Disclaimer: I’ve been wanting to write this piece specifically for a little while for three reasons: 1) It will be a useful resource to redirect trolls with, 2) I’m honestly kind of tired of feeling compelled to explain my philosophy all the time, which sort of refers back to the previous point, 3) I need to organize my own thoughts for myself. Seriously, my brain can be and is in so many places all at once and I just need to breathe it out in my writing. This post will benefit my mental health, because I become very self-deprecating if I don’t feel I have a grasp on myself, and my emotional health, because writing helps me recenter myself. This is necessarily therapeutic for me, as things have felt especially difficult as of late.
Trigger warning: transmisogynistic slur is used when talking about RuPaul.
As I have said in my post about the differences between representation, visibility, and slandering, “I’m of the position that people are conditioned to perpetuate and defend (by denying the existence of, by rationalizing, by justifying, or by simply not noticing) oppressive systems and the micro-level behaviors (microagressions, etc.) which enable them. For a long while, I figured that if people knew better, then they would actively resist their conditioning because they’re moral, rational people. I’m still of the former, but I’m no longer of the latter. Yes, that means I do not necessarily believe that people are moral and rational.”
We are not moral people because our society does not benefit from our being moral. We are not rational because our society does not benefit from our being rational. Neoliberal economic policies (oversimplified: privatize and deregulate everything!) under capitalism encourage people to act in their own self-interest at all times, even if that means at the expense of others. Hell, especially if it’s at the expense of others. This is taught to us and trained into us by our parents, by the stories we read, by the movies we watch, by advertising, by our educational system, by our political system, and so, so much more.
That’s kind of terrifying, isn’t it? I appear to have a very bleak outlook, and my conception says some really pessimistic, cynical shit about other human beings. If you feel that way, I think you missed something. I present all people’s behaviors in relation to systems. For me, people are symptoms of much larger problems. This does not make oppressive behavior from individuals less harmful, but it is an attempt to refocus my attention to root causes. I can never expect to uproot a tree if I only trim the leaves.
On Equality, Peace, and Justice
In developing as an activist, I used to be all about the idea of equality. I was bombarded with it by all the history books, all the gay marriage stuff, and yadda-yadda. Equality meant that things were perfect for everyone! Equality meant that everyone got shoes, that everyone got to hold hands and sing “Kumbayah.” The whole world would be peaceful, because there would be no more violence! In fact, there would never be conflict either.
Jesus, I was so naive. Very optimistic and hopeful, but seriously misinformed and ignorant. Equality might mean that everyone gets shoes, but I wasn’t wondering whether or not those shoes would fit. You can’t put on shoes that are three sizes too small. Even if you can get your feet in bigger shoes, they might fly off your feet at very inopportune times. In other words, I was not asking the necessary question, “Equality on whose terms?”
In examining that question, I thought back to what my history textbooks emphasized. Most victories were about legal and political battles, not about whole system shifts. Victories were essentially more room within the same system, and these victories were always temporary because of the varied forms of repression unique to different struggles. This is because our oppressors do not benefit from system shifts, because system shifts do not leave adequate room for repression and re-seizing control. In fact, in the case of legal and political victories, oppressors likely lost no substantial control from those defeats. (This does not mean political and legal victories aren’t necessary–because they are very necessary–but that’s a piece for a different time.)
This comes back to the idea of “equality,” and whether or not it is a worthy pursuit in anti-oppression work. I believe that the pursuit of equality is very well-meaning, but ultimately futile and dangerous. Any movement smacking on the “equality” slogan is so easily co-opted and manipulated by oppressive forces. This slogan also seems to place an implied emphasis on allyship, and movements that become about building allies more than anything else do not challenge the status quo. These movements, as my friend Trung puts it, are asking for permission. What we see from these movements are easily digestible soundbytes, sexy campaigning, and a whole lot of bandwagoning. HRC anybody? The whole marriage equality movement?
To fight oppression, we all need to acknowledge that our oppressors are much smarter than we give them credit for. Not only this, but our oppressors will do anything to hold their claim to power and control, and I mean anything. It has been demonstrated time after time after time after time after time after time after time. Don’t think for a second that your oppressors won’t kill you if they feel they need to, by way of murder, disenfranchisement, gatekeeping, enacting laws that actively work against you, and more. All forms of oppression seek one thing: Your Annihilation. All forms of privilege on every axis of oppression require an exploited Other. Do you want to pursue “equality” in a system such as this?
