent about humans and emotions.

I Like Myself

We humans, we don’t like to feel bad about ourselves. Lots of research supports this idea, but it’s really one of those things that just makes sense. People like to feel good about themselves. In general, people say that they are fair, equitable, just, and moral. Not only do we enjoy feeling good, we especially do not want to feel bad about ourselves. We especially don’t like to feel guilty. Guilt is the worst, isn’t it? We avoid it. And as it turns out, we are very creative about how we avoid guilt.

I “get it”

So now back to the problem. When we identify as “anti-oppressive” it leads us to con ourselves into thinking that “we got it” and that there is nothing further we need to do.

It’s wrong, though. It’s wrong because self-identifying as “anti-oppressive” is not enough. It’s not a “status” that we achieve. But more than that, identifying as “anti-oppressive” or “pro-equality” actually  blinds us from the things that WE do that actually perpetuate oppression.  You may be asking how this works.

Well the first step is the identification: We identify as anti-oppressive. We want to feel good (fair, just, etc), and don’t want to feel bad or guilty.

Question: What is going to make us feel good?
Answer: Being anti-oppressive, of course! 

Systems of Oppression 101

Great! That makes sense. Except for the fact that racist, sexist, heterosexist, ableist, etc messages are permeated throughout all levels of culture. Everyone in our society grows up with subtle (i.e., hard to detect) messages that certain groups are more valuable to society than other groups. Yes, I said everyone. It is inescapable. It’s in our movies, our TV shows, our children’s books, the structure of our communities and society. It is so constant, and so strong that it becomes internalized. What this means is that it becomes almost automatic.

I really need to emphasize this point: Everyone in the United States (and other countries) grows up in a culture that says men are more valued than women (evidence: men are majority in government, law enforcement, criminal justice system, likable protagonists in movies/TV/literature, wage gap between men and men, violence against women), white people are more valued than Black, Latino/a, Native Americans, Asians and other racial minority groups  (evidence: history, disproportionate incarceration rates, and the same things about government etc), heterosexuals are more valued than people who are LGBTQ (evidence: no marriage equality, rates of bullying, was at one time considered a mental disorder)… and so on.

The beneficiares of this structure are the groups that are valued: white, men, heterosexual, higher income/property owners, able-bodied persons, etc. The benefit they get? Privilege. The losers of this structure are the groups that aren’t valued, and they are part of the marginalized group.

So, if everyone is part of this system, with some groups having privilege at the expense of others, and nearly all of us belonging to some combination of being in the oppressed or privileged group…then realistically every single person will perpetrate some form of oppression.

Now go back to the “Anti-Oppressive” person. They have identified themselves as having achieved the status of NOT perpetuating oppression.

Question: What is going to make such people feel guilty?
Answer: Perpetuating oppression!

Oh, no! We don’t want to be oppressive. We don’t mean to be oppressive. But we can’t escape it. It happens. And when we do something that’s oppressive, we feel so guilty for it that we deny it. We minimize it. We dismiss it. We say the other person was at fault. Then, we never have to acknowledge that we did the very thing that we claim to hate.

And this is exactly where we go wrong. We are so overwhelmed (and we probably don’t even realize it at this point–that is how quick and amazing our brains our!) that we do all sorts of “creative” things to deal with it. Unfortunately, these creative things maintain the status quo, and the “anti-oppressive” person contributes to the very system they hate.

Top Ten Creative Ways “Anti-Oppressive” People Perpetuate Oppression

So what are things that the people in privileged groups do to maintain the status quo of oppression. I am specifically going to address the responses that people with privilege have when called out on doing something oppressive.  White people, men, straight people, able-bodied, young adults, listen up!

 #10.Actually, I am all for equality. [So you’re wrong about me]”

The moment you have to say this, you might as well be saying, “nuh-uh! I’m not racist, I totally have a Black friend!…” It is this that is the underlying reason for this whole post.

#9. “Tell Me… [What I did wrong/what to do/how to end oppression]

Request/demand that the marginalized/oppressed/targeted group use their resources and energy to: (a) educate you about oppression, and (b) do it “nicely.” Make sure you let the person know you are actually doing them a favor by making such a request. But don’t worry, if they say it in a way that annoys you/hurts your feelings/angers you, then just tell them to calm down/lighten up/go away and dismiss everything they just said.

#8. “Well you don’t have to be so mean about it!” 

Okay, honestly…is there really a nice way to say to someone: “Hey you! You know that thing you REALLY hate. That horrible big thing that is responsible for countless individuals being murdered, raped, bullied, and otherwise oppressed for centuries? Yea, well…you totally just did something that perpetuates it. Congrats.”

No, there is not a way to say this that makes the receiver of this message warm and fuzzy inside. And what do we do when someone tells us we did a pretty dumb thing? Are we, as humans, good about shaking their hand and saying, “Oh my GOD! I am so glad you told me! Please, tell me more about how wrong I was?”

Of course not. Our immediate reaction is often to do something to avoid more of those feelings. Maybe we end the conversation. Or we shut them out. We tell them that they needed to tell us better. Until then, we can shove the feelings and thoughts away.

#7. “I want equality for ALL. Policies shouldn’t disproportionately help men OR women.”

Color-blind and gender-blind policies are ineffective and dismissive our centuries-old sexism and racism. Policies that are gender- and color-blind only reinforce the status quo. Why? Well, because of what I mentioned earlier about how EVERYONE unintentionally internalizes the oppressive cultural norms. If you aren’t specifically aware of it, and aren’t specifically doing something proactive about it, then the outcome will favor the already-privileged group.

