Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Axes of Oppressions

George Will's column this past sunday brought some issues to the fore for me that have been percolating around for a while. As usual, Will gets some things right, but most things wrong.

Some of Obama's supporters (as well as non-supporters, like Will) are making a big deal about Clinton's supporters' (and Clinton's) supposed sense of "entitlement" to the presidency because of her gender. Although I think there's a stronger case to be made that misogyny is playing a large role in this race, there are some old-school feminists who feel that it's time for a woman to be president and that should be of overarching importance. I don't happen to share that view. Mostly because, as a yellow-dog Democrat, I want, first: the most electable candidate, and second: the best candidate (one hopes these are the same, but unfortunately, not always). But, what's most fascinating to me is how we as a society perceive/respond to oppressed groups, as manifested by this primary race.

We seem to have developed a sort of "heirarchy of oppressions," with different groups claiming to be more oppressed than another. Put another way, if you could create a graph of marginal group status (race, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, social class, etc) you'd have to have multiple axes. In this instance, Barack is up fairly high on the "race" axis, while Hillary is all the way out on the "gender" axis. If this is really how we measure things, then Hillary is more "oppressed" than Barack, and therefore more "owed the prize" (to borrow from Will) than Barack. And if a candidate was a black woman, she'd score even higher on both axes--for critics like Will, and those he tries to denounce, this candidate would be "extra entitled."

(A funny aside: in the competition and clamor to score high up on the graph, that most oppressive group, white right-wing christians [so-called--I prefer to call these christianists, actually, a usage that's been gaining currency], are now claiming to be the most oppressed group.)

Within the context of our various [skewed] perceptions though, is another issue: how does a person's race, gender or other "differentness" affect our response to them when we are frequently unconscious of the effect these factors have on us? So, for instance, if the shoe was on the other foot, would people be demanding that Barack concede? What if Hillary was black and her opponent a white man? How would that play into the equation? Would we be saying different things? Expecting different things?

The truth is, we don't know, can't know, because our perceptions are so subtly shaded and so unconscious that we can't separate them out from all the other feelings, perceptions and opinions we hold. Which is why I think we should give both candidates the benefit of the doubt, and hold ourselves as accountable as we can for our own opinions, when we notice ourselves responding to a candidate in a negative way, or call for a candidate to take a particular action (ie, drop out of the race).

Of course, white males, though as a group at zero on the oppression scale, have their own problems. Members of the default class (white males, in our society--and really, that's a better term than oppressor, since few of them are consciously engaged in oppressing), for all their advantages, suffer in their own ways--and the rest of us suffer along with them. The harms of our system to members of any group are experienced both on an individual basis and in the aggregate--and generalized to society as a whole (eg: repressed pain leads to rage, lack of empathy and a need to control, causing harm to the individual and to those around him). We're seeing that play out in this primary race [Exhibit A: Rev. Wright, member of both oppressed (black) and oppressor (male) classes].

However, there are also benefits to being a member of a marginalized group, and these benefits may similarly generalize to the rest of society. Which means that if either of the Democratic candidates in this race wins the general election, we could end up with a whole new paradigm that could end oppression for everyone, no matter who or on which axis they locate on, oppressed or oppressor (this is not a high probability, but, you know, just a glimmer of possibility.)

Bringing this all back to Hillary and Barack: Hillary and some women may feel a sense of entitlement ("this is our time") and Barack may benefit from being a Black man who is non-threatening to whites (so they can assuage their guilt by supporting his candidacy without conflict) and these facts are both diminishing to them and to us, and empowering as well. In the process, regardless of the outcome, both candidates are normalizing the concept that a woman and a person of color can be president--while continuing to suffer from the weight of our collective burden of oppressions, stereotypes, and cross-communication. As do we all.

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