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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Why Ranking Oppressions Never Works

This election has brought out the ugly in many people. At the heart of this ugliness is a mistake. A mistaken belief that we can rank the oppressions we face in order of severity and make decisions about how and when to address different forms of injustice accordingly. This belief is misguided.

We don't need a woman in the white house before a black man because women are more oppressed than blacks. We don't need a black man in the white house first because blacks are more oppressed than women. These are the kinds of arguments that only make sense in a world where Black women don't exist. Blacks are not men. Women are not white. And none of us is class neutral. Some of us are gay, some of us are immigrants, some of us are disabled. There are no pure categories.

And there is no hierarchy of oppression we can chart which will resolve this. White woman benefit from white skin privilege. Black men benefit from male privilege. Straight people benefit from heterosexual privilege. Able-bodied people benefit from abelist privilege. Middle class people benefit from class privilege. Skinny people benefit from size privilege. There are not pure categories of people and there are very few people who do not simultaneouly benefit from some form of privilege while being oppressed as a result of their membership in some group. (The obvious exception is middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied white men. They are not oppressed and they are very privileged).

So can white women claim to be more oppressed than black men? Can Black men claim to be more oppressed than white women? No, of course not. They are privileged and oppressed in different ways. And their maleness is qualified by their blackness, their femaleness is qualified by their whiteness.

Sexism is raced. Racism is gendered. Oppression is complicated.

So it is absurd to say that it would be worse for Obama if he were a woman or worse for Clinton if she were black unless you are willing to recognize that they would both have to turn into black women for the claim to make sense. Would a black women have a harder time in this election than either a black man or a white woman? Probably she would since currently most people appear to consider the possibility unthinkable. Black women don't exist for most of the commentators. Otherwise they would not consistently overlook the fact that Obama and Clinton differ in both race AND gender.

Their race/gender analogies only work in the absence of Black women. Can a woman who does not exist run for office? Probably not. But if a Black woman ran we would have to take into account her class, her sexuality, her able-bodiedness in addition to her race and gender.

Maybe this country is ready for a black man or a white woman but not both. Maybe the outcome of the election will be a result of whether the electorate is more racist or more sexist but we can never truly know since we don't have a white man running against a white woman or a black man running against a black woman. Race and gender are tangled up in these two candidates and other factors are also playing an important role.

Oppression is complicated. Too complicated to be ranked and addressed in serial order. Addressing racism won't eliminate sexism. Addressing sexism won't end racism. Gay people are not going to stop being bashed to death when a straight white woman or a straight Black man get into office.

One form of oppression is not more important than another. Some forms of oppression are not more egregious than others. Anytime we deny the humanity of an individual on the basis of his or her inclusion (perceived or actual) in a group , we are enacting oppression. Oppression is always unjust and unearned privilege always aids oppression. Until we are both willing to fight oppression and to give up privilege, we will be plagued with social injustice.