In researching an unrelated essay this week, I stumbled on an article from a conservative website claiming “the myth of racism” serves to keep minorities from realizing their full potential because it frames them as victims, and surmises minorities frame themselves as perpetual victims because of “liberal propaganda.” This assessment of the minority experience in the United States is sprinkled across several conservative websites, so I won’t link to this particular one here.
Instead, I’d like to address the ideas behind the article. First, I agree that minorities should be able to realize their full potential; everyone should. While the author would like us to believe minorities are unable to fully flower solely because they incorrectly perceive themselves as victims, I believe there are other, larger systems at play. Institutionalized oppression influences how we organize ourselves in society. It’s easy to believe minorities are just holding themselves back, because when people believe that, they don’t have to dig deeper to see the larger picture that is systemic oppression.
I understand why people are quick to dismiss the influence of said oppression. It’s difficult to look, and to engage in challenging conversations that challenge our beliefs. When we look more closely at many of the ways institutions in this country perpetuate oppression, it becomes more and more clear that we are immersed in a system that privileges some over others, and pits people against each other. To quote the document linked above, “The practice of institutionalized oppression is based on the belief in inherent superiority or inferiority. Institutionalized oppression is a matter of result regardless of intent.” Under this system, marginalized people (whether marginalized because of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, or religion) are all seen as “inherently inferior.”
If we think about this concept just in media, we see a plethora of portrayals of “foreigners” who are “dangerous,” “poor,” “disadvantaged,” or otherwise “inferior.” Next time you watch your favorite programs, pay attention to how the characters in them are portrayed, and see if you notice this playing out on the screen. What does this have to do with how we view minorities? Simply put, when you are presented a certain portrayal of someone, and that story is the only story you know of a certain race, for example, you will carry that image in your mind of any person belonging to that race.
This is also true of other marginalized communities. It happens subtly and subconsciously, but once you notice the one-sided characters who aren’t developed beyond stereotypical tropes, you’ll likely be struck by its presence in your subconscious. I know I was when I first noticed it. A vast amount of media is set up to push a certain narrative, and whether or not it’s deliberate is probably debatable, but I don’t think we can ignore that the set-up is there in the first place.
This particular article blames the social justice movement for pushing the “lie” that people are oppressed and victimized, then cites the election of Barack Obama as President as “proof” there is no need to fight for equality anymore, because equality already exists. I would argue that inequality still exists in great quantities; to cite one African-American man successfully being elected into The White House as proof of equality is to ignore the many times that same man–and his family–have been targets of racism through his eight-year tenure.
Blaming the equal rights movement for perpetuating oppression is simply the lazy way out. The work of the equal rights movement, as I see it, isn’t supposed to be about pitting people against each other. Rather, it’s about dismantling the system that boxes people into certain invisible positions on the “game board,” if you will, of society. In addition, denying that racism or other forms of oppression even exist is being unwilling to hear the personal direct experience of millions of people, and consider that it could be true.
When people respond to others’ claims of experiencing bigotry and the feelings that come with it by saying things like, “Oh, you’re just seeing racism where it doesn’t exist,” what they’re really saying is, “You’re a liar, and your pain isn’t important.” Though I believe when people deny or minimize the effects of oppression, they are really doing it because it makes them uncomfortable to truly face it, I also firmly believe that denying the existence of oppression doesn’t make it go away. No matter how uncomfortable it is to see, we must be willing to see it if we want to change it.
I don’t blame people for not seeing the system. It is designed to remain invisible to us. It works best when we close our eyes to it. I never saw it myself until just a few short years ago. When I learned about systemic oppression, I began to confront all the ways I’d been conditioned by this very system to see myself as a victim. It is not the equal rights movement which seeks to box us in, it is the system of white supremacy, which is based on the idea that some people are inherently superior to others.
We cannot change what we cannot–or will not–see. If we refuse to acknowledge the existence of inequality, we cannot truly heal its countless negative effects. If we truly want minorities to realize their full potential, we must first work to see the system by acknowledging their lived experiences in the first place. Then, we have to work to unwind its effects on each of us (trust me, we are all affected), and finally, we must help unravel the effect it’s had on others.
I’ll be honest. I believe white supremacy actually prevents everyone–including white people–from realizing their full potential. Let’s please not pretend oppression doesn’t exist, or we will continue to be enslaved by it.