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Oppressed or oppressor, oppression makes us all less human
One of the most consistent critiques I’ve heard of my work is that the line between oppressed and oppressor isn’t as clear as I seem to make it. Since we occupy unique social positions, we may find ourselves sometimes in the position of the oppressor – let’s say if we are able-bodied – or oppressed – let’s say we are queer. It’s true that we can experience oppression and can oppress others, but that doesn’t make it hard to conclude how we are engaged in oppression and how we oppress others. In fact, ideally our own experience of oppression makes us more sensitive to others’ experiences. Hopefully, this sensitivity leads us to be intersectional, instead of competitive about who has it worse (which is its own form of oppression).
So while we often occupy positions of both oppressed and oppressor, it is easy for us to uplift our own oppression as primary, and not consider how we oppress others. Centering ourselves is a characteristic of the powerful, so when the powerful – let’s say white people – occupy other social positions of the oppressed – let’s say they are women, it is common to elevate sexism above other forms of oppression. But it is whiteness that centers their experience, not their experience of sexism. As we get in touch with our own oppression, the hope is that it is not pit against another form of oppression, but rather, that it leads us to a mutual understanding and even unity against oppression together.
I think it is essential that we posture ourselves to be conscious of how we are oppressed and how we contribute to that oppression. God sides with the oppressed and when we self-empty of our worldly power, we become like the oppressed, and thus we become closer to God. God can fill us when we empty of our ill-gotten power.
In that sense, we become more like Jesus, and more like ourselves, ultimately, when imitate his kenosis, or his self-emptying. In our lifelong project of becoming more human, when we work to end oppressing others, we free the oppressed, and ourselves, from forces that dehumanize us. Antioppression is all about becoming more human, whether you are oppressed or an oppressor. It’s good news for everyone.
If we see the violence of oppression, as like the violence of death, then fighting it and resisting it, promotes life, and therefore our own humanity. Christianity is rooted in the idea of defeating death – that’s what Christ came to do, why Paul says that the last enemy to be destroyed is death. So resistance to ableism, racism, homophobia, and all sorts of other forces of oppression deal death, and whether we purvey them or are victims of them, they dehumanize all of us. In that sense, oppressor and oppressed have a common enemy to unite against.
The oppressor doesn’t always feel the dehumanizing effects of their power, so they must listen to the oppressed and their experience. It can be painful, sometimes even humiliating, to learn of how we’ve hurt others, but we must accept God’s forgiveness and grace, and do our part in humanizing ourselves and others. Sometimes the oppressed won’t feel their dehumanization either, so they must listen to their bodies and their peers. It is also challenging to see the pain that we’ve been through and own it. But we must name our own oppression in order to become more fully who we are.
I pray and hope my experience of racism and homophobia as a brown queer man, lends me to understand how I am ableist and how I am sexist. I am familiar with the pain of oppression and it opens my eyes to the forms of it that I am complicit in. I don’t straddle the fence between oppressed and oppressor in confusion, but rather with clarity, because of my own experience. As we become more familiar with our oppression, we can learn how we oppress others.
Instead of pitting oppressions against one another, or even pitting oppressed versus oppressor, we can learn we are on a common project of restoring one another’s dignity.
In predominantly able-bodied, white, straight, and male places, minorities don’t have space to express who they fully are. We hide our pain, we hide our identities, and we diminish ourselves in order to belong. Our goal must be to create spaces where we all be fully ourselves, knowing that white folks, able-bodied folks, men, and straight folks also cannot be themselves if they limit the ability for who they oppress to be themselves. We want to build a society where we can all be free. And if one of us isn’t, then none of us are.