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Tess’ Rambling: The Oppression-Privilege Spectrum

At the RVC mid-year retreat, with Jon and Jen from the People’s Institute, we spent several hours discussing the superiority/inferiority complex that stems from internalized racial oppression (IRO). Oftentimes, people take this concept of IRO and assume that it only applies to the oppressed; people forget that because of this system, white people also internalize their supposed superiority. And therein lies the oppression-privilege spectrum, a thing that also has roots in intersectionality.

However, I’m not going to spend this time discussing IRO. Instead, I am going to take the juxtaposition of privilege and oppression that are the core tenets of IRO and use them to discuss the complications of intersectionality, and the various factors and roles that are present. My words might masquerade as scattered speeches rather than well-formed arguments, but that’s what can happen when one is passionate about intersectionality: statements overlap. Do bear with me.

Oftentimes, people forget that everyone is inherently privileged in one way or another. We note that we are part of a “marginalized” group but have difficulty seeing where we possess an advantage over others. We even sometimes put our foot in our mouth due to the privileges with which we are naturally bestowed, or (unintentionally) oppress another group with our words or actions. Sometimes we forget that intersectionality exists and that one’s “disadvantages” do not negate one’s privileges. This is, of course, where allyship (or accompliceship, as some say) comes into play, but we’ll get to that momentarily.

I identify as a queer woman of color and face all of the obstacles that those identities present to me. However, I am also cisgender, have a BA and an MLIS, have U.S. citizenship, am able to put food on my table, and many other things. The list of my privileges is quite possibly just as long as the list of the barriers I face. Again, my “disadvantages” do not negate my privileges.

For the past several years, one facet of my own intersectionality on which I have been focusing is invisibility/erasure of identity in certain spaces, including the silencing of “marginalized” voices by their sometimes louder allies. In POC spaces, my queerness is sometimes overlooked, while in queer spaces, my browness is sometimes disregarded. Problematic? Incredibly so. When these spaces objectify, victimize, villainize, or under/misrepresent the “outlying” identity, I do not feel safe or welcome. This is further worsened when the spaces claim allyship and supposedly serve as support systems for other “marginalized” groups.

Here is where we can take a moment to discuss allyship. Saying “I have a brown friend” or “my sister is queer” does not count as allyship. Not being a jerk to “marginalized” peoples does not count as allyship. Congratulations! You’re a human being that believes in inclusion and not oppressing others based on their identity. Have a cookie. Would you like some SJW milk to go with that? It’s filled with your daily dose of privilege and clicktivism. But I digress: allyship is listening and not talking over; allyship is speaking out against the oppression; allyship is recognizing your own privilege; allyship is going into battle with your queer, brown, working class, differently abled, etc. friends, while recognizing that you’re not the one giving orders on the field. Allyship isn’t a noun; allyship is a verb.

Now let’s get back to that discussion of the oppression-privilege spectrum, how it relates to intersectionality, and how our lives may sometimes become a spectacle to those not a part of our respective “marginalized” group(s).

I know I said I wasn’t going to spend a lot of time with IRO, but let’s take a moment to discuss some of the key points I took away from the IRO talk with Jon and Jen. Here are a few features of the superiority that comes with privilege: denial, entitlement, individualism, and paternalism (toward the oppressed). Contrastingly, here are a few features of the inferiority that comes with oppression: assimilation, tolerism, self-hatred, and protectionism (of the privileged).

But what does one do when they belong to a privileged and an oppressed group? Do the two cancel out? Do they stack and create a confusing blob of identities that makes up a whole person? Whether we succeed or fail (at parts of life, at finding this balance between privilege and oppression, and so on), “our lives become a spectacle” to outsiders (thanks, SESEC fellow, Mindy Huang, and Guy DeBord) and we have to fight to not let others view us as a teaching moment. We are people, not textbooks.

Really, though, that isn’t on us. That is on the allies and the oppressors who interpret us as a being that embodies education and represents the entirety of our respective “marginalized” group(s). Intersectionality isn’t just about overlapping identities; intersectionality is about overlapping systems of oppression, both internal and external.

If you were to separate racism from sexism, or sexism from homophobia/transphobia, people may be less likely to be held accountable for the oppression that they perpetuate. If you were to separate my queerness from my Native American-ness, or my cisgender privilege from my trans* allyship, I wouldn’t be the whole person that I am. Intersectionality is about multiple things coming together to create a whole that cannot, and should not, be split apart.


-Tess Wilder Cervantes