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Columns

Check Your Privilege

Moving the conversation about oppression from individuals to structures

By Nian Hu, Crimson Opinion Writer

In my last article, I wrote about how men benefit from male privilege. I wrote about how men, on a structural level, benefit from a system that establishes male dominance at the expense of women. I wrote, in no uncertain terms, that men are and will always be oppressors.

These statements proved to be extremely controversial. Men, especially those who consider themselves feminists, were angry that I called them oppressors. They invoked the “not all men” argument, and brought up all the ways in which they have supported women’s rights. Many men seemed to consider my statements a personal attack, and became defensive. If all men are oppressors, then what were they supposed to do? Was there nothing that men could do right? Was I simply advocating for male genocide?

This controversy, I believe, stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what privilege and oppression mean. Privilege is the idea that society grants unearned benefits to people because of certain aspects of their identity. And, on the flip side, there is oppression—the idea that society disadvantages people because of certain aspects of their identity. Privileged people, therefore, benefit at the expense of oppressed people.

However, privilege and oppression need to be understood in the context of larger power structures. Society is affected by different power structures—patriarchy, white supremacy, classism, and ableism, to name only a few. Under these power structures, privileged people hold institutional power over oppressed groups. Under the patriarchy, for example, men are the ones who hold political, economic, and social power. And indeed, if you look around the world, top political and economic leaders are almost all men. Men are overwhelmingly in charge of running companies and corporations, making and adjudicating laws, and producing knowledge.

Privilege, therefore, has nothing to do with individuals, and everything to do with larger power systems and structures in society. The structures in our society that bestow unearned benefits to men are the same ones that oppress women. This does not mean that every single individual man in the world is committing violence against women. It only means that, as long as the structures of patriarchy and sexism exist in the world, men are oppressors who will benefit at the expense of women.

Understandably, nobody likes being called an oppressor. But it is critical to acknowledge all the ways in which you are an oppressor. For example, I am an oppressor. As a cisgender and heterosexual person, I benefit from the oppression of LGBT people. As an able-bodied person, I benefit from the oppression of people with disabilities. The power structures of heterosexism, cissexism, and ableism grant me unearned benefits at the expense of LGBT people and people with disabilities.

But, once again, oppression and privilege are concepts that refer to structures, not individuals. When I say that I am an oppressor, I do not mean that I personally engage in violence against transgender people. I do not mean that I personally design buildings that are inaccessible to people in wheelchairs. In fact, as an individual, I strive to do the opposite. I strive to be an ally to the LGBT and disabled communities, and I acknowledge that I can and should always do more for those communities.

But at the end of the day, I can’t stop being an oppressor. No matter how many charities I donate to, how many LGBT rallies I attend, how many articles about ableism I read, or how many Crimson staff editorials about transgender rights I help write—I am still an oppressor. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned I am. I will still indirectly benefit from the violence that is inflicted on those communities.

When society centers the experiences of heterosexual people as valid—for example, by allowing me to hold hands with my partner in public without fear of harassment and by portraying straight people almost exclusively in the media—it simultaneously marginalizes the experiences of LGBT people as invalid, deviant, and criminal.

When society caters exclusively to able-bodied people such as myself—for example, by designing buildings without ramps or by implementing education systems that prioritize only certain types of learning—it simultaneously oppresses people with disabilities by depriving them of access to education and physical buildings.

And so, it is time for us to move the conversation away from individuals and back towards structures. It is not helpful or productive when members of privileged groups demand recognition for their good deeds, or insist that “not all men” or “not all straight people” or “not all able-bodied people” are bad people. That is not what the conversation is about.

Instead, we need to focus on dismantling the power structures in society. For men, this means actively working to undo the structure of patriarchy. And for myself, this means actively working to undo the structures of heterosexism, cissexism, and ableism. We all have a lot of work to do. But the first step towards a more equitable world is the acknowledgement of our own privilege, and the ways in which we benefit from the oppression of others.

Nian Hu ’18, a former Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a government concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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