My oppression, my privilege: Instersectionality and how it intertwines

By Jaclyn Archer, Eagle Life Editor

What is oppression? According to the Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology “Social oppression is a concept that describes a relationship between groups or categories … of people in which a dominant group benefits from the systematic abuse, exploitation, and injustice directed toward a subordinate group.”

I suffer from oppression.

I am black, I am a woman. I am bisexual. I am an atheist. Various systems, including a flawed justice system, the patriarchy, institutional heteronormativity, and Judeo-Christian philosophical dominance (in the United States) actively marginalize and repress my experience and limit my social freedom, to the benefit of others unburdened by these characteristics.

These various oppressions interact with one another in distinct and various ways. As a woman I am more likely to be sexually assaulted than a man, however, as a black woman I am statistically more likely to be sexually assaulted than a white woman.

Because I am a black woman I am more likely to be perceived as unprofessional, promiscuous, or having “an attitude.”

Women with my skin color don’t often make it into prime-time. (Before you cry “Scandal” remember that color bias exists even within the POC spectrum. I am a darker skinned woman and thus less represented.)

People with my hair texture have a harder time getting jobs in media and the corporate world. (Although this has been changing over the last ten to fifteen years. Shout out to Alec Wek and Lupita Nyogo.)

I have been accused of shoplifting, called an animal, and had my personal space routinely violated (for example, by people or groups of people touching my hair or skin without my consent) because of my race.

My atheism partially alienates me from the majority of my original support structures.

Since moving from my hometown I’ve also found more people who see irreligiosity as normal. However, it can be difficult to find community as an atheist. When atheists avoid religious gatherings they are seen as isolating themselves. When we get together people question our motives and suggest that without a common belief in a deity we have no legitimate reason to congregate.

And when everything about life, from stress-management (Give it over to god!), to grief (God will help you heal.), to personal health (Prayer and meditation will help you with your depression/weight-loss/diet/etc.) is addressed in terms of theism, it’s easy to feel that one is living in a world devoid of relevant advice or comfort.

I don’t have it nearly as bad as some of my friends who were kicked out of their homes, blackmailed with their tuition funds, banned from groups of friends, preached at, disowned, or branded sociopaths for their religious non-conformity.

Finally, I identify with a sexual orientation that many heterosexuals and LGBTQ people claim doesn’t even exist. I might be kinky, experimenting, confused, or perhaps even hiding my homosexuality, but bisexual? “That’s not a thing.”

What is privilege? According to Sian Ferguson’s article “Privilege 101: a Quick and Dirty Guide,” privilege may be defined as “a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group.”

I benefit from privilege.

I am cisgender. I am from the middle-class. I have a family legacy of college education. I did not earn the benefits that come with this set of circumstances, and yet I enjoy them at the expense of those who do not share these characteristics with me.

As a cis-woman I have a place of privilege amongst woman. My physical sex, gender identity, and presentation all conform to my culture’s expectations of womanhood. No one questions my identity or calls me a “man.” I can use the women’s bathroom without the fear of violence. My breasts and genitalia are private (in the sense that no one asks me what they look like or if they’re real, not so much when we consider the social politics surrounding women’s health). I am not a punch-line or seen as predator.

The disadvantages dealt to me by my race and gender are ameliorated to a degree by my socioeconomic and educational status. I don’t “sound black,” which is really a racist way of saying that my patterns of speech conform to those traditionally used by those in power: white, middle-to-upper-class, college educated people. As soon as I open my mouth my intelligence is affirmed, and rarely ever questioned again.

I do not know what it is to live in economic instability. I have been broke, but I have never been poor. If ever my husband and I go through a truly lean period, unable to cover our food or rent, we have parents and relatives who are willing and able to lend us money or give us a place to stay for a while.

“Because I am a black woman I am more likely to be perceived as unprofessional, promiscuous, or having ‘an attitude.'” – Jaclyn Archer Eagle Life Editor

Being middle-class means I have always had access to good healthcare (including dental) and nutritious food. And let’s not forget fashionable clothes and electronic devices like cell phones, tablets, and computers, which make it easier to get jobs and go to school.

My family legacy of higher education affords me cultural capital which came in handy when it was time to apply for college, choose a major and career path (or three), study abroad, take advantage of internships, and apply for jobs in the context of academia. I knew how to do these things because these are normal activities for the people in my family. College has never been an “if,” it has always been a “when.” My path in higher education has never been a “how” of process; it has always been a “how” of preference.

And because I am married to a man, the fact that I am also attracted to women has little to no effect on my life.

While we’re at it, I’m also relatively thin and able-bodied.

What is the net result of all this? There is none. Privilege and oppression are not pluses and minuses to be added in a column. My privilege does not negate the oppression I experience. And the oppression I experience does not negate my privilege.

Just as a white person will never know what it is to be a person of color in America, I will never know what it is to be transgender. So it would be utterly fruitless for a transgender individual and me to argue over who has the greater right to outrage.

While it’s easy to get into “I have it worse” pissing contests, these myopic arguments do nothing for anyone’s cause and only prove, in the words of Lupita Nyogo, that we have come to “enjoy the seduction of inadequacy.” We don’t want anyone horning in on our oppression territory because we’ve become too attached to our identity as victims instead of our duty as survivors and fighters for a better society.

This is not to say all oppressions are equal. They are not, and it is right recognize this; but to fight over whose struggle is more difficult misses the greater point. Every group’s oppression is worthy of redress. Or to quote Dr. King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Marginalized individuals should be allies of one another. If you don’t think atheist oppression is your hill to die on, you should at least respect that it is a worthy hill, deserving of good soldiers.

Just as I shouldn’t allow my oppression to become a source of false righteousness or pride, I shouldn’t allow my privilege become a source of guilt. Guilt is only a useful emotion when it relates to wrongs one has actually committed and inspires an improvement in behavior. If my guilt only inspires defensiveness, avoidance, or self-loathing, it will only lead me to be deaf, ignorant, and inert.

“What is privilege? According to Sian Ferguson’s article, ‘Privilege 101: a Quick and Dirty Guide,’ privilege may be defined as ‘a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group.’ – Sian Ferguson Article: “Privilege 101: a Quick and Dirty Guide.”

As someone who experiences oppression, I do not desire the guilt of the privileged. It doesn’t give me a perverse sense of satisfaction, or a leg-up. Keep your guilt. I want your help. I want you to do adequate research, to ask for my opinions and experiences, and to listen with openness and empathy. I want you to stand by me when I rise up in outrage against the wrongs done to me and those like me. I want you to give a damn.

And I highly suspect this is what people on the flip-side of my privilege want from me.

It is easy to divide into factions, forgetting just how many of us live our lives on both sides of the coin, but we have little to gain by pointing fingers and refusing to acknowledge the complexity of our various social statuses. If we truly care about ourselves, we should learn to stand with one another as members of intersecting communities, all of whom want to build a society based not in privilege, or oppression, but personal merit.