Invalidating Claims of Oppression as Oversensitivity

Invalidating Claims of Oppression as Oversensitivity

“People just need to lighten up.” “Why don’t you people just get over it?” “I didn’t mean it that way; can’t you take a joke?”

This objection is a variation on the “political correctness” objection, which implies that whenever minoritized groups and their allies speak to oppression they are just being oversensitive and taking things too seriously. There are several problematic dynamics in this dismissal. First, the arrogance of someone in the dominant group feeling qualified to determine the legitimacy of a minoritized group member’s reaction to oppression. Remember that for many of us in the dominant group, our socialization is invisible, and so we often assume that others will share our frames of reference and see a situation the same way that we do. If we are committed to critical social justice, then we recognize that the burden of


understanding should rest with the dominant group. Another problematic dynamic is that dominant group members often

do not understand the collective weight of oppression. What is “just a comment” for us is one of a thousand daily microaggressions for the minoritized group. That someone from the minoritized group would be willing to let us know how oppression impacts them takes a lot of courage, given how freely dominant groups tend to trivialize this information. Dismissing the feedback as oversensitivity conveys that we are not open to or interested in understanding the impact of our behavior on others. A more constructive use of this feedback is to use it as an entry point to consider what understanding we are lacking.

Focusing on intentions is another way we often dismiss the impact of our behavior. Common dominant group reasoning is that as long as we didn’t intend to perpetuate oppression, then our actions don’t count as oppressive and we don’t need to take responsibility for them. We then tend to spend a great deal of energy explaining to the minoritized group why our behavior is not oppressive at all. This invalidates minoritized experiences while enabling us to deny responsibility for the impact of our behavior in both the immediate interaction and the broader, historical context.

Finally, this dismissal allows dominant group members to project the problem outward onto minoritized groups and their allies while simultaneously minimizing it—the problem now belongs to the minoritized group and they themselves create it by taking life too seriously. According to this reasoning, it isn’t really an issue at all; the minoritized group itself could easily solve oppression by simply getting over it and moving on. From a critical social justice perspective, this is the equivalent of the dominant group telling the minoritized group to accept their oppression.

The life and activism of Nora Bernard (Figure 11.1) illustrate the impact of oppression and minoritized groups’ struggles for justice.

Reasoning That If Choice Is Involved It Can’t Be Oppression

“It’s not oppression if people choose to participate.” “Women in those videos could just say no; they’re getting paid and choose to enact those scenes.”

The discourse of choice is pervasive in dominant society. Much like individualism, choice claims that we are each free to participate in any opportunities made available to us. In the example of music videos, this


argument claims that the women in the videos are adults, they are getting paid, and they could choose not to participate if they had a problem with the videos. Further, we can just choose not to watch the video if we have a problem with it.

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