The first time I learned that I was ‘oppressed’ was when I arrived as a freshman at Stanford University. University was the first time I met like-minded ‘activists’ and we began to organize around our collective ‘disempowerment.’ I learned how to construct a narrative of my own oppression – as a ‘queer’ ‘gender transgressor’ of ‘color’ from ‘the South,’ I learned about the distinct axes and hierarchies of power (race, sexual orientation, gender identity, geographic location, religious identification) that had caused me to be ‘oppressed’ by society. In college, activism became the way in which I could battle these systems and liberate myself and others from this ‘oppression.’
For the next few years I wrote spoken word poetry about my oppression, I spoke on panels about what it was like for this queer to grow up in Texas, I made a point to remind my largely (neo)liberal University that minority issues were still important. I decided I wanted to major in Gender & Sexuality Studies and Ethnic Studies with a focus in Queer Studies (not just Queer Studies, but Queer of color Studies) (really just a complicated way of saying Me-studies). At first I felt anxious about studying myself, but my professors reinforced my conviction that my narrative, my story had been silenced from history and it was the project of minority-based disciplines to excavate and promote these ‘oppressed’ narratives. I believed them and fell in love with postmodern theory and my increasing capacity to deconstruct my surroundings, understand ‘power,’ and theorize every component of my life. My education reinforced the idea that I was oppressed. I learned about ‘hegemonies’ and the way that power gets allocated and normalized. I learned about the importance of subaltern voice and began to see myself as a necessary intervention, as an important (silenced) subaltern voice.
This narrative of oppression wasn’t limited to my college campus. LGBTQIPA activists confirmed that – yes – I was oppressed, feminist activists agreed, anti-racist activists also gave their vote of confidence. In the issues I became increasingly passionate about – mainly queer, feminist and anti-racist struggles – I found acknowledgment, validation, and solidarity around my ‘oppression.’
I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable about identifying as ‘oppressed.’ In my liberal University, in the activist urban spaces I frequent, hell even in the international activism work I do abroad, I have created spaces of solidarity, of safety, where I no longer receive prejudice; those around me do not merely affirm my identities, they celebrate them. While we still have a long way to go in the rest of the world, I have managed to create and participate in relatively safe spaces.
I want to interrogate how I – a middle-class kid with an incrediblyprivileged education can see myself as ‘oppressed’? What does it mean for me to utilize a language of oppression considering the social spaces of safety I have created? More broadly – what does it mean to claim animmaterial oppression? In this essay I want to open a space for dialogue within our activist communities to discuss (and act!!) on the politics and ethics of claiming oppression.
Two Shades of Feeling: (Im)material Oppression
What makes me feel oppressed? In this piece I do not want to make the conservative argument that the language of oppression actually createsthe oppression (the horrid self-fulfilling prophesy narrative). What I’m asking is – what makes the language of oppression so meaningful to me considering my social and economic location?
When I envision my oppression I remember what it was like growing up as a (insert all my oppressed categories). My ‘oppression’ is found in my past – it is the time I was first called a faggot, the time I was called a terrorist, etc. My classes on oppression have introduced me to theories that can describe this process – this process of being ‘hailed,’ being ‘Othered’ as the deviant. I could talk to you extensively about the consequent literature on stigma and the psychological implications of being ‘demonized’ as the ‘Other.’ So, it seems, the language of oppression is appealing because it helps explain, contextualize, (and get over) the wound, the injury of difference.
When I think about my own ‘oppression’ I rarely think of the structuralopportunities I have been denied because – while at some level I’m sure that on account of my race and gender presentation I have been denied opportunities – these experiences have not been as significant, as isolating as my (psychological) feelings of difference. This is reflected in my own art and activism. After I identify myself as oppressed, I make a call for acceptance, a call for inclusion – not a call for reparation or redistribution. The oppression that I – and many of my peers – claim that we have experienced stems from a politics of recognition, not redistribution.
Queer theory has made me hesitant to suggest that there is a dichotomy between recognition and redistributive – based justice / activisms (and indeed there is significant work on categories of ‘race’ and ‘gender’ that disrupts this dichotomy), but I feel this may be a useful heuristic to explore further.
