Breaking it down as I attempt to move with loving care...

I think I try to center to such a large degree that I end up forgetting that not everyone has the benefit of the ideas I take for granted which form the basis for how I understand the world, how I experience the world, how I speak about the world, how I blog about the world.

I am attempting to learn to share what I know compassionately in a way that will allow mutual understanding to flourish.

I wrote this piece just after my first child was born. It's about oppression and my developing more consciousness of who I am. But, in truth, it's about what I try to do when I get new information, uncomfortable information, painful information...about me and how I am positioned.

I think it's relevant. In love and in struggle, I hope that the rest of you understand its relevance, too.

Breaking It Down:
Acknowledging The Emotions Attached To Recognizing Oppression And Achieving Consciousness© December 2002

What are the feelings attached to recognizing our own oppression?

Initially for most dominated people feelings around being oppressed include regret, embarrassment at having been lost, ignorant and willingly colonized for so long. Rage at having been treated as if our feelings, our pain and our needs don’t matter. Fear over being verbally, psychologically or physically abused if we should speak up. Worry about still being ignored or alienated even if we should identify who we are and what we want. Sometimes hurt if we should finally get the courage to speak the truth of our realities, point out or describe our oppression and the ways the people around us are complicit in our pain, only to be attacked, shouted at, silenced, told we are being too assertive or too powerful. Sometime we can be out-and-out ignored, shunned, pathologized, physically/emotionally maimed or killed.

What are the feelings attached to recognizing the ways we can oppress?

Most writings on oppression tend to concentrate on the emotional well-being of the colonizer or the oppressor falsely setting up a dichotomous situation where one is simply either oppressed or oppressor. This or that. Many writings by revolutionaries, feminists and other advocates of change have not examined the difference between personal power/grounding power and unearned power/power over. Not a lot of work has been done mapping out grey areas, the in-between spaces where those who exist as the dominated, can in other ways, exist as those who dominate.

Take for example, my experience with a Black person who was also male, straight, heterosexual, conservative, middle-class and as far as I could tell from simply observing, fairly erotophobic, meaning possessing no analysis around sexual oppression in his society or community.I remember wielding my personal power, my power to speak and to resist by attempting to question him around his sexual conservatism and his very obvious classism.

His reaction? Enraged, he jumped up, yelled at me something about taking offense to my questioning and stormed out. I observed the ways he utilized the unearned power and privilege he claimed to not possess in a heavy handed attempt to stop me from questioning him.

Knowing that there would be no accountability for his attempt to silence me as he continued to masquerade as one of the revolutionary leaders of a certain set of young, Black, artistic yet still extremely conservative, classist, homophobic people, I decided to open my mouth and speak...often. I spoke, not to humiliate him as he still tries to insinuate, but to give my experience voice and to keep myself from creating and struggling in isolation.

I trust my perceptions and my ability to speak out about Black community and spoken word spaces as venues often supporting an empty, a-political, hypocritical, homophobic, heterocentric, sex negative conservative bottom line. This is work I do on my own as a queer woman who many conservative Black gays and lesbians refuse to ally themselves with because of my insistence on verbalizing, never hiding our lust for sexing against the grain. I understand that this sexual deviance marks me as different from them because I am not about trying to fit a Black, conservative, oppressive norm. Even with a straight man on my arm, I’m not about trying to be acceptable or assimilating.

Whether the other Black, Caribbean people I’m acquainted with, yet not presently allied with ever find the courage to question our African descended brethren and sistren is neither here nor there. Whether they ever find it in themselves do more than silently roll their eyes when confronted with the evidence of their own oppression is not my issue.

What I need to point out is that the sort of critique I level at other people is no different than the sort of work I expect of myself. How far can I stretch?


Case in point:

A few years ago I offered a class once a month to fourteen people of different sexualities, class backgrounds, gender identifications, experiences of racial oppression, age, mobility. On the first day of the course I walked down the hall toward the meeting room where my students were waiting. On my way, I passed the accessible washroom that had a sign saying out of order. I continued down the hall, opened the door and began teaching.

About half way through the class we took a break. Everyone went for the washrooms in the basement which were only fully accessible to people able to navigate the stairs. One of the wimmin in the class actually needed to use the accessible washroom. There was no option of running down a few stairs for this white disabled dyke woman. No avoiding or ignoring that sign. In order for her to have access to the washroom, she was forced to control any understandable anger or impatience she may have felt and come talk to me about her basic bodily functions in a very matter-of-fact manner.

