Dealing With Oppression – That’s Not How I Would Have Done It!

You Forgot Your BullshitI recently posted an article to my Facebook about an ignorant shop clerk who accused a mother of child abuse for buying her daughter the suit she wanted. The mother responded by walking out without buying anything.  Someone commented on my Facebook to accuse the mother of wasting an opportunity to educate.  Noooooo. No. No. No. No. World of no.  Galaxy of no.  No.

I see this a lot when people discuss a situation where they faced bulling, stigmatizing, shaming etc. and they talk about how they dealt with it.  People are quick to let them know that’s not how they would have done it. Often, as was the case on my Facebook page, it’s done in accusatory tones.

I find this really troubling.  First we are the victim of oppression/stigma/bullying, then people add to our victimization by suggesting that we didn’t handle it “right” and/or that we had some obligation to respond to bullshit behavior in the way they would do it, with the goals that they would have had.

It should be (but sadly isn’t always) obviously that it’s not ok to respond to oppression by oppressing other people (like responding to fat shaming with healthism, or ableism, or an inappropriate comparison to the oppression of another group.) and that is something that is definitely worthy of comment. Outside of that, we have every right to respond to the oppressive bullshit that comes at us in whatever way we choose.

Sometimes people get confused and think that we have some obligation to help our bigots and bullies become better people who are less bigoted and do less bullying.  We have the option to try that, but never the obligation – in fact we don’t have any obligation to choose educating or bridge building or any other goal as the basis for how we deal with oppression.

We might choose educating the person and trying to build a bridge as a goal, or we might choose expressing our anger as a goal.  It’s ok to try to start a dialog, to say something snarky, or to say nothing at all and just walk away.  It’s ok to not address the issue at all. Our choice of reaction might change with each different exchange, based on everything from our current mood, to our relationship with the person committing the oppression, to the balance of power between us and our oppressor, or any other circumstances. And all of that is completely ok.

How about we keep our eye on the ball here:  when someone is being oppressed, the problem is the oppression and the oppressor, not the way that the victim dealt with them.  A really good first step to supporting people who are dealing with oppression is to not make it worse, and avoiding criticism of their reaction because it’s not what you would have done is an excellent step in the right direction.

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10 thoughts on “Dealing With Oppression – That’s Not How I Would Have Done It!

  1. Amen. I’ve used pretty much every possible response to oppression, depending on circumstance and mood.

    I have the option to choose to try to educate my oppressor, certainly, but no way do I have the obligation.

    1. Oh, and I hit the reply button before making an important point: not every moment is a teachable one. If you aren’t there, you don’t know whether the oppressor looked or sounded open to education. And my personal guess is that a store clerk who thinks it appropriate to harangue a customer for buying a child something (s)he likes is better taught by lost sales than by any lecture.

    2. The circumstance can change everything! Even if you are perfectly prepared to be an educator, if the subconscious alarm bells start ringing, “Danger, Will Robinson!” then you should definitely pay attention to them, and choose the safest exit, not try to make a point where doing so could put you in harm’s way.

      I highly recommend Gavin De Becker’s book, “The Gift of Fear,” which teaches about listening to your instincts, in order to deal with dangerous situations, INCLUDING those situations which seem, on the surface, to be safe enough. You know the ones, where the person runs away screaming, and people react with, “You were just over-reacting! Why do you have to pre-judge everyone as being so dangerous?” when, in truth, you had real and valid reasons for feeling that way, and did the right thing for you, at that time, in that circumstance. The people who say you were over-reacting usually weren’t there, feeling the danger vibes.

  2. One of the problems with “shoulding” on other people, especially uninvited, is that it invalidates that other person’s voice and, simultaneously, makes the conversation not about him or her any longer.

    No mater how I may have responded to such a harangue, it’s Not. About. Me.

  3. I’ll educate people on my own terms, my life is not somebody’s learning experience. Sometimes I’ll speak up, but generally only if they are harassing someone I love and even then I’m more likely to get in their face to deflect attention than try to educate them.

    If I’m having a random chat with someone at a bus stop and they say something problematic I’ll try to tell them my point of view, or leave the conversation, but if you confront me rudely then I will not just politely take it and try to educate the person (unless it’ll piss them off more and then I just might).

    1. I don’t speak Spanish, but according to the translation I found you said:

      I think everyone has their process and should be respected. Nevertheless the bullying is stopped exposing it, it is not necessary to lose sight of that.

      Is that correct? 🙂

  4. This is absolutely right, and applies to every sort of oppressions, from racism to sizism to sexism, and even sexual violence. How often do we hear, “Well, that person didn’t respond properly,” as an excuse to disbelieve the victim when they report the crime? Or worse, to further victimize them.

    The correct response to hearing someone report an experience with oppression is “Oh, that’s so awful! Are you OK?” Not, never, no-how “Well, you should have handled it MY way.”

  5. Sorry, late… but couldn’t stop thinking about it, so can’t resist from commenting.

    Walking away *is* a strong statement and can be quite effective in teaching to the teachable. Apart from removing oneself from a situation and showing agency, it also means not playing the game, not following the script, not complying, not smiling, not enabling.

    Also: Walking away is hard to do wrong. While saying the right thing, the right way, as a social animal with an instinct not to antagonize social power, can fail. One might just give the bigot a chance to practise their lines, one might throw the next group in front of the bigot’s bus, one might say something stupid and feel diminished by it.

    Walking away from a bigot might not be the *best* action. But it is far from the worst.

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