How do I perpetuate oppression as a young white woman?

I’ve always considered myself to be an ally and an activist, but until recently, I never stepped back to look at the ways in which I personally perpetuate various systems of oppression.

Due to the fact that I am a white, able-bodied, upper-middle class young woman attending a private school in New York city, I am very privileged. My white privilege has enabled me to be ignorant of the racial injustices in America.

As Alexis Pauline Gumbs explained to us when she visited our high school feminism class, the active verb in ignorant is ‘ignore.’ I lived most of my childhood ignoring how race, class, gender, sexuality and physical ability affect an individual’s experiences. In our feminism class taught by Ileana Jimenéz, I began to learn about how overlapping systems of oppression work to preserve the white patriarchy that dominates our society today. I learned about the culture of domination that has become so normalized and ingrained in our society.

I also learned from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” that in order to truly make a change in our society that is dominated by white supremacy, we must rebuild and reconstruct. According to Adichie, in order to start rebuilding, we must change the way we raise children, focusing on ability and interest, rather than gender.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (photo credit: TedxEuston)

Growing up, I considered racism as a problem that existed outside of the bubble I was living in. I associated it with people and places far away from myself, and always talked about it from an outsider’s perspective. I ignored the ways that racism existed within my school community and the role that I played in perpetuating it.

Self-evaluation of the ways in which we individually perpetuate systems of oppression and ignore our own privilege is a challenging process that is often avoided due to the discomfort that comes with it. My high school feminism class taught me to face that discomfort and acknowledge my unexamined prejudices and biases. Through this process, I discovered that one of the ways in which I perpetuate racism is in my ignorance towards the racism that exists within my community. My white privilege prevented me from seeing that racism does exist around me – I had invisiblized it from myself and because of that, I didn’t think it was a problem. In essence,

I was perpetuating racism by ignoring the pressing issues that people of color, especially girls and women, face in our society.

During our International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women assembly that we hosted as a class at our school, there was a section focused on #SayHerName and violence against black women and girls specifically. The girls of color leading this portion talked about how the Black Lives Matter movement, which was founded by three queer women of color: Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors, has had its feminist origins erased.

Turning the focus of the Black Lives Matter movement on to only men and boys of color “perpetuates the oppression already acted out by white privileged institutions in the US,” my classmates said. Perpetuating Black Lives Matter as only a male-centered movement “is a tool of the patriarchy because it has perpetuated violence against Black women and girls on a wider institutional and societal level over time,” they said. 

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Our 2016 high school feminism class hosted our International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women assembly in November (photo credit: Steve Neiman)

When I was in elementary school, I was colorblind to race. At the time, I thought my mindset was in the right place: I had Black, brown, and white friends and I didn’t think differently of any of them. In my mind, we were all the same. I didn’t recognize that underneath my internal colorblindness, there was the implication that there was something shameful about not being white. Without realizing it, I was invisiblizing color by acting as if it didn’t exist.

Colorblindness comes from a lack of awareness of racial privilege. As I grew older, I became more and more aware of my own privilege, and I began to realize that my initial colorblind approach to race was wrong. In Black feminist Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House,” she explains why we must not just tolerate or overlook differences; we must be interdependent.

Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialect… As women, we have been taught to either ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather as forces for change… community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.

Reading this essay was transformative for me, as it explained a lot of the mistakes that I’d made as a child. The best alternative to colorblindness is engaging in an intersectional feminism that allows us to see the multiplicity of identity as well as the multiple ways in which systems of oppression and marginalization intersect and happen simultaneously. This relates to Lorde’s idea of interdependency between women. The first step towards becoming intersectional and interdependent is recognizing, valuing, and learning about differences and acting upon them to achieve justice for all. 

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