I don’t. I have no interest in equality. My goals in activism are focused on justice. Justice, to me, means the same thing as love. Justice is the action which follows a sincere connection with others who are both like and unlike us. Justice is the acknowledgment of power differentials. Justice is holding others accountable for when they cause harm. Justice must always manifest as an action, or it cannot be justice. For different struggles to have solidarity between one another, they must act justly towards each other. Do you see how much rides on the practice of justice? I do not believe there will ever be a world free from violence. I do not believe there will ever be a world free from conflict. I do, however, believe in peace, because peace is not the absence of violence/conflict, it is the presence of just systems. Peace can only be attained through the pursuit of justice, and for justice to be pursued, we must be vigilant of all forms of injustice.
Why Forgive? and Alternatives
Forgiveness is not a necessary part of justice. You do not have to be nice or polite to anyone who has harmed you. You do not have to let anybody back into your life who has harmed you. You are never obligated to swallow the abuse and pain somebody has caused you. Never. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. They are abusers, and you would do better to avoid such people. Don’t trust people who ask you to forgive oppressors. Their stake is in being seen as respectable, being viewed as morally upright in the eyes of their oppressors. They have a distorted view of love, as their love is predicated on the idea of equality, not justice, and what oppressor would ever want to see you as an equal?
And so I wish to introduce the idea of reconciliation. I define reconciliation as the process of coming to a mutual understanding of an injustice, and then moving forward together, apart, or otherwise, but hopefully together at some point. Reconciliation can take many forms: mediation, restorative justice practices, and more. It emphasizes that pain must be felt fully before any kind of repair (or even forgiveness) can commence, and that pain is valid and demands to be heard. The priority must always be with the victim of an injustice, never the offender. The offender is the oppressor, and the oppressor cannot be given leeway.
I can hear some of you now, “Ashley, that’s just really cold-hearted. Don’t you practice mercy?” Nope, I don’t, not in cases that demand justice. The comfort of privileged people (aka oppressors) cannot be given precedence over the safety of marginalized people. I see zero reason to give up any room on that. Why would I compromise that position? That puts power back in the hands of people who benefit from my exploitation. I will not risk that.
Implications for Allyship, Emphasizing Accountability Over Study
People who wish to work in solidarity with folks unlike themselves must understand their position. You are not a part of the community you’re working with. Understand there is difference, acknowledge the power differential you have in regards to this axis of oppression. For there to be justice, there must also be accountability.
Someone who is considered an ally can be super-knowledgeable when it comes to the history and current realities of another group, but that doesn’t mean they are unpacking their own oppressive behaviors. Awareness does not necessitate self-reflection. It is very easy to think “Trans women experience a high amount of violence” without questioning how you might be complicit in that violence, or how you are complicit in pushing trans women out of your queer/trans spaces, or how your actions contribute to systems built on transmisogyny. You’re not thinking about how you benefit from and practice oppression.
Doing social justice work is not about being a paragon of moral virtue, it’s about building better, and although building better is hard, it’s far easier than being perfect. I purposefully avoided writing “it’s about doing better,” because I feel that makes it more about the individual than the community. What is allyship without being accountable to the community you’re working with? An ally spreading misinformation about the group they’re trying to work in solidarity with is causing harm, and not holding them accountable hurts the marginalized group.
In other words, we all have to go into solidarity work with the knowledge that we’re going to fuck up. If we only study on our own time and never participate, then we can never seriously expect to contribute anything meaningful to solidarity work. It’s basically this mentality: “I’m aware, so I can’t be a part of the problem,” which is so far from the truth. By not participating, even in the smallest ways like challenging your friends’ racism, you’re essentially saying that you’re OK with the way things are. You might not believe that yourself, but your friends now think so, and so does the community you’re working with. Your inaction tells others that you’re fine with the status quo, regardless of your beliefs.
How I View Oppression in The United States
In all my analyses, whether they’re of intra-personal relationships or cultural/systemic things, I frame my lens with two questions: Where am I? and Where does power flow?
