Why I can’t say I don’t contribute to another’s oppression

The other day on twitter I said:

A friend responded to that last tweet, asking if I could expand on that, perhaps in a blog post, so here I am trying to do that. Those few short sentences, though, reflect something that’s so fundamental to my understanding of, well, understanding itself that it may be tough.

Why can’t a white person (like, for example, me) say, “I’m not racist”?

Well, mainly because, as white people, we’re not on the receiving end of racism. We don’t experience its reality day in and day out. I’m not talking about individual prejudice here, either. Racism is much bigger than some yokel saying “I don’t like black people.” It’s an entire system that others, disparages, discards and devalues anyone who is not white. When you’re white, you don’t experience it in full. You may see instances of it. You may recognize its effects, but it’s not a force pointed at you, so you don’t really know it.

Moreover, it’s so interwoven in your entire society, in your upbringing, your history, your schooling, your media, your stories, that it’s right there in your head.

Racism isn’t about individual attitudes and actions. They’re just one part of it. Sure, we can all point at the KKK, at the horrible things that one coworker said, at obvious manifestations of prejudice, but if we limit our definition of racism to those sorts of things, then we’re refusing to see how deep racism really goes. Yeah, I’ll be repenting the rest of my life for helping my dad campaign for David Duke when I was a teenager, but that’s not what I was thinking about when I wrote My name is Gabe and… I’m racist.

See, our whole culture is shot through with racism. It was in the air I breathed as a child. It was in the stories I read, the shows I watched, the behaviors of those all around me, and now it’s in me. It’s one of my own little demons, one of my own original sins, inside me for as long as I’ve had consciousness.

I’m part of the system that creates and perpetuates white privilege and white supremacy, simply by virtue of being a white person in this world, and especially being a white person in the US. I don’t get to decide when I am not racist because I’m not the one that racism is pointed toward. If someone said “What you said/did was racist,” I don’t get to respond, “No it’s not, because I’m not prejudiced.” It’s not about me. It’s not about my intent. It’s about something I did that plays into, reinforces and upholds the racist forces that shape our society (societies?). I can’t even speak from a place of authority on this, because I’m white. Hell, by being a white person telling other white people about racism, I’m probably playing into that systemic racism, elevating my voice above the voices of people of color.

It’s similar to, but not the same as, when straight people say “I’m not homophobic.” Homophobia isn’t about some individual hating or fearing gay people. It’s about a systemic devaluing of non-straight people and sexualities. Just because a straight person doesn’t have any problems with gay people, just because they’re a professed ally, doesn’t mean that they don’t play into the systemic nature of homophobia.

When you’re not part of an oppressed class, you’re not an expert on their oppression. It’s like what Grace said about intersectionality:

To say, as a white person, “I’m not racist,” or as a straight person, “I’m not homophobic,” or as a cis person, “I’m not transphobic,” what you’re doing is privileging your own understanding of other people’s experience over their understanding of their own experience. You’re taking yourself out of the societal forces that shape you and everything around you, defining yourself in some mythical neutral space. Doing so is a refusal to recognize the agency of people to know and understand their own experience. It’s to put your voice above theirs.

So maybe we white folks oughta say, “I’m probably racist, but I’m trying to work against that.” Straight folks oughta say, “Homophobia is endemic to the culture in which I grew up, but I’m trying to lessen its presence around me.” Cis folks oughta say, “I was shaped by a world hostile to trans* people, but I’m trying to work against that hostility in my own life.”

But more than all of that, more than making it about us by saying “I’m not [insert form of societal prejudice here],” we oughta just be quiet and listen to the people who are experts on all of this, because it’s really not about the members of the privileged class. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, all oppressions, they’re not about any individual’s intent. They’re about the impact those things have on the lives of those against whom they’re directed.

from “Rethinking Transgender 101″

Rethinking “Transgender 101″

A common phrase used in transgender 101 posts is “gender identity,” getting at the idea that gender is an internal thing. However, it’s a bit more complicated than that. It’s not just socially constructed (which says nothing about gender “not being real”, which is how “socially constructed” is often taken to mean). Gender is semiotic, a hermeneutic process, like a vast tree of languages. It’s personal, relational, and cultural. It’s as much about how we relate to our surrounding world and society as it is about our inner sense of self or our relation to our bodies. “Man/male” and “woman/female” are some of the most common languages, with plenty of variations like “femme” or “butch” [which isn't restricted to men or women either!], or “dialects” or “accents” if you will. Our [Western] culture only socially sanctions “man/male” and “woman/female” language, but some of us “speak” our gender differently; for example, I am agender, genderless. While I “understand” gender, I don’t “speak” it natively, if you understand this metaphor (I’ll do a post on this later; it actually took a while to figure this out, namely when I went on testosterone).

Emphasis mine.

What makes a company “pro-gay”?

Church this morning nearly gave me a migraine. See, a fair portion of the service was related to all the Chick-Fil-Hate hullabaloo this week, and the deep pain that it caused so many people. I’d spent the week arguing, raging, seething and hurting over the immense hatred that was flowing from the “gotta have straight chicken” and their “but what about the free speech red herring?” compatriots. It was an exhausting week, and while it was wonderful and healing to be amidst folks who shared in the hurt, just revisiting the topic sent my neck and shoulders back into the tension of that rage. The pastor’s message of “Hold on, better times are coming” was wonderful, but I still needed a massage when I got home.

While the plate was passed for the offering the image below was projected up onto the wall, I assume as a reminder that there are companies who aren’t trying to have people killed for being gay.

The image, and the idea behind it, just don’t sit well with me. You can see HRC’s criteria for their Corporate Equality Index here. That’s the list of things they use to determine if a company is “pro-gay” as described in the above image.

But there’s so much that they leave out. Coca-Cola may have wonderfully inclusive insurance, and they may include orientation and identity protections in their hiring procedures, but they also have a history of murdered union workers in their bottling plants in central America. What does it matter if they won’t discriminate against you for being gay if they’re just going to have you killed for demanding safe working conditions and fair wages. Their corporate headquarters may be a great place for LGBT people to work, but I’d bet those plants are not.

The same can be said of the factories that produce Apple products, Nike’s sweatshops, Gap’s sweatshops and Hershey’s child-slave farmed chocolate. Even here in the US, Starbucks has a history of union busting. Those are just the ones I knew about off the top of my head!

Hiring practices and sponsoring Pride parades don’t mean jack when you’re mistreating and killing your employees. You can’t be pro-gay and pro-slavery. Queer people are slaves. Queer people are union organizers. Queer people are textile workers in sweatshops.

Playing nice in the public eye doesn’t make you “pro-gay,” not when your murder, exploitation, slavery and unfair business practices affect queer employees and their families. You can’t be “pro-gay” when you’re anti-human.