#6. “Well you were being oppressive too” or saying anything with “reverse” in it (e.g., “reverse racism”)

Reverse racism, sexism does. not. exist. 

#5. Lighten up/get a sense of humor/you were only kidding.” This is just simply dismissive and invalidating.

#4. “You’re too emotional/sensitive.” This one is particularly offensive for women. Sexism dates back to (at least) ancient Greek society–just read The Odyssey. For centuries, women have been linked to all things “emotional” — in the pejorative sense. Men have been linked to all things “rational.” Whenever you use a phrase such as this, you are calling on centuries-old sexist dichotomies that value men and all things “rational” and devaluing women and all things “irrational.” [This became especially prominent thanks to Descartes]. This allows you to dismiss whatever argument you are hearing (thereby perpetuating oppression and, sexism, in particular).

#3. “I don’t hate women! I love women! Here are all the great things about women…”

*shudder* This is called benevolent sexism. Others have written about this much more eloquently than I am ready to do. But this form is sexism is so powerful and insidious that it can be difficult to detect. If you’ve ever thought things like “Geez, chivalry is just dead, isn’t it!” or “Why can’t women take a compliment anymore?” or “Why did she get so upset when I grabbed her suitcase and lifted it to the storage bin on the plane.” Then please go to the two links I’ve included in this paragraph. Here is more information about it.

#2. Well, that’s not MY experience.” By definition, your privileged status allows you to experience life very differently (i.e., more positively) from those in the marginalized groups. Expect to get called out whenever you say this to someone who is knowledgable about oppression.

#1 .I didn’t mean to be offensive.

I think this is the #1 way that people with privilege discount the marginalized group member’s experience. It’s the most effective way to avoid acknowledging their wrongdoing. And, if you don’t have to acknowledge your wrongdoing, then you don’t have to feel guilty. Just because you didn’t mean to, doesn’t it mean you didn’t. Intentions matter less than outcomes. If you were crossing the street and someone ran into you with your car, then jumped out and said “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to!” you still have been hit by the car.

How to be Anti-Oppressive

But I promised you a positive ending, did I not? And there is one. There actually is a way to fight oppression. Research has shown that when you educate people with privilege about oppression AND give them tools and tips about how to do better…they do!

So, that’s my goal with the remainder of this post: Provide a few general tips and some places to go for more information.

#1. Realize that “anti-oppressive” is not a status to achieve.

It’s kind of like a lifestyle. A lifestyle in which you will always be learning and reflecting. You must be critical of yourself and reflect on your thoughts and actions. You must be willing to feel shame and guilt so that you can learn from your mistake and then move beyond it.

#2. Educate yourself.

Take the initiative to do better, on your own. As a member of the privileged group, it is your responsibility to do so. Read things written by others about the topic. In particular, read about privilege. Privilege is an incredibly insidious problem. I recommend the following to get you started:

  • William Ryan (1976) Blaming the Victim.
    • The first chapter honestly changed my life. I bet you can even find it online somewhere!
  • Allen G. Johnson (2001) Privilege, Power, and Difference
  •  Tim Wise (2011) White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son

#3. Educate yourself about subtle forms of oppression. 

I wanted to be even more specific here. We live in a relatively more egalitarian society that finds outward, hostile forms of prejudice to be less acceptable. Unfortunately, subtle forms of oppression are rampant. So make sure you focus on privilege, benevolent sexism, ambivalent prejudice, and aversive racism.

#4. Be kind to yourself. 

You’re going to make a mistake. You’re going to do something that perpetuates oppression. You’re going to do or say something that demonstrates your privilege. Don’t get caught up in feelings of guilt or sadness or desperation. Be kind to yourself, acknowledge [SILENTLY] that you are trying (if you really are), but that you could do better. Then set up a plan of action for how you will do better. Please note that this would not be something to say to the person you offended.

#5. Apologize and own up to your mistakes. 

When you’re called out on doing something oppressive, then apologize. Simply apologize (maybe even jokingly call yourself an ass and do a face palm).

Avoid the things mentioned above, and don’t add any qualifiers like “I didn’t mean to!” When you are called out for doing something dumb (like enacting your male privilege), then apologize. Plain and simple. I’m sorry, you’re right, that was stupid of me! If you truly don’t understand WHY what you did was offensive, then you can do one of two things: (a) ask the person to clarify, “I don’t want to make the same mistake again, can you specify what I said that was wrong?” but this is tricky (see #9). Option (b) is to put your head down and then google it later. Read up about it. Educate yourself.

I don’t quite get the connection…but that baby deer is just adorable

Wrap It Up!

Okay, okay. So this was long. I know. It’s a complicated issue and this post does not do it justice. It’s the tip of the iceberg. I only hope that it can serve as a starting point for us who truly are dedicated to anti-oppressive work. I’ve had my share of feeling like an idiot, but I had to get over it and commit myself to doing better in the future.

But this is also a *polite* notice to those who are reading this blog. I’m dedicated to this issue. If you leave a comment that is perpetuating oppression, please expect to be called out on it. As a white, heterosexual, able-bodied person, it is my responsibility to call others out on their privileges.

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3 responses to “You perpetuate oppression if you call yourself “anti-oppressive”

  1. Women cyclists, you are clearly passionate about this issue and well informed. Thanks for the further reading and I’d love to read more from you about this too. This is a very engaging and accessible intro to some of these issues

    • Oh wow! Thank you so much! I can’t tell you how much that means to me! This is a very difficult issue to write about, so I really appreciate you stopping by and commenting, and being encouraging! There will definitely be more! 🙂

  2. Pingback: Top 5 Worst Reasons Against Promoting Gender Equality in Pro Cycling: Stage One Denial | women.cyclists·

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