Social Justice Must Be Complicated, Because Oppression Is Never Simple
There is no one-pager solution to systemic oppression.
“We won’t get anywhere if we keep dividing ourselves like this. We have a common enemy.”
This is the refrain that I, and many other marginalized people, hear when we talk about privilege, oppression, and intersectionality. It’s a refrain most often coming from the most privileged within the movement — the white person in a class movement, the white woman in a feminist movement, the black man in an anti-racist movement. This argument, that taking time to address issues affecting specific subgroups within movements is at best distracting and at worst destructive, is not new. But since the election of Donald Trump has led to a rise in danger for multiple groups of people in the U.S. (and beyond), and with the handwringing over the inability of the “left” to defeat such obvious bigotry and unsuitability for office, it has become less of a complaint and more of a demand.
But this argument that paying heed to “Identity Politics” is divisive or destructive is not only wrong, it runs counter to how we approach any other complex issues in our society, and underscores a fundamental misunderstanding of how systemic oppression works.
The “systemic” in systemic oppression is not an accident. It is a system of different oppressions, and safeguards to those oppressions, designed to last. It’s not only the lower income that a woman might make, but also the education system that values “male” jobs over “female” jobs while also encouraging women out of those fields, the culture that justifies the difference by telling men to work for wealth and women to work for love, the company policies that hide the discrimination by making rules against sharing salary information and placing caps on raises that prevent women from catching up, the penalties placed against women for having and caring for children, and so much more.
The ‘systemic’ in systemic oppression is not an accident.
The prison industrial complex is not just black and Hispanic men being locked up in prison, it is black and brown children being criminalized by teachers starting in preschool, pushed out of education and into juvenile detention by high school, locked out of legal employment after high school, sent to for-profit prisons with no focus on education or rehabilitation, sent back into society with even bleaker prospects, then re-arrested, and denied the vote that could help change the system and break the cycle, and so much more.
These systems also interact with and feed off of each other. Racism will strengthen gender oppression against women of color. Classism will strengthen racism against poor people of color and sexism against poor women, and so on.
Systemic oppression is built throughout all of our most important systems — our education system, our workplaces, our government, our arts and entertainment. It is in the air that we breathe and it is upheld with almost every action we take. That is how it has lasted so long.
So when you say to critiques of, say, popular feminism, “Now is the time for women to come together and fight the patriarchy,” I have some questions for you:
Do you think all poor women are poor for the same reasons?
Do you think all endangered women are endangered for the same reasons?
Do you think all unvalued women are unvalued for the same reasons?
Because a black woman is not poor simply because she’s a woman and the patriarchy undervalues the role of women. She is also poor because her skin color and hair texture labels her as unprofessional, unreliable, volatile, unskilled, and unintelligent. She is poor because society sees her as someone from whom labor is to be taken, not compensated. She is also poor because she is more likely to be the sole caregiver of children in a system that locks away black men. Any efforts to address the poverty of women that do not address these issues will leave black women behind.
Just because the end result of oppression may get us in the same room, it does not mean that we got there via the same path. And if the causes of our oppression are the not the same, why would we imagine that the solutions would be?
If the causes of our oppression are the not the same, why would we imagine that the solutions would be?
Racial oppression, gender oppression, sexuality oppression, disability oppression, class oppression — these did not occur because a group of wealthy, cis, straight, abled white men got together and said “LET THERE BE OPPRESSION.” What we have today is a very complex and enduring system of multiple oppressions designed to reinforce and interact with each other in a way that makes it impossible to address one without addressing another.
So if you say, “Our goal is to fight racism” or “Our goal is to fight sexism” or “Our goal is to fight the Trump Administration” you are saying equally huge and complicated things. You are saying, “Our goal is to fight multiple, complicated, interwoven systems at once.”
There is no one-pager solution that will suffice.
You know what we had before Identity Politics? We had White Dudes.theestablishment.co
We need to start treating our social justice efforts with the respect that we treat other large endeavors in our society. This is not just the realm of noble dreams. This is the realm of complex systems.
When starting a major company, it is not enough to say, “I will create a successful major business.” The Secret will not work here; you cannot manifest success through your wishes. If you start a major business, the first thing you do is say, “I have a dream, now I need a team.” And you don’t look for people with the same skillset and experience as you. You don’t look for people with the same focus as you. You look to cover your bases. You do not cut out your finance department because you are not personally interested in finance. You do not tell your web designers that their talk about color schemes is distracting you from your main vision. You regularly look around the room and say, “Who is missing? Who do I need to help cover all the angles?”
This is not just the realm of noble dreams. This is the realm of complex systems.
Because you know that you all want a successful business, but you also know that a successful business requires more than just your skillset and goals. You also know that in order for other people to join you and do the work needed to ensure that the business is successful, they gotta get paid too, and you gotta let them do what they do best.
Or you fail. That, too, happens all the time. But when it does, we blame those at the “front” who decided to cut corners, not those who were trying to save everybody’s asses by pointing out what was missing.
Now, of course, there are limits to this analogy in that if “equality” is anywhere in your social justice goals, the capitalism of a major business is going to come into conflict with that, but hey — no analogy is perfect.
Your social justice needs a department of Latinx affairs. A department of disabled affairs. A department of gender equality. Or at the very least, it needs to partner with those specializing in that work. Or it will fail. It has been failing.
Your social justice needs a department of Latinx affairs. A department of disabled affairs. A department of gender equality.
People look at the last election and say that we failed to come together against Trump because we were all too caught up in our “individual” wants. If our failure in 2016 was anything other than massive amounts of white people deciding to vote for White Supremacy (and it’s really not much more than that), I’d say it was the insistence that people all pretend they were on the “left” for the same reason, and that we would all rally around a very narrow set of goals that would only meet a very narrow set of needs.
So perhaps now that we can’t weaponize a looming presidential election against marginalized voices, we can take a little time and care with our movements. Start looking around the room and asking, “Who isn’t here who should be?” and “What DON’T we have covered?”
Start addressing complex problems with appropriately complex solutions. It’s time to get in the business of social justice. It’s time to do it right.