I have been diving in to others’ thoughts on systemic patterns of oppression, and the insights offered are so rich that I want to share them with you, along with my own reflections. Recent public discourse, or lack thereof, about Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, what is being said (and not said) in the presidential campaign about race, gender, ethnicity – all of this led me to want to grapple with the question of prejudice, oppression and privilege. Following this thread, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Lindy West’s Shrill. These two books will give you much to think on, to sit with and contemplate. Whether you agree or disagree, is not so important. What matters, or what mattered to me, was the courage of the authors and speakers to speak the truth of their own lived experience in a manner that exposes and challenges the status quo of systematic privilege.
As a sociologist, I have studied racism, sexism, and all the other ways in which a dominant group establishes and maintains their position of privilege. But the academic literature can be somewhat clinical. It is easy to distance from actual people when talking about systems. Yet you need to be able to see both the system and the individual. Too much focus on the individual and you miss the vast subtle ways in which systematic oppression constrains and shapes lives. Too much focus on the system and you miss the impact at the personal level that makes the human cost clear and real. Coates and West risk vulnerability when sharing their personal stories, while connecting the truth of their lived experiences to the broader patterns of racism and sexism. Both address control of the body as a primary method for control of the individual. They paint in clear, stark colors the way in which threat of bodily harm and actual violance is used to constrain members of an oppressed group. The facts of this control are not new to me – but the way in which Coates and West write allowed me to connect with their stories in a fresh and very personal way. They were unapologetic, completely authentic, and inarguable. As a result, I find myself seeing others differently, with more understanding or at least greater awareness of what I might not understand. In their writing, Coates and West created space for me to connect across the divide of different identities.
We all have prejudice – we cannot avoid making up stories about others based on what we first see. But we can strive to bring awareness to our biases, and in particular to not act but rather to get curious. A fantastic dialogue about the difference between prejudice, discrimination and racism is part of a Liturgists Podcast on Black and White: Racism in America. Listening to the discussion between two white men and two black men helped me become more clear about how prejudice manifests into racism, and what might be done by individuals to generate systemic change.
I encourage you to read or listen for yourself, and I welcome your own reflections.