Shades of Oppression

There are very few people these days who will admit they are racist. For many of us, especially those with privilege, the word “racist “ calls up images of the KKK, cross burning, or segregation. Yet we all have some biases, though we may not know they exist. We may even speak out against acts of racism, like the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and still do or say things that perpetuate discrimination without realizing we are doing so. Most of us probably could never imagine committing a violent, racist act against a black person. But many of us don’t question racist representations in the media or the fact that our cities are still segregated by race and ethnic group (and we often talk about “bad neighborhoods” where the upper and middle classes should never go).

The fact that our underlying biases exist and we often fail to acknowledge them allows others to commit those acts of violence with little consequence or pushback. That’s why the #BlackLivesMatter movement is so important. People are speaking up and saying no, it’s not ok for police to use unwarranted excessive force. But as long as people use racial slurs, as long as our schools are segregated, as long as blacks aren’t represented in government and the media, as long as there are other social cues signaling that black lives don’t, in fact, matter, the use of excessive force will continue.

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending Women in the World, an event hosted by The New York Times featuring female leaders around the world who are solving the world’s problems and fighting resistance. Some women are fighting sexual violence that’s used as a weapon of war, some are standing up to cyber bullies, and others are helping low income countries establish resources in their communities (see my Twitter feed for Live Tweets). In each and every session, I was blown away with how strongly and resolutely the women (and men) proclaimed the message, “This has been enough. I demand equality, I demand to be recognized as a human.” In every situation — climate change, war, poverty, totalitarianism governments — women and girls got the worse end of everything. In less developed countries and in the United States. And the audience shed tears listening to the moving stories told by young women who experienced the side effects of ethnic conflict fought by men: rape, kidnapping, human trafficking, isolation, and shame.

And I realized that, like racism, everyone’s attitude toward women contributes to all of these problems. There are many men who would never, ever imagine committing the violent act of rape. But, like people who don’t notice their racial biases, there are countless men and women who do or say things without realizing it that makes it ok for men to commit rape. We demonize rapists in the media, but many rapists do not actually believe they are doing anything wrong, because our society’s rhetoric justifies what they’ve done. When a person judges a woman’s outfit, when a man or woman calls another woman a slut, when a father tells his daughter she should save herself for marriage — ALL of it contributes to the commonly shared worldview that women are second class. Women don’t matter as much; they don’t deserve as much.

I consider myself pretty well-versed on all the ways I am at a disadvantage as a woman, but at the summit yesterday, I was shocked at some of the figures I heard. For example, women are woefully underrepresented in medical research, especially in research on heart disease. Heart disease is the #1 killer of women, kills more women than men worldwide, and affects women differently than men, yet only 26% of heart disease clinical trial participants are women. Vanessa Noel, CEO and Designer of Luxury Women’s Shoes, shared her story of reporting symptoms of chest pain; she had to visit three doctors and have a heart attack in the doctor’s office before any practitioner realized she was actually having a heart attack.

This is why I become outraged when people claim women’s rights is no longer something for which we need to advocate. This is why my blood boils when someone uses the word “feminist” in a derogatory tone. This is why I cannot rest until more men are part of these conversations.

Recently, there’s been some pushback from certain groups on the Internet against advocates. Some people are uncomfortable with feminists, with gay rights activists, with #BlackLivesMatter. I learned at Women in the World that “White Knight” has surfaced as a derogatory name used online to shame men who rally to the feminist cause.

In 2015, some white men are still uncomfortable with the demands for equality coming from women, minorities, and the LGBTQ community. They respond with ridicule, respond with disbelief, denying there is a problem and labeling activists “extremist” or “crazy.” They think they would never commit an act of violence against a gay person or a woman or a black man, so they are therefore not oppressing anyone.

They are uncomfortable. They feel threatened. The world is no longer a place where their privilege is unquestioned. When you’ve been sitting on the top for thousands of years, it’s a hard pill to swallow. In reality, women, blacks, gays don’t want to be the new patriarchy. We actually just want a world in which we are all equal, where we are all respected, and we all possess and exercise the rights we deserve. And when someone takes away those rights, we want that person to be held accountable.