My brain is imploding part one: The Complexity of Oppression

I mentioned earlier that two weeks ago I went to an anti-racism training and my white privilege went unchecked for awhile. But ultimately I was able to (mostly) check it and I had a great experience that I am still processing and pondering and trying really, really hard to stay in this place of processing and ambiguity. Because I think an important truth is that learning is a process, not an end game. Wow that sounded cliche. But that’s how it’s felt for me and it’s felt great.

Since the training, I’ve been thinking a lot about how complex oppression is and how contextual and multifaceted oppression and privilege are. I’ve been doing some good old internet searches and the closest thing I’ve found to describe this complexity is kyriarchy. But even that doesn’t quite cut it for me. Not right now. Maybe I’ll feel differently in a month. But right now there is a lot about the kyriarchy theory that seems right on to me while other aspects seem off to or even too simplistic to me.

Before I go any further let me make a disclaimer: I have just begun learning about kyriarchy and so it is possible I am misunderstanding it. It is also possible that some, perhaps all, of my qualms with it are coming from a place of privilege. I’ve had privilege-based qualms before and I try to be mindful of that. So anyways here goes…

I’ve read on several sites that kyriarchy makes more sense than traditional oppression theories, in particular patriarchy, because oppression is multifaceted and shifts depending upon the context. Totes my goats, I think that’s true. But repeatedly I saw this example used as a clarifier; black men don’t have control over white women. See to me, that both is and isn’t true. Let me explain.

I think that because I was born white, I had many more resources/faced far less discrimination than I would have if I had been born a person of color. It’s no coincidence that I was white and born into an upper middle class family. It’s no coincidence that I’m white and both my parents have master’s degrees and I was able to go to undergrad without accruing a cent of debt. That’s white privilege and I believe that these are examples of ways I, as a white woman, have privileges and more power than men of color. There are so many other examples, like that I don’t worry about being followed around stores (except during my punk adolescent phase, which was a choice and a phase that I shed over a decade ago). Other examples are that I do not worry about being stopped and frisked and I don’t feel fearful when I pass a police officer on the street. These things should be true for everyone but white supremacy denies these basic rights of safety and dignity to many people.

But. When it comes to issues of rape, sexual assault, domestic violence and reproductive rights, I think that on a societal level, men always have power over women regardless of the woman’s race or the man’s race. And remember that while it’s true that men are victims too, this type of abuse disproportionately impacts women. Also partner abuse, whether it occurs in straight or LGBTQ relationships exists only because of and within the historical context of systemic patriarchy. This is a tricky concept to summarize here so for more explanation, see this and/or see this for info on why DV needs to be described as gender-based violence. It’s true that men are victims of rape and domestic violence, as prison rape culture and rape/DV in the LGBTQ population reveals. Case in point is that for me when you consider DV and rape, which disproportionately impact women and when you consider reproductive justice it seems clear that those issues are impacted largely by patriarchy. They’re impacted by heteronormativity too, which I think also has strong roots in patriarchy.

But of course race plays into this misogynistic form of abuse. A woman of color whose abuser is white experiences further injustice especially once systems become involved because the abuser is white and she’s not. These are systems that should help her and while most survivors don’t find the dogmatic legal system helpful, for women/other non-male genders of color, even more cards are stacked against them if their partner is white. So to me right now to say that black men don’t have control over white women, without further explanation, is to overlook the fact that men of any race abuse, rape and control women of any race based upon the sheer fact that they are women and men have been conditioned to be view women as less valuable and as objects.

I also wonder about the impact of victims’ and abusers’ races once the legal/criminal justice system becomes involved. I would guess that a man of color arrested for assaulting a white woman does receive stiffer punishments than a white male abuser does. But to me that’s f’d up! I mean, it is an act of misogyny that gets compounded by racism in the legal system – provided that the violence gets reported in the first place, lest we forget the majority of violent crimes against women are not reported. Violence against women shouldn’t happen in the first place but if it does then the people responsible should be held accountable no matter what. To speak to the racial differences in which abusers are treated in the criminal justice system when facing crimes of violence against women (or against disabled people or LGBTQ people, etc) is just a clusterf*ck of oppressions layered with oppressions that all interact and pin people of different oppressions against each other. Oh and mind you that this is talking about the criminal justice system never mind family court where the so-called men’s rights has really done a number on women’s rights and it’s male privilege ftw regardless of the man’s race. That’s my best educated guess anyways.

