Privilege, oppression, and being “nice”

Privilege, oppression, and being “nice” July 8, 2013

Imagine you’re standing there, minding your own business, and all of a sudden someone steps on your foot. You don’t know if they’re doing it on accident or on purpose–all you know is, it hurts.

So, you tell the person standing on your foot, “Oww! Get off my foot!”

The person standing on your foot responds by stomping down even harder, saying, “I didn’t mean to stand on your foot. Why do you have to yell at me?” As they dig their heel further into your foot, they say, “I’d stop, but you were being so snarky about the fact that I’m standing on your foot that you’re pushing me to keep doing it.”

Eventually, you have had enough, and so you forcefully shove that person off your foot. “Why’d you do that?” you ask. They respond, “Well, you shoved me! You can’t complain because you’re just as bad!”

If this sounds like a ridiculous scenario, that’s because it is. But it happens to oppressed groups all the time.

Today, I was on Twitter and saw a Christian blogger talking about how Christian feminists are driving him to complementarianism, because of “how they come off.” He admitted that he knows patriarchy is awful and hurts women. But he asserted that feminists are “hurting their own cause” because they can’t respond with “civility” when others are uncivil to them.

He recognizes that systems of oppression hurt women, yet, because feminists aren’t being “nice” enough, he feels driven back to those systems of oppression. He knows he’s stepping on women’s feet, but they sound so angry when they ask him to get off that he thinks, hell, maybe I’ll dig in deeper.

I see this everywhere. I experience it often.

I’ll be hurting from oppression, or I’ll see others hurting from it, and we’ll speak out through frustration and pain, and someone will tell us that if we don’t “play nice” we’ll never get what we want.

How sadistically evil does that sound when you really stop and think about it? What are these people really saying? 

“I’m perfectly capable of treating you as a human being, and I fully recognize how much you’re hurting, but I’m going to hurt you even more because I don’t like your tone.”

“You want power in this system. But before I give it to you, you’ve got to bow to my standards of tone, so I can remind you who’s really in charge.”

“If I’m oppressing you, it’s actually YOUR fault.”

You can give a person the benefit of the doubt, assume that their hurtful actions were unintentional. But once you’ve asked them to stop and their response is, “I hear you, but I’m going to keep doing this until you ask according to my standards,” the illusion dissolves.

You know this person truly wants to control people like you.

When privileged people tell oppressed groups “I would listen to you, but you aren’t being very nice” they are asserting their power in a subtle, but dangerous way. They are victim blaming. They are trying to hide the fact that when others have “asked nicely,” they just ignored them. When they tell you it is up to you to convince them to treat you like a human being, they are revealing that they never thought of you as human to begin with.

Remember, the privileged also set the standard for what “nice” is. People who fundamentally challenge their worldview in ways that they can’t just ignore will never meet it no matter how “nice” we are.

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  • forgedimagination

    I get this all of the time– even from some of my closest friends who “admonish me in love” that if “I really want to accomplish what I say I want to,” that I should “make sure to moderate how I’m saying it” or “no one is going to listen to me.”


  • GreenEyedLilo

    I get this as a woman, a bisexual person, and half of a same-sex marriage. I particularly love “You’re being so *emotional* about it!” during marriage discussions. Well, yeah, because for me, same-sex marriage isn’t some political “issue,” it’s my life. My wife and I have *everything* to lose, and they have *nothing*. If I stop telling my own stories my own way and aim to attain their grudging respect instead, which is an ever-shifting goal net, I might as well have their hand where the sun don’t shine as I mouth their words. I would, therefore, become useless.

    Sometimes I’ve been stunned by the occasional anger and cynicism I hear from members of other minority groups, and I have to remember my own experiences. I hope that if I just let other people talk, and move and apologize when I step on their feet, others will extend me the same courtesy.

  • justinwhitaker

    I like this post a lot and it touches on issues in my own life in several ways. For one thing, I still consider myself a feminist, while my older sister and my girlfriend have moved away from that label for some of the same reasons you cite above; for whatever reasons, these two women are ‘turned off’ by the language of at least some contemporary feminism (though I think they both hold to the same core values that I do in terms of gender equality). Second, when inviting inclusion of an Asian American Buddhism blogger in a recent discussion on my own blog, I was asked if I was just aiming for a ‘token’ Asian voice. That hurt (my request was quite open-ended and I had no intention of simply including a superficial representation of Asian American Buddhism). In any case, I would have appreciated a ‘nicer’ response – to use your analogy, a response that recognized that though he had had his toes stepped on by others in the past, I was not currently stepping on his toes. And lastly, though you don’t express this directly, it’s worth noting that White + Male doesn’t equal Privilege. On average perhaps, but when you talk to or look at a particular person, you cannot judge ‘privilege’ based on gender and/or color.

