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About a word.

So I seem to have gotten myself into a bit of a tiff over at Jane‘s (in the comments). Or rather, not, since the conversation has diverged substantially from my initial comment. I asked a question about her use of the word “oppression” to which she responded with much disdain and irritation. I’d like to clarify what I meant and what I’ve been thinking about since.

Jane wrote

I understand that it is not the responsibility of members of an oppressed group to explain their oppression, or their resistance, to their oppressors. I also understand that I am not the only feminist in the world who has to interact closely with men on a daily basis, or more complicatedly, share a life and a bed with a man. The idea of explaining myself is unappealing (especially in that explaining is potentially dangerous), but I can’t deny my overwhelming desire to do so–and so I am in a frustrating predicament.

The rest of the post went on to detail her predicament, but I got stuck in the first sentence. I asked

Do you, as an American, white, college-educated person, really feel comfortable calling yourself “oppressed”? I understand your feeling you don’t receive all the benefits a man in your position might because of the patriarchal nature of your society, but “oppressed” is a specific word with a specific history and connotations, and I’m curious about your use of it here. If you really do feel oppressed, with all that implies, how does that look in your daily life?

And that’s where things got tricky. Jane’s talking about her personal experience, but she’s talking about it in political terms. I asked a question about her definition of her experience using those political terms. I wasn’t challenging or invalidating her perception of her experience (and, incidentally, I don’t appreciate her implied challenge to mine when she responded, “If you are still not sure how women are oppressed by men, I refer you to your own experience, or your female family members or your local newspaper or this blog (maybe start with this thread on that blog)”).

Because there’s a difference between saying “how women are oppressed by men” and talking about your own personal oppression. I don’t want to legislate how women talk about their own lives. But I do take issue with the use of the word “oppression” here. Oppression suggests both violence and intent that I think are lacking in most instances of sexism and sexist discrimination. Certainly that level of violence and intentional discrimination are lacking in my experience of my own life.

I absolutely agree that women are oppressed. I would also agree with the assertion that they are “subordinated, dehumanized, attacked, objectified, molested, terrified, silenced, implicitly and explicitly controlled, dominated.” But no, I don’t feel that I am oppressed in my own life.

Oppression requires an oppressor, requires someone acting with intention to harm. I believe that most sexism faced by most women is the result of a complete lack of intention, a lack of thought of awareness about the consequences of a joke, a look, an offhanded comment. Oppression, on the other hand, suggests an active agent or agents of discrimination, suggests a back room of men plotting to keep women down.

I think for most women the vast majority of sexism and discrimination is far more subtle, far more institutionalized, far more systemic and, as a result, far more insidious and difficult to combat than any of those words suggest (except, I suppose, for “implicitly and explicitly controlled”). If anything, I think most men in a position to discriminate and deprive women of opportunities don’t think about how they’re doing it. The men I work with, for example, don’t plot (as far as I know) to roll their eyes in a way that suggests I’m a bitch when I insist they complete a piece of paperwork I’ve been reminding them about for 6 weeks. They also don’t get together on the weekends to script the belittling “joke” comments they make when I organize or direct our meetings in a way that strikes them as too assertive. But those things do challenge my authority. And I do have to deal with it more because I’m a woman.

When there’s so much violence against women every day, using the word “oppressed” to describe those experiences seems a little narrow-minded and lacking in perspective. I just came from a meeting with a student whose family moved here from Afghanistan four years ago. She and her sisters were forbidden to go to school; my student’s first experience in with school was when she was 11 and living in the U.S. Her father and brother were seized by the Taliban and it’s only by some strange quirk of generosity that her brother was freed. Her father wasn’t so lucky. Her mother used to teach Persian literature. Now she makes $11,000 a year. And that’s one example that happens to be particularly salient to me at the moment.

So no, I don’t feel oppressed.

And I’m not suggesting we line up in some kind of hierarchical oppression line and some women get to feel really really bad about their oppression and you can feel a little less bad and I’ll feel even less bad than that. I realize it’s not helpful to compare experiences in that way. I’m trying not to make judgments about others’ expression of their experiences.

I’m talking here specifically about my experience of being a woman. I value using language carefully. I value dialogue about experience. I value a sense of perspective and a sense of gratitude. I value the work I do to try to help younger women face less discrimination and have greater access to power and privilege. I don’t believe I’m oppressed. There’s lots of labels I’ll claim for myself and that’s not one of them.


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