Yes I am acutely aware as I write this that an awful factor in this is the myth of the white woman/man of color dichotomy in that men of color, especially black men should be seen as dangerous, should be feared by white women and all black men should thus be treated accordingly. The lie/myth that follows this distorted belief is that (white) men best protect their (white) women from the black man – a belief which in and of itself is dripping with white supremacy as well as patriarchy. It is also a grave injustice because it layers racism on top of the reality that women in this misogynistic country are much more in fear of being raped than men. It is plying on women’s fears of rape and compounding it with racism so that white women come to fear men of color disproportionately over a violence they (women) disproportionately fear to begin with. Even worse, since men of color are disproportionately viewed as dangerous assailants of white women, the focus shifts to them from white men whom (I’d guess) are the ones who most often commit violence against white women. Women of any race can have their control and autonomy snatched from them by men of any race but I have never heard or read anything to suggest that in reality white women are more likely to be harmed by a man of color. That is a dangerous, white supremacist, misogynistic myth. Reality is that it’s unjust that black men/men of color are culturally perceived to be dangerous to (white) women and so (white) women direct fear towards them without reason AND no one should have to be afraid of anyone or of being raped. This dichotomy also highlights an instance where people experiencing two different forms of oppression end up pinned against each other in this institutionally layered with oppression society.

All this is making me think of even more stuff. For instance as a white woman of an upper middle class family, I think I still have (overall) more going for me in terms of privilege because I am white than men of color do. Because even though I’m female, I am also white and middle class, so I started with a huge advantage over people of color regardless of gender. Also if I had ended up in an abusive marriage or long term relationship, that would be awful and I’d be experiencing a type of abuse that has stems from patriarchy, particularly white patriarchy, which has smothered itself over everyone in the US. But because of my white privilege I’d likely fare well, if I was able to get out safely. It may take years but I’d likely heal and largely recover, likely faster than poor women and/or women of color and/or LGBTQ folks. I can also speak to my personal dating experiences in high school and college. During these years, I dated three men who perpetuated DV (a, as I’ve said, highly gendered type of abuse) and each of these men degraded, humiliated, scared and/or emotionally hurt me. One of these men was white and two were men of color, though one of the relationships w/a man of color was very, very short. Fortunately I was able to get away from these guys and I haven’t experienced anything like that in more than a decade. The harm they did cause still lives in me but because of resources given to me by the sheer fact that I’m white, I’ve made tremendous gains in recovery and healing. Because of privilege I’ve also gained education and awareness of DV, which is not a 100% guarantee against abuse, but it does provide a nice protective buffer. So my point is that while I am fortunate to be in a loving, equal marriage, I know things could have gone differently. But even if they had, I know that I would have had more resources to help me through and out. I don’t know that people of color of any gender can say the same for race-based violence and oppression they endure. So maybe overall black men don’t control white women, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t instances when the patriarchy wins out for a man of any race over a woman of any race. And for this reason, to me, patriarchy is still a relative term.

The other part of kyriarchy that I found troubling was what I perceived to be a false attribution of power to people who may not actually have it. I felt this mostly as I read a statement about sex workers. I have never worked in the sex industry so I can’t speak for anyone who has. But, and maybe this is kyriarchal of me, when people claim that sex workers derive power from their work, it gives me pause. I wonder if they understand the dynamics that typically lead people to enter the sex industry, that many young women are initially coerced into it, many before they’re even women. I wonder if they understand the impact of complex trauma and the many and confusing ways it plays out. I wonder if they understand how little of the money goes to many workers who are managed by pimps and that people can appear to be in power when they actually are not. I can’t say they’re wrong when they say workers feel empowered by it. I’m not a worker and certainly this might be true for some workers. What I’m saying is that statements like that give me pause and I do become skeptical. I become this way even when I hear from sex-workers themselves. Again this is not because I have lived their lives and so I can’t say for sure how they feel. But I also know trauma can be terrifyingly complex and what seems like someone “enjoying”/”promoting” abuse or bonding with the abuser, may actually be an effect of trauma. I feel wary saying this, recognizing that I may be contributing to the discrediting of a sector of workers who are already very discredited and perhaps I am being kyriarchical. But I just wonder and I don’t know that wide sweeping statements about empowerment and the sex industry can be made. Or ever. Except now when I make that wide sweeping statement. Haha.
Anyways those are my thoughts. I’m open to feedback. Maybe I’m wrong about some or all of this. Maybe my privilege is clouding my judgment. But if that’s the case I would rather know than not.
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8 Responses to My brain is imploding part one: The Complexity of Oppression

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    I have so many thoughts on this, but I’m not ready yet to comment much. I really appreciate the earnestness and effort to sort this all out.
    Just a quick note: I grew up in the lower end of the working class as a white male with almost no chance to attend college. I was mentored by a man of color with two masters degrees. I felt very far from upper middle class and rich white people.

