Who is your oppressor?
“... we have been taught that ‘benefitting from a system of oppression’ is the same thing as being an oppressor yourself.”
Photo by Dimitri Svetsikas
It’s hard to pinpoint when the bifurcation of all of society into either oppressor or oppressed was first articulated. Hegel noted in 1802 that “[t]he Catholics had been in the position of oppressors, and the Protestants of the oppressed.” But one could safely argue that many spiritual holy men, from the Buddha to Jesus, have relied on these categories in one way or another to deliver their indictments of the world.
Over the past half century or so, this simplistic binary has taken on a life of its own: everyone from Paulo Freire to Audre Lorde has relied on this concept to articulate their analyses of power in the modern world. While its explanatory power is hard to deny, it is one of those descriptive terms that seems to have somehow become prescriptive over the past few decades, so that we now not only use it to name the power relations that are in operation in society, we believe we can rely on this binary as a key foundation in thinking through and articulating our visions for the future.
In progressive circles today, we have been taught to conflate “oppressor” with almost anyone who benefits from any dominant structure or system that governs society. This means that there is often no space for people with privilege to make a mistake or escape being lumped in and dismissed with every other person who shares their privilege. In a lot of important ways, we have been taught that “benefitting from a system of oppression” is the same thing as being an oppressor yourself, when these are two overlapping realities that sometimes converge and sometimes are being actively fought against, however imperfectly. The very word oppressor carries a certain and very precise complicity: it implies that one is actively engaged and committed to someone else’s oppression.
Once we accept that people who benefit from our oppression are always going to be our “oppressors,” we can ignore the privileged individual’s relationship to the system and identity from which they benefit. In other words, for some people, a white person will always be an oppressor, whether that white person is Amy Goodman or the Cheeto in Chief.
Accepting this frame means eliding the very real differences between and amongst people who benefit from oppressive structures; it also means that we can then reduce nuanced and complicated ideas into one-liners to be parroted and thrown at each other: “I don’t educate my oppressor,” “intentions don’t matter,” etc.
But who is your oppressor? Is your oppressor your longtime male partner who you are sharing a life with? Is it your white mom, who took care of you her whole life? Is it your best friend from childhood, because this society accrues benefits to them that come at your expense? What gets lost in this binary is the different relationships we can and do have with people in our lives who have power over us, as well as the complicated and even messy realities of people trying to live otherwise. This logic has become insidious, and it has infiltrated so many aspects of Left organizing that it is hard to even point out that this framing is too simplistic to hold up to scrutiny: that perhaps codifying everyone into either oppressor or oppressed is not actually helping us do the hard work of thinking through and constructing the world(s) we want to envision.
I have witnessed countless people of colour insist that, since the person they have chosen to be in an intimate relationship with has white privilege, it is not their responsibility to coddle their feelings or make them feel better after they are emotionally distressed. I have witnessed people with an incredible amount of class privilege, and a tonne of available time, not only actively refuse to have real conversations with their friends or close loved ones, but to incessantly and cruelly mock them for even daring to ask a simple question. Even when the person is deeply dedicated to unlearning their shit, that person remains nothing other than an “oppressor.”
Of course, it is important to acknowledge that those with privilege often have far more access to resources, books and materials that need to be seriously engaged with if we are to claim we are committed to social justice. But I know for myself, sometimes you can read and google everything and still not gain the key insight that will transform your understanding and reality, particularly if it is of an experience you do not share. Some of my most important and key learnings have happened in dialogue with other people: in workshops and community spaces, by being present with someone as they share the gift of their story or life with me, by witnessing the way in which their body holds their pain, by letting their story physically and emotionally impact me, etc. — all of these things can sometimes only be communicated by being in communion with another human being.
As an illustrative example of the prevalence of this binary logic, it is quite common in progressive circles to hear the refrain “I’m not here to educate my oppressors.” Sometime this makes sense, like when a random stranger on the internet demands emotional or intellectual labour from you, and sometimes it sounds absolutely ludicrous, like when someone you have made the choice to let into your life and create intimacy with is held to the same standard as someone you have no interest in creating any kind of kinship with.
Pretense of communication
The idea originates, of course, from Audre Lorde’s essay “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Lorde writes:
Whenever the need for some pretense of communication arises, those who profit from our oppression call upon us to share our knowledge with them. In other words, it is the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressors their mistakes. I am responsible for educating teachers who dismiss my children’s culture in school. Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.
When Lorde states that the “oppressors maintain their position and evade responsibility for their own actions,” is she talking about those people from the oppressive class who are trying to work in solidarity to dismantle the system from which they benefit, or is she talking about people who are actively committed to upholding the systems from which they benefit? Are teachers who stand in the way of culturally competent and appropriate pedagogy the same as those actively trying to teach students their culturally relevant histories and knowledge? If we cannot make a distinction between the two, if anyone from the oppressive class is always going to remain my oppressor, what hope are we offering to ourselves and to each other that we can transform the oppressive conditions that constrain our lives? None. We are saying that we live in a closed circuit from which there is no escape. We are saying, in other words, that we cannot imagine the world being otherwise.
In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire wrote: “In order for the oppressed to be able to wage the struggle for their liberation, they must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform.” Similarly, Lorde opens her essay in this way: “Much of Western European history conditions us to see human differences in simplistic opposition to each other: dominant/subordinate, good/bad, up/down, superior/inferior.” And yet this is exactly how far too many people in progressive circles have bandied about her words.
If none of us can escape the roles assigned to us by the systems of domination we are trying to overcome, what hope is there for “devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future”? We are in effect saying that these systems are so totalizing that there is no possibility of an “outside”; that there is no way to overcome these systems.
Beyond the poles
So many of us are attempting to transform the world beyond these systems. So many of us are choosing to join in the fight against oppression, which often means attempting to live between and beyond these two opposing poles. So many of us are trying, failingly, arduously, to acknowledge our oppressive realities at the same time as we work to transform them. I have come to realize that it is not possible to build transformational kinship with anyone if I am unable to give them the space and the permission to come with their full selves. Yes, this means lots of painful conversations and even more painful (un) learnings. Yes, this means I am choosing to sometimes educate someone who benefits from my oppression. But it also means I am creating a bond that can (hopefully) withstand and overcome the oppressive categories that have come to define so many of our lives. Isn’t this, after all, what it means to be a progressive? Isn’t this what it means to be in community with someone? Isn’t this our duty, as people committed to social justice and all that it entails? To be committed to social justice is not an easy task, and yet this binary frame makes it sound like it’s the simplest thing in the world.
A refusal to give people you have allowed into your lives the space to have difficult conversations, to make real and sometimes painful mistakes, is not the work of liberation — it is simply the internalization of the same oppressor’s logic that has perpetuated the very isms we are so ardently railing against. Lorde concludes her essay with these famous words: “[T]he master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
I am in no way saying we need to stop whatever we are doing and give all our energy and attention to ignorant people around us. But I believe it is important, now more than ever, to think a little more creatively and courageously about how we are going to change this world (which is another way of saying: how are we going to transform our relationships with each other?). The hard work of liberation requires wading through the messiness of lives that are being lived in between these two opposing poles, and it requires a serious rethinking of what our responsibilities and relationships to each other entail. If this is not the hard work of “devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future,” then what in the world is?
[Author’s note: One of the risks of writing an essay like this is that we won’t always know if people who have power over us are doing the work themselves. I believe, given the context and discourse as it exists now, this risk is worth taking. A one-size-fi ts-all approach to this binary doesn’t help in building relationships across power differences. Every relationship is different and only we can decide for ourselves if the person we are creating community with is doing the work.]