I registered what this woman said and chose to hear. But I understand that my privilege as able-bodied allowed me the right and the option of blanking her or fluffing her off. I think what stopped me cold went beyond my belief in right or wrong, beyond the fact that I was actually teaching a course on anti-oppression. I think I had no choice but to look at the fact that I had made a split second, yet very conscious choice to put the significance of that out of order sign out of my mind because I could. Because it did not affect me.

At a really core level, beyond my privileged existence, a small, clear voice told me that this was evidence of oppression. That the very existence of this washroom was an indication that ableism existed, that people needing barrier free services could not just pee where ever they wanted. Because their needs are not considered ‘normal’. Because their needs are considered ‘special’, as in above and beyond what most people supposedly need or want or expect.

I immediately got up and went to question the staff of the building about why the washroom had not been fixed. But I was already behind. I had already seen the sign on the door of the bathroom and chose not to address it before I was forced to. Instead of receding into the wasteland of denial or treating this woman as if she was lucky to have me looking out for her, I internally claimed my complicity in her discomfort. I did not project my embarrassment and shame onto the staff by giving them attitude thereby diverting attention from my privileged (lack of) reaction. I claimed my irrational sense of embarrassment later on with my lover and friends.

But because I had not set myself up as the supreme purveyor of knowledge in the context of my class, I could allow myself errors and bits of self-realization without feeling affronted or getting angry with this woman when her words confronted me about my own privilege as able-bodied. I apologized to her for inviting her to a class in a building that was not accessible to her. I spent the next few weeks thinking about what it meant to have to go to another person and talk about your bodily functions just so you can use the washroom.

I spoke to other able-bodied people about our privilege and about the feelings of discomfort, shame, confusion and the impulse to hide that I was dealing with as one of the colonized confronted with my own privilege and ability to oppress. I struggled with not seeing a hidden experience of the world and my body I knew was there. I was mortified to discover how difficult it was to come into knowledge of this aspect of my social positioning when I had spent so much of my politicized adulthood feeling frustrated with the blank stares and uncomfortable shrugs of people equally unable to come into contact with their own oppressive selves.

I persevered, surfing the net, re-reading works about white domination, homophobia, patriarchy and power. I layered these words on top of texts and websites created by some really hardcore disability activists. I situated my (ambulatory, seeing, hearing, relatively healthy) self in relation to the oppression of people living with disabilities. My tongue and mind tried new language I could use to describe my realities. I worked of my own volition to pull the blinkers off my eyes. I scratched my own surface. I began to explore what it meant to have privilege as able-bodied in a world filled with barriers and stigma. I wrote and thought and wrote and thought some more.

On the day of the next class, I prepared myself to share the work I had been doing and to out myself as someone just beginning to deal with their own privileged body. I waited until break and approached the woman who had brought the bathroom to my attention. I prefaced by saying that I was not going to expect her to teach me or explain to me or take care of my upset. I told her that I thought that my ignoring the out of order sign on the accessible bathroom was evidence of my privileged ambulatory status.

She said she hadn’t thought much of it but it was probably because she gets flack all the time for speaking up, speaking out about the rights of disabled people. I said that I could hear that because I always get flack for talking about political issues no one else wants to deal with. I told her that I was not going to make her responsible for bringing up issues of ableism in the context of this class because ableism is the issue of people who benefit from it systemically, people like me. I was going to do my own work and encourage the other students to do theirs, too. But I said that if she chose to speak, I would support her all the way. Our lives went on...

I recount this story not to make myself seem more evolved than the Black, classist, heterocentric man I described earlier or like supreme political goddess. I share this story so I can expose the underpinnings of my own privilege and trace my self-critique and process of change as I undergo the process of peeling back layers of denial and assumption.

As an able-bodied woman, who is an immigrant living on First Nations land, as well as being university educated, English speaking (language of my colonizers), working class, Black, queer, sexually radical, able to rent an apartment, old(er) than some, young(er) than others, westernized, urbanized and very, very outspoken, I experience attempted domination as well as privilege with my every breath. This is unavoidable in a world built on power and control. Through my work, an art that is most often considered unmarketable and definitely unpalatable in most social circles founded on domination I try to encourage people to deal with what it means to live privileged and oppressed existences simultaneously.

I believe that the source of some people’s inability to critique their own power and privilege in any meaningful way is grounded in emotion. Most people initially receive critiques of their own acts of domination by going into a state of psychic/emotional/visceral refusal of the information being offered to them. They go into denial.