  2. Thanks so much for your thoughtful, earnest process. I really appreciate your work. I’ve reblogged this, and will be commenting on it.

  3. izzy82 says:

    Thank you, I look forward to your feedback and comments!

  4. So, I’m thinking of something the feminist authors Medea and Thompson wrote many years ago. The quote goes something like this: A Black man walking through certain white neighborhoods knows the fear of unprovoked attack. A White man walking through certain Black neighborhoods knows a similar fear. A woman walking through any neighborhood, on any street–even her own–knows that same fear. She is always in someone else’s territory.

    I also remember the late Evelyn White quoting Alice Walker as saying: Whenever I am walking down a street late at night, anywhere that I’ve been in the world, and hearing footsteps behind me, never once have I turned around fearing that it might be a woman.

    I don’t like thinking of oppressions in a hierarchical way, since they are so overlapping, intersecting and reinforcing. However, sexism/patriarchal oppression appears to more comprehensively harm more people in more places and more ways than any other form of oppression I can think of. For heterosexual women the old adage holds true that they are the only oppressed group that regularly sleeps with members of the oppressor group. The intimacy of members of one’s own family being so much a part of the oppression is truly astounding.

    I look forward to feedback on these thoughts.

    • izzy82 says:

      Thanks for commenting! Yeah it’s interesting (and unfortunate), I’d guess people of color and poor people may feel afraid of more things in public (i.e., racial/class profiling encompasses a different and broader type of street harassment and women of color worry about racial profiling as well violence against women). And yet women feel unsafe (the degree to which I’m sure depends on race, class, sexual orientation, etc) on every street and there’s the reality that women are less safe in their homes because of partner abuse and/or sexual assault and that for straight women, if we want a relationship, we have to be with someone who, on a societal level, has power over us. It can feel very disempowering. I read this blog post last night and so much of it is relevant to me and the first thing I thought is, “wow I’d NEVER walk alone at night, especially not for that long.” And I didn’t mean I think this woman is foolish for doing so, what I meant is that for me, I would be too terrified and would literally end up losing sleep over my nightly walks and it wouldn’t be worth it. But it sucks I have to make that choice – if you can even call it a choice.

      I agree I see oppression as overlapping and circular rather than a hierarchical pyramid. I’m curious though, do you think that the fear a white man may feel in a black neighborhood would be on par with what a man/person of color would feel in a white neighborhood, given white dominance? And how much of the white person’s fear is based on stereotypes vs reality? Not saying it never happens that a white man is attacked in a primarily of color neighborhood, just wondering about the likelihood of it as well as the immediate and long-term impact of being a white man attacked by someone of color vs a person of color being attacked by a white person.

  5. Pingback: Kyriarchy | sexualityreclaimed

  6. I don’t think we can measure the difference in the levels of someone’s personal fear, which is going to be based on one’s individual perceptions. You and I can make a judgment that the man of color has more objectively to fear than the white man in most situations. We could discuss this a lot more, but I’m thinking more about that notion of overlapping oppressions. A few years ago many of us in the diversity training field had a wide ranging discussion critiquing the film “Crash.” There were many pieces written looking at all kinds of issues regarding racist oppression, and in a limited way at sexist oppression. I think the majprity of the community decided that the film wasn’t a useful tools for education Amazingly, almost on one examined the issues of classism.
    Ir’s not just that people didn’t see how classism was operating in the film; it’s that classism didn’t seem to be considered in the critiques. This troubles me. It also troubles me that in most word processing programs, while sexism and racism are acceptable terms, classism usually shows up as an error. I will continue this commentary, but please feel free to respond to this partial comment..

  7. izzy82 says:

    Okay I see what you’re saying! And yeah I agree that sexism and racism (and perhaps heterosexism?) are the go-tos for “isms” and issues like classism and ableism get far less attention. During the racism training, there were many issues/topics that came up and I thought, “But isn’t that really classism?” And ultimately I think it was both classism and racism and the confluence of those both. But we were encouraged to focus on the racism point so I did, which was helpful for the training. But it can be hard to talk about one oppression and not another because they’re so interconnected and classism is still a very harmful issue and poverty can really wreak havoc on individuals, families and communities.

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