    Again, I appreciate the post, and simply want to add a bit of my own experience to it.

  • Your ridiculous scenario with the foot stepping is how my parents treated me growing up. I mean if they accidentally stepped on my foot. For real.

    • Well they probably wouldn’t grind down harder but I have gotten spanked for ‘over reacting’ to being hurt. As though accidentally crying out louder bc you are hurt is worse than accidentally hurting someone. … Hence I have been slow to drop niceness but now that I have, this kind of niceness is gone.

      • sarahoverthemoon

        🙁 I’m so sorry.

      • Jennifer Stahl

        I’m so sorry. ITU that though. It wasn’t foot stomping but any time we complained at their punitive parenting methods.

  • EmpiricalPierce

    Intelligently and eloquently stated. I’ve never thought to point out the desire to control that underlies such situations. I hope you don’t mind if I adapt this point to use against religious people who don’t understand the anger fueling my atheism.

  • jillrosalie

    Well said, Sarah! You communicated this all so clearly with the foot story.

  • Jerry Lynch

    “Stop whining or I’ll really give you something to cry about.” “Ignore him/her, he/she just wants attention.” Echoes of childhood. This is authoritarianism. Any decency is deigned, not required, if the mood so suits…but you best mind your place. Don’t get uppidy with me, young lady/man.

  • Kristen Rosser

    The difficulty I have is when I apologize and do my best to remove my weight from the other’s foot, and when I say, “Can you explain what I just did so I can try to avoid stepping on the foot of someone else in your position?” I sometimes am told, “It’s privilege that leads you to expect an explanation from me; I don’t owe you one, nor am I to be considered a representative of my group.” All of which is true, but unhelpful and frustrating when I really am trying to learn to notice other people’s feet!

    Any thoughts/responses on this?

    • Liz

      There are many people who write blogs who are ready and willing to tell their own stories of mistreatment. Reading multiple points of view and understanding that group’s background does wonders for understanding them and knowing what to do 🙂

      • Kristen Rosser

        Good point. I should be reading more diverse blogs. I’ll look into that. 🙂

        • Muse

          If I may share a bad but unavoidable pun…put yourself in that person’s shoes (ba-dum TING). Empathy is key. Example from my own life: able-ism. I used to be that person who got annoyed and impatient when a person in a wheelchair would get on the bus. Now, I get it. I GET that many of those folks FEEL all that annoyed energy being projected onto them, and I could empathize with how awful that can feel when all you’re trying to do is get around just like everyone else, but people see and treat you as a nuisance.

  • Dragoness Eclectic

    Here’s the basic problem I have with the whole “Don’t tone-police me!” thing: if you have a problem with my behavior or words that I am completely unaware is problematic because I’m not you and don’t have your history and may have been living in a cave for the last 30 years (seriously, some sub-cultures are very out-of -circulation for current thought on feminism, racism, oppression, etc), and the first time I’m asked to remove my steel-toed boots from your foot it’s with vilification and swearing that would make an old-school blue-water sailor blush….
    My reaction is not going to be “Oh, I am so sorry I hurt your foot.” It’s more likely to be “You’re a raging asshole, why should I care if your foot hurts?”
    “Being nice” may not get them to see you as human, but sufficient incivility will make them see you as “the enemy”. Do you see a way around this conundrum?

    • noirlapin

      1. Remember that when you step on someone’s toe that they are reacting out of pain.

      2. Keep in mind that for some, they have had their toes stepped on intentionally and with malice so many times that anger is an instinctive defense.

      3. Make those your default assumptions and respond with compassion. After all, you are the one who stepped on their toe.

      • Kristen Rosser

        Good advice, except that sometimes they don’t tell you that you stepped on their toe. They just attack, leaving you thinking “where did that come from”?

        • noirlapin

          From my experience, it’s usually not that hard to tell when you’ve stepped on someone’s toe.

