Oppression Is Rarely One Big Defining Moment
Over the years, I’ve spoken out a lot about the intersection of oppressions I’ve faced. These are always interesting, and potentially volatile conversations because if the other person isn’t a member of enough oppressed groups, they struggle to understand how these oppressed identities feed into each other.
Inevitably, that person asks me for an example of racism/sexism/sizeism that I experienced. They always seem to want some pivotal moment that I can share that will help them see what it’s like to live in this space.
The thing is, there isn’t just one moment. It’s a compilation of moments that create a pattern. It’s the matching your pattern to others and seeing the overlap. It’s expanding your view to include the experiences of others and seeing the bigger picture that’s influencing your experiences and opportunities. But it’s never just one definable moment because American society is especially gifted in lying to itself about its motives.
It’s that moment you learn that you are the only person in class who lost points for skipping a step in solving the equation despite having the correct answer and you just happen to be the only Black person in the class. It’s the moment when you discover that you are the only student punished for fidgeting. It’s when you learn that the professor doesn’t ask every student to meet them after class to ask how they developed their topic. It’s when you learn that other students’ concerns are validated while yours are always questioned.
It’s when you cosplay at a convention and somehow never see yourself in any of the images. It’s when you look through a photographer’s photo reel and see all the people photographed before and after you, but none of you. It’s when you see a photographer take special care with every cosplayer on site, but they rush you through the queue so quickly that you wonder if they took a picture. It’s reading posts looking for cosplayers who are “fit” when they really mean not fat. And when they say canon which means very few, if any, people of color.
It’s realizing that people have an image in their head of how certain activities and environments are supposed to look and realizing that those environments don’t include you because the casting director didn’t think having actors of color mattered. It’s understanding that as long as people are using media that doesn’t include the breadth of human experience and appearance, it will always be a lie. And people will replicate that lie over and over while displaying images of this lie and declaring it as truth.
It’s when you, hesitatingly, mention your experiences to other people who look like you and you realize it’s not unique. That it isn’t isolated. That these experiences happen to people who share physical characteristics with you all the time. I am not the only Black woman who’s been told she isn’t a team player because of her facial expressions. I am not the only Black woman who has been ignored in meetings and had her ideas dismissed immediately only to watch a white colleague suggest the same idea and be praised for it. I’m not the only Black woman who has had to pass her ideas through other co-workers just to have them considered. Virtually every Black woman working in a predominately white workplace has the same stories.
At first, you don’t think it’s them. You look internally. You rehash interactions. Rethink conversations. Revisit all your believed flaws as you try to figure out where shit went sideways and learn how you failed. And you recalibrate. Adapt. Change. Try a different approach. Up your game. Increase your skills. Soften your approach. You twist yourself into a maze of altered behaviors as you try to navigate the pathway to success, minor success. Sometimes, just one person’s approval.
And still you fail. You wonder how. Your skills are greater than all those around you. You know the answers because you studied. You learned the ins and outs of the process; anticipated every possible failure, and avoided them. You made no mistakes, unlike those around you. And when you ask why you weren’t good enough this time, they tell you it’s because you’re too perfect. Too arrogant. Too much of a know it all. Too capable. Too resistant to other people’s ideas.
You fail for being too competent. And that is when you have your confirmation that it’s not you. It can’t be. Competence is the goal, not evidence of failure. The impetus for this treatment is bigger than you.
So, you observe. You watch. You listen. You look for similarities, commonalities, things to make this nonsense make any kind of sense. And finally, a pattern emerges. It’s superficial, so superficial that you cannot believe this is the reason, but you learn it’s about your looks. It’s your skin color. Your size. The way you wear your hair. It’s your uterus. Your breasts. Your sexuality or lack thereof. It’s things about you that you can’t change. Things that shouldn’t matter, but do. It’s these things that matter least in your skills and performance that mean the most for those evaluating it. Be it at work or at play, these are the deal breakers. And now that you know, you wonder what you can do to level the playing field.
And you try. For years, you continue changing your approach, anticipating what’s going to be the trigger for your next reprimand or sidelining. You try to anticipate what thing will be responsible for your marginalization. And then, after months, if not years of trying to comport yourself in a way that “normal” people will find acceptable, you realize there is nothing you can do to change it. Confronting it gets you fired and ignoring it gets you fired. All of it gets you fired. Or demoted. Or stagnant in your position, if you’re lucky.
If you’re lucky it doesn’t land you in a financial hole. Because resisting is expensive when you are in a marginalized group. It can cost you your job, your home, your family’s security. The ability to resist is a privilege, and one many people standing at the intersection of oppressed identities cannot afford.
Because sometimes your survival comes down to just one moment.
But oppression is everywhere. It’s in the gatekeepers who don’t think you fit the image of the organization. It’s in the participants who don’t believe that you represent their group. It’s in the protectors who don’t believe you have the right to be in that space. It’s in all the assumptions that people make about your skills, abilities, intelligence based on “the norm.”
It’s how the norm is carefully created and curated to appeal to people who believe they are inherently superior despite piles of evidence to the contrary.
I’ve been in the rooms where people decide what image best represents some identity and I’ve listened as they have rejected people, laughingly, because they didn’t “look right.” I’ve seen resumes discarded because the name didn’t sound white enough. I’ve participated in the dismissal of those names, despite my own unconventional name. I’ve witnessed the surprise when, despite all the screening, a POC made it past the gatekeepers and was allowed an interview. I’ve heard the excuses for why that person was sidelined in favor of someone else.
“People like to hear women on the phones more.”
“He sounded too flamboyant. That isn’t professional.”
“Her appearance was too ‘creative’ for our office environment.”
“We can’t use that image. We don’t want people to think we lack self-discipline.”
“Her hair just isn’t styled neatly enough.”
“Was he wearing eyeliner?”
I’ve experienced this. I’ve participated in this. And I am ashamed of this.
Until I understood that I don’t need to understand someone else’s gender identity, I participated in this. Until I understood that I don’t need to understand someone’s sexual preferences, I participated in this. I’m sure I still unintentionally participate in this but I’m working on it. Knowing, acknowledging, recognizing, and fighting to stop doing this is the only way my actions and my thoughts will change.
Fighting ourselves is the very least of our responsibilities. The absolute least. Because when you question people on their lives, choices, experiences, you are forcing them to defend who they are. And frankly, unless it’s harming other people, it’s not your business. And not the bullshit harm of “it hurts my heart that you choose to live this life.” Fuck that. Your approval is not needed for anyone to live the life they need. Nobody needs you to approve or tolerate shit. What we need is for you to understand that experiences are as variable as fingerprints. No two are exactly alike and whether or not it makes sense to you doesn’t scrub it from existence.
Get over yourself. Recognize that there isn’t one way to do shit. There isn’t a perfect picture of any identity, profession, or environment. It’s all different in ways you can’t imagine all the damn time. And when you can finally admit this to yourself, stop getting in the fucking way of how other people live. Question your motives. When you find yourself saying shit like “it’s tradition” or “it’s canon” question that shit. When you balk at a character not being white, question that shit. Ask why. If everything you see, read, hear, learn is about white people, question that shit because when you look at the demographics of the planet, white people are not the majority. That does not reflect how the world looks. Recognize it as the propaganda it is.
This is why representation matters so much. Because it’s not just one single moment that makes you realize you aren’t included in the norm. It’s a lifetime of tiny reminders that you don’t belong.
The reality is we all belong. Always.