Thus, what is psychological oppression? Psychological oppression is afeeling of inadequacy, of being discriminated against, of being told that one is ‘wrong.’ Psychological oppression – to extremely oversimplify – is a condition of the mind, the spirit. It follows that material oppression is one that is more concerned with the ‘physical,’ the body. Material oppression is violence, it is poor working conditions, it is poverty, it is hunger, it is homelessness. Certainly psychological oppression informs the material and vice versa, but for the purpose of my argument we will maintain a relative distance.
What strikes me is how when I think of my other ‘activist’ friends, when I think of my courses at school and the theories and disciplines I have come to adore (and fetishize), I recognize that they are mostly concerned with psychological oppression. Indeed – why do we have a Queer Studies and a Women’s Studies, but not a Poverty Studies, a Violence Studies? Why have my studies in ‘Critical Theory’ been more concerned with affect than statistics, more curious about art than healthcare? How can we have minority studies that are written in a discourse that is only accessible by my ~intellectual~ peers?
We must reconsider how the language of oppression has been dominated by the psychological – at the cost of – the material. While we – as activists – often pride ourselves on featuring the subaltern, we have to recognize that perhaps the greatest subaltern cannot speak. This ‘subaltern’ may be illiterate, too poor to even engage with our discourse, to concerned with surviving material pain to articulate a ‘critique’ of our ‘discourse.’ And those privileged few who overcome psychological and material oppression who do speak are often marginalized by the discourse of our psychological oppression.
This is because our discourse is sexy. It is sexy not just for us, but also to those who listen and feel appropriately guilty. A discourse of affect, of feeling, of Otherization is much more palatable than a discourse of poverty and violence. While we use our language of (queer) oppression to critique phenomena like gay marriage perhaps we should reconsider – maybe we are just like gay marriage. When we articulate our psychological oppression and call for acceptance the challenge we are making, the critique we are articulating, really isn’t that radical. Yes, it’s demands difficult paradigm and conceptual shifts to eradicate notions of gender, sexual identities, racial difference, etc. but these notions function at the level of the ideological. It does not, necessarily, involve a call for money, an increase of taxes, a call for assisted labor, giving up a home.
What if our discourse around our own oppressions is hegemonic? What if it is a result of our relative bourgeois privilege and has actually distanced us from the communities we are (ostensibly) so interested in empowering. Sure, our rhetoric has effectively empowered our individual and collective identities – but at what cost? I do not mean to suggest that we should stop speaking about how we are oppressed; rather I am calling for more scrutiny in the way that we speak about our own oppressions.
We need to think more about the silences in our discourse. Sure there are always Marxist and anti-capitalist critiques of our identity politics, but instead of viewing them as critiques, what if we reviewed them as indicative of significant ways in which we have allowed our own material privilege to create a language of oppression that only applies to us and our own issues? How have we created a discourse and rhetoric of oppression that mandates a particularly privileged visibility and intelligibility? How can we expand our discourse to incorporate subjects who may not be able to draw as linear of an oppression narrative, may not be able to explain feelings of differentiation and inadequacy like we do.
Additionally, we need to think more strategically about how to make simultaneous claims to psychological oppression considering perpetuating material oppression. I do not want to suggest that all material oppression must be overcome before we articulate a more social activism and politics, instead, I’m interested in new ways to build connections and intersections for multi-issue based advocacy. For example – it is all to easy for me (and other queer theorists) to critique the queer movement’s prioritization of gay marriage (it’s so normal!). But, the fact remains that many gays and lesbians are not going to stop lobbying for gay marriage – an institution that is central to their psychological oppression. Rather than simply critiquing this excess privilege, what if we thought of new ways to embed a language of material queer oppression – homelessness affecting queer youth, violence against trans people – within this more normative and sexy discourse? Perhaps this is an impossible project – perhaps psychological oppression will always dominate the material in our capitalist society, but I’d like to see more genuine effort before we draw that conclusion.
The Failure of Intersectionality: Reconsidering Hierarchies of Oppression
The critique that I am advancing suggests that we interrogate more seriously the nature of the identity and oppression frameworks we have constructed. In particular, I want to reconsider the way that we have come to view and utilize the concept of intersectionality.
A facile response to my critique would be to suggest that all of our identities are intersectional. While I may only be psychologically oppressed on the basis of my racial identity, other people (due to their economic, geographic, political locations) may experience enhanced (perhaps material) oppression on the basis of their racial identities. We cannot speak about a category of ‘racial oppression,’ without thinking about the multivaried ways that other axes of identity/oppression shape ‘race.’