This makes a lot of sense. Who wants to think about things that make us uncomfortable? The going mythology about different forms of oppression says that people who oppress are warty, ugly, evil, rude, mean, unintelligent, unevolved and uncontrollably enraged. Our self image, our continued self-esteem is hinged on believing we are nice, civilized, beautiful, loving, courteous, insightful, evolved, sane people who don’t willingly oppress.

In order to continue seeing ourselves as worthy, wonderful people, we get angry and enraged when someone points out something about our politics they believe we should be questioning. We immediately seek to put some distance between ourselves and the stereotypical, narrow image of the racist, of the homophobe, of the classist person, of the name calling ableist person, of the male chauvinist, of the controlling colonizer.

We perceive the person questioning us as totally off base. We feel victimized and singled out as a horrible person like those skin heads or gay bashers or landlords who evict poor, single mothers and their children in the dead of winter.

People questioned about their oppressive ways often react with fear.

"What if someone finds out?"

"What if this is proven?"

"Will people still like me?"

"Will anyone want to work with me or be my friend?"

"I could loose my status in the community/clique."

"I could loose everything I’ve worked so hard to gain."

In a frenzy of defensiveness these people move into an attack formation in order to protect themselves.

"How dare this person question me when I’ve read this book or that? When I’ve attended this event or that? When I’ve been best friends with so-and-so for years? This is libelous, scandalous and ridiculous! This person is insulting me, attacking me. I am the victim here! They are targeting me. Trying to ruin me. They are being rude, evil and mean. I have every right to yell at them. To ignore them. To have them ostracized. They alienate people with their awful accusations. They don’t deserve to draw breath. They must be excluded!"

And so, the oppressor remains in a place of power and privilege by redefining themselves as the oppressed party. The person with white skin privilege or hetero privilege or class privilege or male privilege or bio gender privilege or thin privilege or able-bodied privilege etc... utilizes their unearned status as dominant and normal to silence, attack and isolate the person who has named the oppression. The person with privilege maintains their dominance by clinging to their denial because they are unwilling or unable to imagine any alternatives to their present state of being.

This is a hard place to be both for the people who name their experience of oppression but also for the people who are forced to grapple with the implications of being confronted with the evidence that they have privilege. Many people who don’t want to recognize their privilege get stuck here, mired in ego, arrogance and feelings of possible future humiliation should they admit to some perceived wrong doing.

When questioned about their preferred status, they deflect awareness by confidently stating that they are not homophobic, not racist, not classist, not conservative, not ableist, not fat phobic, not oppressive in any way. To these people, the surface, the very act of SEEMING a particular way becomes more important than the political act of claiming who they really are. Most people understand this sort of denial in relation to people of colour who are colonized and identify with whiteness or queers who try to pass as heterosexual because they don’t see anything good about who they are. But in reality, this sort of pretense is very common among men, the middle/upper classes, people uncomfortable with their desires, people living in urban centers or in the white, West where a person’s appearance, the persona they project is given much greater credence than who they actually are underneath.

Some people become so angry about anyone daring to question their values and realities and fearful of the power of any person able to resist systemic domination as they speak the truth against all odds, that they ally themselves with people who are colonized and may be not be dealing with their own internalized oppression. They batten down the hatches and prepare for a fight.

These angry, fearful people’s identities and sense of control are hinged on things staying the way they are. In order to avoid doing the work of recognizing who they are and what their values are, they use the presence of oppressed and/or (un)conscious people in their lives to hopefully provide a smoke screen that will exempt them from raising their own awareness.

"Don’t you know?"

"I have friends who are lesbians."

"I used to live with a gay man."

"I used to go out with a Korean woman."

"My cousin is mixed race."

"My best friend is disabled."

"My mother is a feminist."

"I used to go to a school where most of the kids were poor."

"I went on a retreat where I was the only man, so I know what it means to be a minority."

"I only like to hang out with people who are ‘different’."

The message? They are obviously so ‘tolerant’, ‘open’ and ‘liberal’ enough to hang out with all kinds of people that they couldn’t possibly be perpetuating systems of domination and control.

Sadly, they substitute associating with the oppressed for doing their own consciousness raising work. In effect they reduce the oppressed people they know to the status of tools, inanimate objects utilized to maintain dominant power structures. By using the oppressed and/or (un)conscious people in their lives as a political shield, people living in a state of denial actually provide proof of their own power without even meaning to.

