Stepping Outside of Both Ends of an Oppressor Pattern

At the recent Christian Protestant Liberation Workshop led by Sybil Moses in Northern Ireland, I learned a lot about myself as a white, middle-class, U.S. person.

The focal point for me was something a black Englishwoman said: "For a person in an oppressor role to take an attitude of humility toward an oppressed person is not particularly helpful. Specific things need to be thought about and done to dismantle the oppression. Humility is not the point."

Humility and arrogance are simply opposite ends of the same pattern. It may be useful in a counseling session to act out the other end in an exaggerated way, in order to loosen up a pattern, but ultimately our aim is to step completely outside the distress.

The two ends of the pattern can actually look the same from the perspective of people in the target group. My feeling less of a human being as a white, middle-class, college-educated U.S. person pushes me to stay away from working-class people, people of color, and people from other countries, because it's hard for me to imagine that I could have anything of value to offer them or be anything but a bother and a burden. The end result can look as if I felt exactly the opposite, as if I felt superior, and people with internalized feelings of inferiority tend to interpret it that way. All my relationships go better when I'm able to step outside of the arrogance and the humility and act as a peer to whomever I'm with. I get to be an ordinary human being, while remaining aware of the ways my oppressor patterns are likely to hook with someone else's internalized oppression.

This is connected to something Seán Ruth(*) told me when I became Information Coordinator for Thinking about U.S. Identity. He said that the preoccupation with being good allies to others gets in the way of U.S. liberation, that part of U.S. oppressor (and, I think, any oppressor) conditioning is a pattern of "turning ally" on other people and acting as if they need something from us that we don't also need from them.

It is RC policy that members of an oppressor group should not expect members of the target group to counsel us on our oppressor distresses. The key word is "expect"; we need to ask for their agreement. However, the pattern of humility, the desperate attempt to be anything but arrogant, expands this into the notion that we shouldn't ever ask, that to even ask is imposing an unfair burden. We may mistakenly act on the assumption that we are the only ones responsible for the relationship, that people in the target group cannot choose for themselves whether or not to be counselors to us on our oppressor distresses. We take the decision out of their hands.

Within the context of a real relationship, it makes sense to go ahead, asking permission as we go. This can feel terrifying. I've found it useful to decide, as often as necessary, to trust the other person's judgment. It has been an enormous contradiction for me to discover that when I risk asking their permission, my friends of color and my friends from other countries are (so far) willing and pleased to listen to me discharge about how I've been conditioned to believe outrageous lies about them, and myself.

As allies to oppressed people I think we need to move beyond our current functioning and aim for stepping fully outside of both ends of the conditioning of oppression. We need to move from being allies to others to building alliances with others, reaching across the lines of oppression as peers -- to love each other and support each other in dismantling the oppression. This may relate to the paired commitments Harvey was talking about before he died: two people deciding to be fully committed to each other's re-emergence (while remaining thoughtful about how oppressive patterns on both sides are likely to hook with each other).

Being allies in this way pushes people in the target role to be fully powerful. It pushes those in the oppressor role to trust our humanness and goodness enough to really show ourselves and our struggles and openly love people.

Perhaps as we practice this as individuals, we'll begin to understand more of what we need to do to build alliances between groups on a larger scale.

Nancy Wygant
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA


(*) Seán Ruth is the International Liberation Reference Person for Middle-Class People.

 


Last modified: 2017-05-06 23:35:41-07