While intersectionality has certainly been useful to me and my peer activists I can’t help but wonder – can ‘class’ really be reduced to an intersectional status? Intersectionality – or at least the way we have conceptualized it – allows me to draw the following conclusions: I am oppressed on the basis of being queer, but poor queers are differently (and perhaps more) oppressed on the basis of their socioeconomic status. Intersectionality permits us to acknowledge material oppression, but still insist on the importance of the psychological – to suggest that there is violence against some queers, but insist on the validity of my own oppression.
What if our concept of intersectional oppressions as actually perpetuating violence against those who experience material oppression? My critique is not of the theoretical phenomenon itself, but on the way that is has been exercised. Let us recall, for example, the glorified history of activist social movements of the 1970s. Activist groups like Gay Liberation Front began to usher in a new era of activism one in which they made parallels with their own oppression (on the basis of sexual orientation) to other oppressions (most notably, racial oppression). While these concepts of solidarity and intersectionality were great in creating the illusion of a human rights activism, they actually eventually lead to an increased ghettoization (where activist movements like GLF and the Women’s movement were criticized for only focusing on single-issue, narrow-minded understandings of identity). This failure speaks to the way that we acknowledge, but do not internalize intersectionality. The gay movement acknowledged racial oppression, but insisted on the importance of fighting for gay rights.
What if intersectionality really means that we should not fight for gay rights? What if intersectionality was interpreted to mean that we should not have such a thing as ‘racial justice’ or the ‘women’s movement?’ If our issues are truly intersecting and mutually constructive of systems of power, wouldn’t it be more advantageous (for us all) to identify the most marginalized issues and work toward the most privileged? Because, if the logic of intersectionality follows, by fixing the systems which oppress the most violently, we will in turn have no need for a ‘gay’ rights – right? But ahh – here is where our contemporary usage of intersectionality complicates things. It is not PC to say that one issue is ‘privileged’ because we all experience our own individual conceptions of oppression and goddamnit the gay movement should be able to continue, even if it is anti-thetical to an anti-capitalist movement! We can’t seem to agree which issues are the most ‘important,’ the most ‘marginalized,’ so we (often) end up fighting for those issues which directly relate to our own feelings of oppression and hope that somehow it will all work out. But what if this disagreement — these complications — are a result of our greed, self-interest and inability (and lack of desire) to grapple with material oppression?
As history has revealed, this ‘Me-Politics,’ this self-promotional politics without a frank analysis of class has lead to a continued silence around material oppression. Rather than being taught new and creative ways to end global goverty, address the affects of colonialism, end homelessness I am learning ways to understand how heterosexuality has oppressed homosexuality.
How have we been reduced to this? How have oppressive systems allowed psychological oppression to continually suppress the material? How can we shift our discourse, our pedagogy, and our activisms to address material oppression?
I am confused and I am disturbed by the implications of the argument(s) that I am advancing. Within this own piece I have been self-contradictory: at points I argue that we should work towards an activism that allows us to advance the issues of psychological oppression along with material oppression and then go on to argue that perhaps it would be more useful (for us all) to engage with the material first. My confusion – in many ways – reflects the position of a generation.
We are young and impassioned activists who have learned a lot about oppression in college. We genuinely want to improve the world’s condition, but the models that we have been equipped with are becoming increasingly antiquated. This piece – this blog as a whole – is an attempt to grapple with a harsh reality: what if the paradigms of oppression, what of the frameworks of (post-) identity that we have learned and loved are actually antithetical to justice for all?
I encourage you (and myself) to think, reflect, and act. Here are some suggestions:
1. Let’s stop constructing meta-narratives of oppression. Not all people conceptualize oppression the way we do and we must not universalize this discourse.
2. Let’s be discerning and economical (pun intended) in the way that we present our oppression. For example, I’m going to be much more cautious as seeing myself as an ‘oppressed’ person, especially in terms of what that means for others who actually experience material oppression
3. Let’s devise creative ways to address material oppression and embed this discourse within our own advocacy and theory. This will involve taking math and economics classes.
4. Let’s demand more analysis of capitalism, class, (neo)colonialism and other topics that are not adequately addressed in our social justice curriculums
5. Let’s reconsider the limitations and promise of intersectionality and think more critically about what it means to claim solidarity with material oppression, but distance it from our own advocacy and activism