Citing Exceptions to the Rule


Citing Exceptions to the Rule

“Barack Obama was president so racism has ended in the United States.” “I have a friend who’s Latina and she’s the CEO of the company.” “My professor is openly gay and he still got tenure.”

There are two types of exceptions that people commonly raise. One type is citing examples of public figures from minoritized groups who have “made it.” The second type is giving personal or anecdotal examples. In both cases—one that we all know and one that only you know—the goal is to prove that anyone can make it if they try and that there are no structural barriers. We are not arguing that the system is inflexible and cannot allow for a single exception, or that people don’t have agency to challenge oppressive systems. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but the exceptions also prove the rule. Why are these examples so notable that we know them by name?

Take the commonly cited public example of the presidency of Barack Obama. This was indeed a highly symbolic milestone in U.S. history and worthy of celebration. However, racism is very complex and can’t be corrected when an individual person of Color succeeds. The system can accommodate some exceptions, but these exceptions don’t actually change the system overall. In many ways Obama’s presidency surfaced a great deal of racism while simultaneously allowing dominant society to deny it. Obama’s presidency, for example, did nothing to affect increasing racial segregation. This segregation is more powerful because it occurs at the ground level—how we actually live our lives.

The personal example (“There was one Asian guy at my school and no one saw him as different”) is problematic in that it is very difficult to engage with; we are only hearing the dominant member’s necessarily limited perception. The personal example is almost impossible to question with and thus works to cut off, rather than expand, exploration. The public example is at least familiar and we have had the opportunity to hear a range of perceptions on it. Either way, while there are always exceptions, the patterns of oppression are consistent and well documented.

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