Anyone from any demographic can be horrible to anyone from any demographic. However, it is easy to not realise that you are contributing to a problem that involves systematic oppression. What systematic oppression means is that there are social norms, legal structures, institutionalised ways of dealing with things that massively disadvantage a group of people. The most visible example of this at the moment is the Black Lives Matter/All Lives Matter issue. Systemic oppression puts Black lives in danger. It’s not about disinterest in white lives and safety, it’s about exposing and changing the norms, structures and behaviours that put Black lives at risk. Individual unpleasantness does not function in the same way as unpleasantness reinforced by wider society.
I’m going to hammer out some examples in the hopes that this will prove useful. If we can’t see how the system oppresses a specific group of people, we can end up adding to that. We should not be adding to existing oppression, we need to figure out how to dismantle it. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully catches an array of ways in which this all happens.
Fat shaming and skinny shaming are not the same. Yes, skinny shaming is horrible, but a thin person will not have a medical condition ignored while they are told to gain weight. A thin person will usually be able to find clothes that fit them, is unlikely to be removed from an aeroplane. Thin people will never find they can’t get into a toilet cubicle because it’s too big for them. There are lots of things that make life hazardous and hard if you are fat, and there are no real comparisons for thin people. Thus if you get into a size conversation and try to present skinny shaming as the same as fat shaming, you’re adding to the burden in fat people.
Sexism against women exists in a context where there is a real pay gap between genders. Your chances of having pain taken seriously are lower if you present as female. The odds of being raped, assaulted, harassed or suffering sexual abuse are much higher if you are female. Your odds of securing a job with real power are lower – just look at who sits in government. So yes, while women can be massively prejudiced against men, sexism against women is backed up by society in all kinds of ways, including religion, and cultural gender-norms.
We treat straight sexual identities as normal and anything else as deviant. What this leads to is people suggesting that it is wrong to talk to children about queerness, as though being queer is something you get into by choice, and not intrinsic to who you are. The failure to recognise difference and the equal validity of different experiences is one of the ways on which systemic oppression manifests, and not just for LGBTQ people. We treat neuro-divergent folk in much the same way, trying to ‘normalise’ them towards what the rest of us do rather than creating more supportive environments.
One of the places to start doing the work on this, is to look at our own responses. If you want to say ‘but white people experience racism too’ or ‘but men can also be abuse victims’ or ‘being a pretty girl is just as hard as growing up ugly’ or whatever else you have, take some time to sit with it. Think about why you need to respond to someone else’s distress by demonstrating that you, as the person who seems to have the easier deal, are a victim too. Does is reduce your feelings of responsibility? Do you feel you need more attention? Have you thought about how much equivalence there is between these experiences? Have you thought about your relationship with your culture and how other people’s experiences of it may be very different?
We are products of our cultures. Systemic oppression exists because people are taught to think of it as normal, natural and inevitable. Challenging that is hard. Scrutinising it is uncomfortable. We can however dismantle oppressive systems. First we have to see them, then we have to deal with our own involvement, then we have to stop participating, then we have to actively challenge those systems. It’s good work and well worth whatever time you can give it.