When privilege and oppression intersect

Joseph Mabry
August 1, 2016

People walking and biking on a sidewalk on a college campusI hurried down the sidewalk, pretending not to hear the cop who was close on my tail. “Stop!” he called out, a note of frustration in his voice. I didn’t care that he was frustrated because I was frustrated too.

I was tired of being harassed by the campus police, who seemed to be on high alert for me every time I left my dorm. As a shy freshman, it was hard enough for me to feel comfortable and at home at my new school, without having to worry about watching my back for the police, who seemed to be determined to single me out.

I was very aware of the eyes of the students all around me, who confusedly stared as I stubbornly continued down the sidewalk, trying to get away from the cop. He yelled at me to stop again, so I angrily turned to face him.

This is not the story that you think it is.

The police officer was not following me because of my skin color; he was profiling me, but not because of my race. As a white man, I do not have the experience of the disproportionately high number of people of color who are targeted by law enforcement. No, I was being profiled by the police because I am blind.

The police officer who followed me that day was assuming what many people assume—that I need help. On the surface, this is not a bad thing; it’s encouraging that the world is full of people who are eager to help someone, and I appreciate that. However, I do sometimes wish that people could see past my blindness.

I wish that the police officer could have seen me as a competent student, confidently walking down the sidewalk I used nearly every day on my way to class, my computer bag on my shoulder. Instead, all he could see was the long white cane I use to get around, waving back and forth like a white flag of defeat and helplessness.

He had started by asking if I needed help as he pulled over in his car, jumping out onto the sidewalk. I was slightly startled by his sudden appearance, but I had simply replied, “No, thank you. I’m just on my way to class.” I was running late, so I didn’t bother stopping for him, and I didn’t see any reason to say anything else. However, he didn’t seem to trust my ability to assess my need for help.

“Wait,” he called after me, “I’m just trying to help.” “I understand that,” I replied, “but I don’t need your help, and I’m running late.”

He hurried after me saying, “Where are you trying to get to?” That was when I truly became frustrated. I wasn’t “trying” to get anywhere. I was just going to class, and I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t listen to me. So when he yelled at me to wait again, I turned around and let out my frustration.

I snapped back at him, “Look, I’m on my way to the performing arts building. We are standing on Jaguar Drive between the two- and three-hundred blocks, I am walking north, and I have three more blocks to walk. I know where I am at, I know where I am going, and I don’t need your help.” With that I huffily turned my back on him and continued on my way.

Looking back at this encounter, I am ashamed that I allowed myself to get so frustrated at the police officer. It wasn’t the last time the campus police would try and force their assistance on me, nor was it the last time I would lose my temper. If I had been more patient, perhaps we could have grown to understand each other, instead of continuously clashing.

I always assumed that these outbursts of frustration towards the police were due entirely to my experience as a blind person – small micro-aggressions building up inside me until I boiled over.

However, recently I came to the realization that my identity as a white male also plays a role in such confrontations.

The honesty and aggression that I sometimes use to voice my frustration at the police are manifestations of white privilege.

I get frustrated at the police as a blind man, but I freely express that frustration as a white man. Such experiences have caused me to realize that when it comes to oppression and privilege, each of us lives with multiple identities that shape our experience of the world and how we are perceived.

To better understand these multiple identities, let us consider the concept of intersectionality.


How multiple identities shape our experiences

Intersectionality is a theory that explores how individuals can face multiple categories of discrimination when they belong to more than one marginalized group. Everyone possesses multiple identities, and these identities work together to shape each person’s societal and cultural experience.

For example, the experience of an African-American woman is not comparable to the experience of a white woman or an African-American man. The concept of intersectionality came out of the Feminist movement, as women of color critiqued the movement for not acknowledging that the oppression they experienced was different than the oppression experienced by white women. This is not to say that there are no similarities between the experiences of women of color and white women; instead, it is simply an attempt to point out that women of color experience greater and more complex levels of oppression.

Complexity is an important hallmark of intersectionality. Every individual is a woven tapestry of identities, including, but not limited to, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, class, and religion.

Perhaps one of the first people to speak out about issues of intersectionality was a woman named Sojourner Truth. Sojourner was a prominent nineteenth-century abolitionist known for her frank and powerful speeches.

In 1851 Sojourner stood up before a women’s suffrage meeting and spoke out against the chauvinistic hypocrisy of her day with a speech titled, “Ain’t I a Woman?” She rebuked the men who claimed that women were fragile, while simultaneously expecting African-American women to bear unspeakable physical hardships.

It was Sojourner’s status as both an African-American and a woman that gave her the insight to make such a clear critique of the dual oppression that she bore.

