The Day I Learned About Systemic Oppression

 

In the days since the election I have reflected on how the stories we tell ourselves about the world are wrapped up with our identities. What a story means and how it is interpreted are a direct reflection of how we see ourselves and who we think we are. I have written on this site about the importance of humility in engaging difference. And while this is certainly a piece that stems from that posture, what I want to touch on is how important it is to be aware of our own identities and how that plays into every news story we read, every interpretation, and how that then comes out in future action and disposition in the world. The previous electoral cycle brought to the surface many tough questions about the people around us. How can my friend, coworker, parents, etc. be so ignorant? How can they turn a blind eye to suffering and oppression that seems so obvious? How can we elect someone who seems so opposite to what I thought were common values? These are just a few of the questions I have asked myself and heard others expressing. What I want to offer is a personal story that can possibly be a window into these questions.

In the fall of 2015 I moved to Boston and joined a community of people who were incredibly informed politically and passionate about social justice. I found myself not in disagreement with their mission, but rather confronted with my own indifference. I had lived 25 years and barely remembered who I had voted for, was vaguely familiar with big news stories, and had mostly written off politics as corrupt and pointless.

I remember very specifically one conversation I had in the first few weeks of being in Boston. A friend and I were discussing the protests in Ferguson and how we each felt about them. I remember saying something about how it’s unfair that cops have to put their lives on the line, and possibly risk injury, over riots that were caused from violence. It seemed so counter-productive, and so hypocritical. I found myself defending the police, defending the status quo, and defending the ability of institutions to correct themselves. My friend, now my fiancé, then explained to me with elegance some basics about how systemic oppression works. She shared about how violence is sometimes the only way of speaking when a community’s voice has been systemically muted. She taught me about how the systems that I had the privilege of trusting growing up had failed the people of Ferguson, becoming the very face of repeated inequality, how the police that seemed in my view to be honorable defenders of the peace had also become the ones who created the riots. This new understanding sent me reeling and left me with more questions about my own identity. Why had I been so blind, so indifferent? One could argue that I simply did not know the full story, but even after speaking with my friend the facts did not really change. Ferguson was a place where the black community experienced unfair treatment and institutional injustice before and after I knew the basics of systemic oppression.

In the last two years of thinking about this incident I have come to understand that much of my prior interpretation of the events in Ferguson depended on who I identified with in the narrative. I saw a police force and a local government, mostly white, up against a mostly black community that in my eyes was causing violence. The reason I forgot the whole part about the systemic oppression was because my whiteness was bound up with the police, the local government, with those in power. This boundedness affected my vision, my ability to see things clearly and as they really were. What was at stake for me was not the flourishing of an oppressed community, but rather the racism of the white people in power. Surely the people who look like me and talk like me aren’t racist, because I am not racist. This identifier painted the way that I viewed the protests, as hypocritical and unfair to the police officers. The critiques of the local authorities of Ferguson on the news and that I was seeing from the black lives matter movement bounced right off of me as I was unable to empathize with the oppressed community, rather using up all my empathy for those who I saw myself in. I saw myself in the story as the white police officers who looked like me, in the reporters who demonized the violent protesters under the guise of pacifism. This also speaks to the limited nature of my identity. Why did I not see my identity as bound together with the oppressed communities? Why was I more concerned with the unfairness of the riots rather than the systemic realities that brought them to be?

The good news is that with more awareness and intentional work, this can play out differently. I cannot change my whiteness, but I can absolutely be more aware of how my whiteness is operating on me and the people around me. In the last two years I have changed how I see myself in relation to others. I am constantly more aware of how my identity is tied to all people. This humility I mentioned above is completely contingent on the admission that I need others in order to understand myself, and to make sense of my experience in this world. My goal was not to diminish my identity so that others could take its place, but rather to expand my own sense of identity to include others. Who I see myself bounded together with in stories has changed to include a more actual version of reality that represents my interconnectedness to others. In this story I critiqued my identity as a white person, but sometimes what needs to be interrogated is my identity as a cisgender male, or as a middle class person. Our identities never operate in an exclusive way, with multiple parts of our identity operating on us from story to story.

For me, this story helps remind me of how easy it is to be blind to injustice, to be ignorant to the seemingly obvious. As this relates to our current president, this story helps me understand why people are so quick to defend his actions or are indifferent to the words he says. I think that many people’s identities as white Americans push them to see themselves as bound to Trump in the same way that I was bound to authorities in Ferguson. “If Trump is racist then I’m probably racist, therefore Trump is definitely not a racist.” The same logic can apply to the laundry list of proven claims about Trump that he seems to be protected from. What I often see is not people defending Trump, but defending themselves. For example, this played out in the “locker room talk” of Trump. This is how what Trump said got labeled as “locker room talk” in the first place. “If this person who looks like me and talks like me is labeled a sexual predator, then that means that I’m probably a sexual predator. Therefore, I must defend Trump’s words and package them as locker room talk.” When this move is made, you miss the heart of the story, and justice is sought for oneself rather than the oppressed. Only after intentional work and the expansion of the self can we begin to see things as they really are.

I think this represents just one slice of the explanation for the big divides in our country and the ignorance to injustice demonstrated by society. As interfaith leaders we must be able to constantly challenge our sense of identity and constantly question the influences upon our interpretations of stories. The stories we tell ourselves lead to action or inaction and so they must be a source of interrogation. This post serves as my own personal story and my own interpretation of the phenomenon of Trump, it certainly does not tell the whole story. I want to end with a quote from Martin Niemöller that embodies the identity interrogation I am advocating for.

 

MARTIN NIEMÖLLER: “FIRST THEY CAME FOR THE SOCIALISTS…”

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me

 

We are foolish to think that we exist apart from each other, that injustice for some is not injustice for all. May our interfaith engagements work on our sense of self to include more than our own tribal markers, and may they remind us of how complex and necessarily connected we are.

 

Photo by Jeff Roberson

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