          But asking yourself, “Where did that come from?” is a good instinct, if you are truly pondering and not just using the phrase as a defense to keep from thinking about why someone responded as they did to you.

          I know this may sound harsh, but a victim of oppression is not obligated to educate their oppressor. It’s great when they have the mental and emotional resources to do so, but it’s not their responsibility. They have their own lives to lead.

          Educate yourself. The more you know, the less mystified you will be. And, even more importantly, the less often you will step on someone’s toe.

        • Sally Strange

          Stop stepping on people’s toes.

    • Sally Strange

      My reaction is not going to be “Oh, I am so sorry I hurt your foot.” It’s more likely to be “You’re a raging asshole, why should I care if your foot hurts?””Being nice” may not get them to see you as human, but sufficient incivility will make them see you as “the enemy”. Do you see a way around this conundrum?

      Change your reaction–YOU should act like less of a raging asshole yourself. I don’t want to actually hurt people, even if they are being rude. Try it sometime.

  • Ben

    In terms of your moral/ethical principle argument, I completely agree.

    That being said, the human limbic system works such that the rational portions of the mind are impaired by adrenaline in the face of a perceived threat. It gets processed well before the higher reasoning areas of the brain have a chance to weigh in. Somebody steps on my foot, it triggers my fight/flight response. I yell at them, it triggers their fight/flight response. I might get a person whose default reaction is flight, in which case they will back away in a hurry and apologize, and then probably leave in a hurry. I might get a person whose default reaction is fight, in which case they will escalate toward aggressive behavior. Whether or not their knee-jerk emotional reaction to my yelling is justified, it is biologically inevitable; their amygdala WILL do its thing, and there’s nothing they can do about it.

    This does not excuse their behavior. It IS possible to choose how one acts in the face of the fight/flight response, but it requires mindfulness and self-discipline to a degree that many people have never developed (heck, I know it’s possible and I still fail to resist it 9.5 times out of 10 when push comes to shove). Odds are pretty good that I’ll encounter plenty of the people who haven’t developed that capacity.

    When I do, I’ll have a choice: I can insist on immediately expressing my pain and anger in a way that will probably elicit a negative response, knowing that I have the moral high ground. In that scenario, I usually end up with intact principles, a bruised foot, a wounded spirit, and an adversary with more evidence that I’m more interested in making them wrong than in giving them a chance to make it right. Or, I can temporarily give up my claim on the moral high ground and try to engage them in a way that leaves me with intact principles, a bruised foot, a strengthened spirit, and an ally with a renewed commitment to watching his/her step.

    I’ve played out the former scenario hundreds if not thousands of times in my life. It never does me any good. I’ve almost never found the self-control in the moment to attempt the latter scenario, but on those few occasions I have, I’ve never had cause to regret it.

  • Darla Blair

    YOU GOT IT!!!!!!!! Society still calls the early native American tribes “uncivilized” But guess what, I was reading a wonderful take on this very subject, NAZI Germany was considered “CIVILIZED” wow. you are so right. Hey, your equal to me” brother” says the white man to the black one.”, (Until you are my boss, or want to join the club, or live on my street or God forbid, want to marry my daughter!!!!” My father, a wise old man, who passed away this summer, was a soldier in WW2, there were some NAZI POW’s at a little diner down south where they all stopped for chow, The NAZIS ate at the counter, my father, he ate on the curb! But he was NEVER bitter towards anyone about anything, but privileged whites get all upset over being called a racist? None of them would have lasted a minute in my shoes, 4 years old, 1st day of kindergarten, I go up to a little black girl, “hello” I say, “get away you high yellow ni*^#r.

  • Luis Siqueira

    I’m being completely being honest here. This is exactly how I feel women treat me. They set the bar for niceness, if I do not comply I get stepped on even more than usual. If you complain you get laughed at because apparently female oppression against men doesn’t exist and is a unicorn or even better I’m being an emotional male and no one wants that.

    So… you know, everyone does it… I guess.

    If it makes you feel any better I stand here, as a man, and tell you that I know exactly what you are talking about and I absolutely hate it and the way other people socially respond against you when you are angry. I hate it no matter who is doing it.

    The idea that being angry and emotional automatically makes you wrong is ridiculous especially when every little thing you do that is out of line with the majority is looked upon in outrage and illogical amounts of hatred.