Sojourner’s question, “Ain’t I a Woman?” is echoed by the modern activist Laverne Cox. As a transgender woman of color, Laverne has brought Sojourner’s frankness into the twenty-first century. “I stand before you this evening a proud, African-American, transgender woman. I’m not just one thing,” Laverne said, in a speech that was also titled, “Ain’t I a Woman.” Like Sojourner, Laverne has spent her life fighting racism and sexism, while also facing homophobia and transphobia.

She was born in Alabama, which, as she puts it, “has a rich history of racial oppression, but also a rich history of resistance.” Laverne’s determination to express her true self survived and was strengthened by a childhood of being misunderstood and bullied. Her parents blamed Laverne for the bullying, eventually forcing her to attend therapy. The first thing that her therapist ever asked Laverne was, “do you understand the difference between boys and girls?”

Laverne endured such oppression to grow up to be a confident and acclaimed actress, using her experience and fame to highlight issues of intersectionality. Laverne’s echoing of Sojourner's question, "Ain’t I a woman?" illustrates how people facing different levels of oppression can rally together to make a difference.

Here’s another example: As a blind woman, Ever Lee Hairston was a leader in disability activism. She helped organize the New Jersey chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, one of the most powerful blindness organizations in the country, and became the chapter’s vice-president.

She was an inspirational leader with her soaring rhetoric and determination to never give up. This determination was tried and tested as she faced discrimination in the job market because of her blindness. She overcame this discrimination and eventually became the supervisor of some of the people who had doubted her. She touched countless people’s lives through her work as the administrator of the Alcohol, Drug, and Outpatient Program of Camden County Health and Human Services.

She gained that determination through growing up picking cotton as the daughter of African-American sharecroppers. Her first experience as an activist was in the civil rights movement of the sixties. She worked to overcome discrimination as an African-American, marching in the streets, singing “We Shall Overcome” as stones and garbage were thrown at her.

Ever Lee Hairston’s identity as a blind person and her identity as an African-American woman are important, and they each shed light on her inspirational story, a story that can only be appreciated through the lens of her combined identities.


At the intersection of privilege and oppression

Intersectionality is normally applied to individuals who face multiple levels of oppression, such as Sojourner, Laverne, and Ever. However, my identity as a blind white man is a little different. In my case, it is oppression and privilege that intersect, not multiple levels of oppression. Such an intersection further muddies the already complex waters of intersectionality.

For example, I have had a lot of practice talking about my marginalized status as a blind person, and I am very comfortable doing so. However, talking about my privileged status as a white male is another matter. I did not grow up talking about race, and I can sometimes find talking about white privilege uncomfortable. In other words, my identity as a blind person does not erase my other identities.

This coexistence of identities can be confusing for me. When I react to certain situations I have to ask if it is due to my marginalized status as a blind person, or my privileged status as a white person? This is not always an easy question for me to answer.

I believe that the discomfort I feel with such questions is actually a positive thing, and a necessary first step towards growth. It is only through understanding and embracing the multiplicity of our identities that we can truly know and appreciate all aspects of ourselves.

I have seen firsthand the danger of failing to see complex intersecting identities. Growing up in the deep south I often encountered people who resented political correctness. In my experience, such resentment is most commonly felt by poor white people. Understandably, it can be hard to see privilege when they are struggling to make ends meet.

Perhaps such attitudes would be different if they realized that people can simultaneously possess multiple identities and experience both oppression and privilege. This combination of oppression and privilege is similar to what I experience, and it can only be understood through the lens of intersectionality.

I began this essay with a story, and I think that in the end, stories are the key to us understanding intersectionality. It is through stories that we can increase understanding and make a difference. By listening to each other’s stories we can empathize with experiences that we will never have.

For example, I will never know what it’s like to walk through a store while being suspiciously followed by employees; however, through sharing stories of receiving unwanted attention, both African-American men and people with disabilities can empathize with each other.

An able-bodied woman will never know what it’s like to walk into a church and receive prayers from people who want God to heal your perceived physical imperfections; however, through sharing stories of being seen as inferior, both people with disabilities and able-bodied women can empathize with each other.

You may have never considered how oppression and privilege can converge as they do in my story with the police officer, but now that you have heard this story, you may better appreciate your own stories of convergence.

I always resented that police officer for focusing on one small part of my identity that day, and making assumptions about me through that narrow focus. I realize now that my focus was also narrow. I was looking at the situation from the idea of an oppressed blind person, without realizing that I also faced the situation as a privileged white person. If I want to holistically confront such situations of oppression I must start by delving into my own identity.

As Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” He also said, in the same speech, "If we could first know where we are we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it." When we only focus on one aspect of our identity we are a divided house. It is only when we appreciate the full tapestry of all of our identities that we can holistically understand where we are, and through that understanding, hope to stand against oppression.


Photo credit: Flickr user David Noah


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