I Am Not Oppressed!
Some say African Americans are still an oppressed people. To believe that is to surrender to our would-be oppressors.
I just read an article quoting the African American mayor of Jackson, Mississippi regarding the well-justified removal of a statue of former president Andrew Jackson. The mayor said, “While removing a statue does little to change our condition as oppressed people, we should not have to constantly encounter the likenesses of those who profited off of the blood, sweat, and despair of our ancestors or see them immortalized as honorable.”
While I certainly agree with the mayor regarding the removal of the Jackson statue, what really caught my eye was his description of African Americans as “oppressed people.” When I read that, my immediate and visceral reaction was: I am not oppressed!
When I read that African Americans are an oppressed people, my immediate, visceral reaction was: I am not oppressed!
Racial oppression is real
I think if anyone can claim to know what racist oppression looks like, I can.
I grew up in the segregated South of the 1950s and 60s — the first school I ever attended that was not racially segregated by law was my state university. As a child, I knew better than to even think about sitting down at the lunch counter in Woolworth’s to order a meal. One of my enduring childhood memories is of being in the back seat of the family car, staring wide-eyed through the window as my mom drove us quickly past a square in our city where men in white robes and pointy hoods were cavorting around a burning cross.
So I know what the face of oppression looks like. It’s all about people whose own self-worth depends on keeping me, and everyone who looks like me, in our “place.” And I have no doubt that in our nation today, there are many who are just as dedicated to keeping me in my place now as those men in the hoods were then.
But still, however much other people may want to oppress me, I am not oppressed!
Why I refuse to see myself as oppressed
I had to stop and think about why my reaction to the idea of being an oppressed member of an oppressed racial group was so strongly negative. I think it has to do with what that word means to me.
If I am oppressed, it means that:
- I am in the grip of someone else’s arbitrary power to hold me back and limit what I can achieve.
- I am a victim.
- I am helpless.
But those things are not true of me. Here’s why:
- No one has me in their power!
Yes, others will try to limit and control what I am able to achieve. But I don’t have to allow myself to be limited or controlled.
I remember my first game as a high school football player. I was a defensive lineman, and when the ball was snapped, I surged forward toward the other team’s backfield. But somebody didn’t want me to get there! In fact, offensive linemen on the other team did everything in their power to block my path. But I overcame those blocks, forced my way into the path of the ball carrier, and made the tackle.
The fact that other people may try to unjustly exercise power over me to their advantage and my detriment is simply a fact of life. But I am committed that their attempts at blocking my path will be met by an even greater determination on my part to overcome any limitations they try to impose. Whatever they do, I am determined to reach my goals in life anyway.
2. I am not a victim!
Oh, yes, there are people who want to victimize me. But to actually become a victim requires my cooperation, and my intended victimizers are never going to get it. They want to keep me in what they define as the “place” appropriate for me and my kind. There are still places they think I shouldn’t go, positions I shouldn’t have, perspectives I shouldn’t be able to have heard. I freely admit that there remain people in our society, some at the very top, who are still committed to enforcing those restrictions on me if they can.
But they can’t! Their attempts to limit me can succeed only if I allow myself to be limited — and I refuse to cooperate in my own subjugation.
Even though there were people earlier in my life who wanted me to believe I was not as intellectually capable as they were, that didn’t stop me from earning multiple degrees and becoming an adjunct instructor at the graduate level. And although some vowed to never allow people like me to be in positions of leadership over them, their displeasure didn’t stop me from becoming a manager in three high tech corporations.
3. I am not helpless!
The entire course of my life has shown me that however much other people want to exercise power over me, I am never helpless unless I allow them to convince me of my own helplessness. Yes, I grew up in a society that was expressly designed to circumscribe who I was and what I was allowed to achieve. But however much they may have wished to do so, my antagonists simply didn’t have the power to keep me in the place they had assigned to me.
The truth is that the only thing that can make me into an oppressed person is if I allow people to convince me that I am oppressed. Because, if I truly am oppressed, what’s the use of fighting? Whatever I try to do, because others who wish me ill have power over me, I will always be a victim. And that’s the ultimate lie my would-be oppressors want me to believe.
That I am an oppressed member of an oppressed race is the ultimate lie my would-be oppressors want me to believe.
You can’t oppress me because I won’t let you!
I don’t doubt that in many cases African Americans still must work twice as hard and be twice as good in order to be recognized as being as capable as others. OK, that’s reality. That’s the challenge. Of course, it’s not right, and we must certainly continue the struggle to change it. But at this moment in our national history, that’s the way it is.
The question is, will I allow myself to be controlled by that reality? Will I sit down and focus all my attention and energy on lamenting about how unfair it all is, or will I rise up and do what I need to do to overcome unjust obstacles and reach my goals anyway.
(By the way, I’m sure that’s exactly what the mayor of Jackson did, or he never would have become mayor).
To my mind, one of the worst things that could happen to African Americans and other people of color is to accept the notion that they are oppressed. No! There are still injustices to be corrected, unfair challenges to be overcome. But we have the power to fight the battles that have to be fought, correct the injustices that still plague our society, and overcome the obstacles systemic racism throws in our way.
There are still injustices to be corrected, unfair obstacles to be overcome. But we have the power to fight!
The only thing that can stop us is for us to internalize the lie that we are an oppressed people, helpless victims of a racist system that demands that we stay in our place. I refuse to believe that lie.
I refuse to be oppressed.