By asking “Where am I?” I am asking where the dominant forces are currently positioning me. By “Where does power flow?” I am essentially asking who benefits. Both of my questions are about helping me “follow the money,” so to speak. I believe these are two very pertinent questions to have in mind in any discourse or analysis of oppression and how it works. Too often do individuals in privileged groups argue things like “reverse racism/sexism” because their feelings got hurt this one time by someone who was probably fed up with their bigoted bullshit. But… at the same time, I do see a lot of people in marginalized groups equating oppression with their hurt feelings. This is a very troubling pattern that I believe stems from neoliberalism, and the fact that the United States’ culture focuses on the individual.
Let me be loud and clear, oppression has nothing to do with our feelings. Our feelings might get hurt in oppressive processes or be manipulated, but our feelings being harmed are not required for oppression to be, well, oppression. Hurt feelings are a consequence of oppression, not the basis. This is not to devalue the trauma we experience as marginalized people, nor am I saying they shouldn’t be addressed. All I’m saying is that discourse on oppression should avoid ending at hurt feelings. For oppression to be oppression, it must exist on these three levels: 1) Personal 2) Cultural 3) Systemic. On all levels, the power must flow to the same group consistently at the expense of another group’s access to that same power. Allow me to give an example of each from my own experience.
Personal: A cis person takes up space in a conversation about transgender issues in a classroom setting… while I’m sitting there in the room. When I speak, the cis person talks over me and “corrects me” on my own experience. In this case, I am being positioned as lesser, and the flow of power goes toward the cis person(s) in the room. My agency over my own experience is questioned and seen as illegitimate, and so this opens up opportunities for cis people to continue speaking and hold their power dynamic. (Oppression on the personal level often manifests as microaggressions)
Cultural: The portrayals of trans women in media have gone from gruesome murderers to hopelessly tragic, drug addict sex workers (not that there’s anything wrong with sex work, but given how society positions sex workers, it is viewed as a negative and that is how I’m writing about it). Trans women are seen as deviant, as sexual objects, as kinks for gay/straight men, and as promiscuous. We are constantly sexualized while being seen as false, which is partly where the slur “shemale” comes from. Oh wait, RuPaul had a whole game on his show about that called “shemale or female.” Culturally, I, and all trans women, are positioned as lesser, and because we are culturally viewed and placed as lesser, then who deserves more access to resources? The flow of power, access to resources, and access to wealth then goes to the dominant group. At whose expense? Our expense.
Systemic: There are laws that allow trans people to be fired on the basis of their identity and expression in 32 states. There are laws restricting our access to healthcare, as a number of insurance providers do not cover transitioning processes for trans people who want/need them. Here are dozens of other examples of systemic/institutional oppression of trans people. Trans people broadly are seen as undeserving of these resources, and that reflects the idea that we are lesser. Who benefits from our lack of access to resources? Cis people, the dominant group, as there are now more opportunities, jobs, resources, healthcare services, and security available for cis people at the direct expense of trans people.
In all cases, the dominant group (cis people) benefits at the direct expense of the marginalized group, therefore transgender people are oppressed. In none of these cases did feelings ever come up, because oppression has nothing to do with our feelings. That doesn’t mean our feelings aren’t legitimate, it’s just that they’re never taken into consideration unless they can be manipulated by dominant forces.
Conclusion (aka tl;dr)
I do not promote equality, I promote justice. I do my best to act justly, and that means I have to be accountable to my own community and communities I work in solidarity with. I do not talk about oppression in terms of who got their feelings hurt. I focus on where people are positioned and where power flows. It is not about feelings, it is about exploitation, and given that the United States is a neoliberal, capitalist society, that exploitation manifests most often by economically disenfranchising marginalized groups. Capitalism is far more a tool of oppression than anything else in my mind.
In regards to oppression broadly, I believe that all forms of activism are important, so long as they’re challenging the status quo. Everything we do matters, and in one way or another, we’re all responsible. We can build things better by working together, by learning to work across differences, by learning to unpack the oppressive things we’ve internalized about ourselves and others. We can do so much, but we must be willing to wrestle with some of the hard truths about ourselves. And by doing these things, we inherently pursue justice, and by pursuing justice we are practicing love. Practice love every day.