When critiqued about their oppressive ways some people may project their emotions onto the people who have taken the huge risk of speaking. Maintaining a calm exterior that in actuality hides their upset and confusion, they describe the oppressed person as angry, overly assertive, violent or dangerous. These derogatory descriptions may actually more closely fit themselves and their feelings about the work they have been challenged to do. But because they have allowed themselves no outlet for their feelings, they are forced to go so far as to give their feelings away thereby disassociating from their own reactions.

For other people, recognizing privilege comes fairly easily. But even then, their work can be impeded by feelings of guilt. Some people use not wanting to feel guilty as a reason to avoid doing their consciousness raising work. They point out that they haven’t hurt anyone. It was their ancestors, the International Monetary Fund, that serial rapist in the suburbs, the first settlers, those gay bashers, the president of the united states, other able-bodied people, etc....who killed/oppressed those people.

Why should they have to feel guilty for something someone else did? Why should they get all down in the dumps and miserable because some people just haven’t been able to find success and happiness? Who wants to spend all their time feeling sad? They sure as hell don’t.

And so, armed with the mistaken belief that happiness and stability are easily accessible to anyone who tries real hard and with the belief that consciousness of privilege equals feeling guilty and not being able to live without shame, they refuse to question their hetero privilege, their class privilege, their white privilege, their sexual privilege, their conservative privilege, their cute girl/boy privilege, their thin privilege, their able-bodied privilege, etc.....

But really, who’s asking them to feel guilty about anything? Guilt is an emotion that effectively blocks consciousness raising. Recognizing oppression and questioning privilege is about being unencumbered and the growth of awareness. Guilt is usually accompanied by an impulse to hide. Consciousness is about exposing what lies beneath.

Many oppressed people describe being forced to deal with the guilt of their oppressors as another form of domination. Guilt can come in the form of the person who gets teary eyed and obviously disturbed when people experiencing oppression talk about privilege and isms. The message? Stop talking about this upsetting stuff and take care of me and my needs. Focus on me because you don’t have the right to demand attention and energy from others.

Guilt can take the form of people going out of their way to smile and talk to oppressed people while they make no changes to the fabric of their everyday lives. Guilt can come from people who feel they must atone for the supposed sins of their peers/ancestors. It can come in the form of someone feeling so apathetic about the amount of work they have ahead of them that they despair and stop struggling to make change.

Whatever the manifestation, guilt is counter productive and transfixes the person reckoning with their privilege so that they are never fully able to deal with their own unearned power. Therefore, they are rendered powerless to change their situation. They cannot be an effective ally to people demanding change. They manifest as masochistically stuck in the pain of their own awareness.

The work of making internal change as we recognize and shift our value systems is revolutionary and exhilarating. But it is also terrifying and daunting because, if we do it well, we will have to let go of the familiar, the values that our lives are based on, the little bits and pieces that we believe make our lives happy places. We may at first have to teach ourselves to recognize the different feelings that come up for us when we are put in a position of having to look at our oppressive ways.

How do you FEEL?

Having feelings in this society is often received as a weakness. You can’t control yourself. You don’t have the stuff success is made of. You can’t be counted on to not go to pieces in a crisis. Showing feelings only makes people who are out for your blood feel like they’ve hurt you.

In reality, the opposite is true. If you understand that part of being alive is having emotions, then to feel fully is as important as breathing. Feeling then becomes about resisting a living death. And if you can live and breathe and feel, expressing your feelings in this world, in this society when claiming your emotions is considered insane, threatening and out of control, you are courageous and powerful. Finding healthy ways to express emotion instead of denying them makes you an asset not a liability. It’s the people who often stifle or habitually segment their emotions who should be feared. Emotions that are stuffed down are emotions under pressure and emotions under pressure have this awful way of exploding in crisis situations or when people least expect it.

Claiming the feelings you have around your privilege should not be perceived as a problem. Although what you choose to do with those feelings can be a problematic source of more oppression for some people. Excavating your feelings should be done with someone who is being paid to do anti-oppression work so that there is compensation for the time and effort it takes to deal with oppression. It may also be possible to do this work with a therapist or a counselor. You may want to start a support group or another safe space for people dealing with the ramifications of their own oppressive tendencies. By all means, be creative. However, what you should not be doing is dumping your anger, your disbelief, you sadness, your guilt, your fear, your worries about being found out or humiliated on any of the oppressed people you may have already been attempting to dominate.

