Have you ever asked why one group that’s been a victim of discrimination doesn’t automatically see how another group is suffering? Have you wondered why people in one group could actually participate in the oppression of another or at least ignore the desires for similar equality by the other group?
It doesn’t seem to matter what the basis of a discrimination is — class, race, gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, abilities and disabilities, religion, etc. An inability to see discrimination and oppression as a way of approaching life that suits a system’s desire to eliminate threats to the status quo, functions to keep people in competition with each other, even fighting the liberation of an other, so that there’s no combined strength to change the system.
There are different ways to look at the struggle to end discrimination and oppression. And their differences help explain why one oppressed group can’t empathize with how another group is similarly affected by a systemic oppression built into a culture.
A first approach is to proceed as if a struggle is just to obtain rights and equality for one’s own group. Interested in one’s own freedom, there’s little interest in changing much else in a society.
It’s: “I’ve got mine, good luck getting yours.” It ignores the concept of community, that we’re all in this together, and that what affects one affects all. That is, it omits what’s come to be called the intersectionality of oppressions.
That’s understandable given the falsehoods our style of capitalist culture installs in us and we, therefore, spend a lot of energy defending:
- Life is a zero sum game so that there’s only so much of anything (attention, activism, love, freedom, time, money) to go around
- Competition is a lifestyle that’s the way to a better life, which means that if another group wins, my group will somehow lose. They’re will will somehow be at our expense
- The reason why any group is suffering from discrimination is their own fault, they deserve what they’re getting because America is a meritocracy — otherwise, like us (or me), they could just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps
- Religion supports and sanctifies our socio-economic system and the points above.
As a result, oppressed groups fight over whose oppression is worse. Then they split from a unified front against systemic oppression into groups that resent each other. Imagine how perfect that is for maintaining oppressions.
In addition, there’s the wistful belief that I’ll be happy and fulfilled if I win the legal protections my group is lacking. So, I vote for what’s good for my group alone.
Usually this is tied to the acceptance of the classist teaching that getting my liberty and equality is the key to moving up in the system. I’ll enter a higher economic class and my money will protect me even more.
So, for example, if white, gay, men just end the oppression of gay people, their barrier to a richer life will be eliminated and they too can rise above other oppressed people with whom they don’t identify. There’s quite a history of that playing out in extreme forms.
As those who thought they had “made it” often attest, however, that discrimination will still rear its ugly head. Any woman who thought she had risen above sexism by serving on a corporate board, becoming a professor, or even running for president, knows sexism is lurking in many forms.
A result of this limited approach, if it actually worked, could be that we’d end one or more oppressions without improving the conditions that keep oppression going as a strategy. And since oppressions condition the minds of both the dominant and non-dominant groups, the ingrained concepts behind them such as gender issues and homophobia, will dog everyone including the newly liberated.
A second approach to ending discrimination is to see ourselves as a part of a community of people where all oppressions are related and therefore all need uprooting.
One of the results of the loss of a sense of community in America is an isolationism — which too is promoted by the power structure — that separates out our issues as if they’re unrelated to humanity’s around us. Ours become all-encompassing so they must be brought up in every context where social justice is sought out of fear that if they don’t get addressed at that very moment, they never will be.
All this is understandable psychologically, for we’re thinking about people who’ve really been hurt by current discriminations. And until that is ended there’ll arise cries to pay attention to and not forget the real struggles and obstacles people have, cries that might derail any discussion.
Then, because we’ve all internalized all the oppressions, even those who are in oppressed groups will be limited by the lies of the oppressions. They’ll never be truly mentally free. It will always nag at them in some deep place.
Seeing the relationships between multiple oppressions, however, will be crucial to changing a society that wants to thrive on what it prefers to tell us is how people must be – it’s human to need an enemy to look down upon, the trope goes. It will enhance our mental health in the light of the drone of what we’re being told and remind us that the oppression that came down on victims was never their fault.
In 1988, Suzanne Pharr wrote her first edition of Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism to show the relationship of those two oppressions. These in turn are tied to our cultural conditioning about gender that’s currently making transgender people lightning rods for societal dysfunctions in the form of transphobia.
And, as Jessica Joseph put it in “Homophobia and Racism: Similar Methodologies of Dehumanization”: “Racism, classism, sexism, religious imperialism, homophobia and feral corporatism may look like individual poisonous plants, but if you dig under the surface, the roots are all intertwined. Pull on one, and it is firmly anchored by the root network of another toxic tree.
So, to really solve our problems of discrimination and hatred — and to free our minds and ourselves, the second approach is our only healthy choice.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.