Oppression and Privilege: A Matter of Time, Space, and Money

It’s been too long since anyone did a real examination of what privilege and oppression in America actually are. There probably hasn’t been a realistic analysis of their complexities since intersectionality theory was developed, which if you don’t know, basically just claims that oppression functions the same way as addition: the more minority statuses you have the more oppressed you are. Sophisticated, am I right?

I even remember reading in my feminist days some essay which proposed that if black women were liberated in America then oppression would cease to exist because black women are the ‘obvious’ most oppressed group so in order to liberate them oppression would necessarily have to have vanished.

Again, so many problems with this concept I am not entirely sure where to start. There are of course nuggets of truth to be found here but they’re so misunderstood that they’ve become essentially deceptive. Oppression and privilege are far less about identity itself and more about space and time. That’s right, just geography and time period. Identities don’t act like mathematical constants, their aspects can change depending on these factors.

Intersectionality theory, which tries pretentiously to prove how having multiple oppressed identities inform and compound one another, is especially flawed because it assumes all identities to be equal in their facility to disenfranchise or empower. The notion that they always interrelate or are always active is untrue. And in the least, it refuses to acknowledge time and space as contributors. My contention is not that intersectionality is entirely meaningless, only that it fails to account for many scenarios. It is helpful and informative but only within certain contexts, not all.

I want to deal with my latter argument regarding intersectionality first. If intersectionality worked out, then it would be true that a black, Muslim woman from the upper class would be ‘more oppressed’ than a white boy from the deep south and from equally deep poverty. After all, our southern boy is male, white, and Christian. That’s three pluses to our lady’s three minuses. And from the way feminists talk these days, being white and male is about the greatest boon one can be granted. But not all things are equal here. Our black woman is wealthy and class is the single most empowering identity, capable of transporting even the most oppressed well beyond the reaches of societal prejudices.

Our lady can afford the best education, medical care, living standards, food, lawyers, and uproot herself without much consideration. Her money is a key that accesses doors of escape and opportunity that our little white boy couldn’t even fathom. There are of course places and times where white-privilege will win-out. His white skin will protect him from being shot. He will be well-represented (only physically speaking) on television and in politics. And there will be fewer stereotypes about his general nature. But his access to institutions that empower and protect, like education, medical care, or even a lawyer, will be vastly limited by comparison.

My point should be clear. This is not a mathematical equation. It is not a matter of whipping out the ol’ abacus and doing some addition or multiplication. In this specific situation, both our characters have advantages and disadvantages that need to be understood within the context of practical consequences. Situations change and the impacts of various identities will change with the situation.

Recognizing that not all identities are equal in their ability to trammel or benefit is paramount to understanding oppression. Class is the greatest donor of advantage or disadvantage. Let’s look at Bill Cosby for our next example. Normally it might be easy for a crowd of white women to take down a black man with accusations of sexual assault. After all, white privilege is such an all-pervasive and empowering force. But what happens when you have incredible wealth and the admiration of millions? Cosby has unlimited resources to bog his opponents down in legal minutia. He can rely on his TV personality to appear wholesome and thus unimpeachable. His being black doesn’t appear to have hurt him at all in this particular situation. His money and fame, however, have easily derailed any factor white privilege might have played in these accusations. And indeed, even his old age might be doing him some favors since his appearance as a grandfather figure only makes him more endearing.

It may well be mentioned that he is a man and they are women, and doesn’t that change things in the realm of sexual politics? It certainly does. But in this case I think it is safe to say that money and celebrity are doing all of the heavy-lifting, not gender.

We might also ask what would have happened if all these white women accused a middle class black man of unknown repute. I would imagine that white privilege and vicious stereotypes about black men would sabotage any opportunity for justice that particular man had. But then again, maybe the jury is considerably black and male, in which case maybe the women would appear as little more than vengeful and racist harpies. Time and place ladies and gentlemen.

Intersectionality theory only functions when all other things remain equal. But once we admit that most of the time this is not the case then the process of evaluating how privilege actually functions and which identity is doing most of the help or harm becomes a lot more contextual. That context is usually when and where our situations occur. Location, location, location.

Let’s look at an all things being equal scenario. A black heterosexual man and white gay man are both middle class residents of a suburban town. They have had equal opportunity at education and both now have the chance to travel and live abroad for one reason or another. Our gay boy has fewer options when it comes to ‘safe’ countries to live in. Many countries today either kill you for homosexuality or in the least have laws on the books that are not favorable. Being black, however, won’t do you physical harm in many of the same countries – at worst you will suffer from similarly scathing stereotypes but certainly no fewer than the kind gay people experience.

Were they to choose Turkey as their destination one of these people, and we all know who, could be truer to themselves and safer than the other. At the same time, were we to remain in America and each were pulled over by an officer, we can say with equal certainty that our nice white gay boy would be in little to no danger of being a victim. Our black friend, however, could very well be shot for simply putting his hands in his pockets. Geography and time (stages of social development in a country) need to be considered.

Textbook cases of intersectionality certainly exist and I want it made clear that this is still important to recognize. Being poor, black, and living in an underfunded neighborhood with derelict institutions is obviously crippling compared to being white, upper-middle class, and living amongst law enforcement you can trust and schools worth attending. These situations will have compounding and reinforcing effects on the oppression and privilege experienced within them. But simply being black, or simply being gay, or simply being a woman, or being all of these things does not necessarily disadvantage you everywhere and all the time. This also needs to be acknowledged.

Money changes things, even when someone is part of a harried minority. Where and when our lives play out and the nature of our audience also changes things. We have to stop just counting on one hand. Not all identities are equal in their ability to help and harm. And not all places our equally hostile or nursing to a given identity. Lastly, time matters. What trends, social policies, and events have taken place will also affect the interaction of identities.

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