Become powerfully aware of your feelings. Big changes are not far behind. Acknowledge your automatic reactions as you trace their roots in your present day, in your family culture. Link your reactions to your personal past as well as to your collective history and her/stories. This is good work to do with other people identifying their own privileges. Communicate with each other, share with each other, come out of the closets of denial with each other.

Make a commitment to not do ‘wrong and strong’. This means: do not cling to your beliefs or ways of doing things stubbornly even after you’ve realized it’s time for a change. Take a deep breath when you are questioned about your privilege. Open yourself to what has been said. Do not focus on the choice of words, the tone or the decibel the words.

One of the ways people have been oppressed is by those with power over them defining the words and tones and strength of their words as not acceptable.

"You are rude."

"You are loud."

"You are arrogant."

"You are uppity."

"You are being domineering."

"You are being judgemental."

"How dare you speak to one of your betters in that tone?"

"You're new here and obviously don’t know your place."

"I will not listen to you."

If you're actually interested in making change and contributing to an environment where oppression cannot flourish, do not interrupt someone who has chosen to give you information about the oppression in their lives, the oppression you may have a conscious or unconscious part in with body language, non-verbal sounds or attestations indicating how insulted or angered you are. This is a smoke screen tactic used to defend against a person’s words. This is a deflection.

When a person with privilege who is being questioned about their racism, their homophobia, their erotophobia, their classism, their ableism, their lookism, their misogyny, their conservatism, there fat phobia manifests as wounded or shocked or jumps up yelling while someone is identifying their own experience of oppression, this shifts the focus from the person doing the communicating back to the person who is wielding the power. The discussion, the exploration, the possibility for revolutionary change has been curtailed. Power is once more firmly in the possession of the person who has been benefiting from it.

Another tactic I observe inside communities of resistance is when the person being challenged to examine their own privilege explains in a round about way that they, too are of the same oppressed group as the person speaking to them. “Well, I may have grown up in that expensive neighbourhood in the burbs, but we didn’t eat fancy foods and I couldn’t always get the newest clothes.” Or: “I spent the first five years in my grandmother’s house and she was very poor, but my parents, who I spent the rest of my life with, are...unh, doctors.” Or: “I have to work for a living. Doesn’t that make me working class?” Or: Well I never really thought of myself as disabled, but I wear glasses. Does that count?” Or, the ever popular: “Since I’m the darkest (read: olive skinned) one in my mostly blond family, I’m actually suspecting that I may be one sixteenth Ojibwa on my father’s side.”

Please, when someone speaks to you about your privileged reality, do not try to disguise your reality by assimilating their experience of oppression. Slipping on a blouse you bought second hand or shopping for food in an economically challenged neighbourhood will not make you less you. Saying you’re broke when you know you maxed out your credit buying RRSPs or GICs is not comparable to your friend who has no money to pay her rent or her bills because she spent what she had paying her rent and her bills last month. The reality is, If you’re waiting until someone else speaks out to claim some previously unimportant smattering of oppression in your own life, you may want to just take a moment to ask yourself why?

All this to say, when someone takes the time to speak to you about oppression, by all means thank them for being courageous enough to let you know. But more importantly, be thankful that they even bothered to bring up something that has probably been taken right out of your consciousness.

In other words, you’ve been ignorant about some parts of your own identity. Your friends/family/ lovers may have recognized this but never offered you the opportunity to change. This person critiquing your belief systems is offering a gift of words, thought and energy. They are complementing you with the implication that you are smart enough to know and do better. It’s up to you whether you accept that gift in the spirit it is offered.

If the person challenging you does not offer anything more than the observation that you are wielding some kind of systemically based power over, then this is a golden opportunity for you to do some powerful work on your own behalf or with someone who freely consents to work with you.

If a person decides to not explain how you are oppressing them in great educational detail, this is not a situation where you utilize your power and privilege by forcing them to do your consciousness raising work for you while you listen (passively), question them (obnoxiously or unbelievingly) and benefit from the energies of a person already drained by oppression.

You have the opportunity and the choice to be productive and to do powerfully revolutionary work. This work can free all of us from the strictures of shame and political inactivity as it allows us to each become more aware of our identities, our oppression and our privilege. We each have the choice to entrench ourselves in our oppressive ways if we so choose, but I’m counting on our innate sense of what’s right and good. I’m counting on us to do the right thing and break the system down.


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