What does this insistence rationalize or excuse?
Refusing to Recognize Structural and Institutional Power
“Women are just as sexist as men.” “I’m the only male in my group so I am oppressed.” “People of Color are racist too.”
Given the deeply embedded patterns that develop from our group identities, simply being the only dominant member in a given setting will not be a reversal of oppression. Dominant group members bring their patterns of privilege with them. For example, men in relation to women (and White men in particular) are socialized overall to take up more physical and social space than others. Men will tend to talk first, last, and most often; set the tone and the agenda of meetings; have a disproportionate effect on decisions; and be perceived as (and presume
themselves to be) leaders in almost every context (internalized dominance).
STOP: Remember that this book is an introduction to complex ideas. While men are socialized into norms of masculinity and women into norms of femininity, we acknowledge that gender identities are not so clear-cut. For instance, many women have interests, characteristics, and mannerisms that would be labeled “masculine,” and many men have those that would be labeled “feminine.” The next level of analysis would be to explore how masculinity and femininity are socially constructed through norms and expectations that shape what it means to “act like a man” or “act like a woman.”
Conversely, minoritized group members also have conditioned patterns (internalized oppression) that predispose them to defer to the dominant member. Women overall will talk less when men are present and defer to men’s presumed leadership (or risk being perceived as overbearing if they do not). These patterns and relations do not reverse or change based on the ratio of dominant to minoritized members present. Without intentionality and skills of alliance, the group members will enact the inequitable relationship. The new member will not be suddenly “oppressed” or have a “minority” experience because he is the only man in a workgroup. Of greater importance, then, are the skills and perspectives the dominant group member brings.
Another common objection is that of numbers. Statements such as “We don’t have much racial diversity here because we don’t have very many people of Color in our area” or conversely, “We are doing well because we have a lot of people of Color in our department” are often heard in response to questions of racial diversity in the workplace. There are a few important dynamics to notice about these statements:
They reflect the dominant perspective; for example, a workplace that seems racially diverse to White people may not seem diverse to peoples of Color. They assume that all that is needed to interrupt inequality is the presence of the minoritized group. Both of these statements defend and rationalize the situation in question and thereby limit, rather than expand, further action.
As for the claim that peoples of Color are just as racist as White
people, this is to confuse discrimination with racism. We are all just as prejudiced as the next person, and we all discriminate. But when we use the “ism” words, we are describing a dynamic of historical, institutional, cultural, and ideological oppression. Without the language to describe structural oppression, we continue to hide and deny its existence. Using the terms interchangeably obscures the reality that discrimination across race is not the same in its effects, because only the discrimination of White people is backed by historical, institutional, cultural, ideological, and social power and thus has far-reaching and collective impact on the lives of peoples of Color. A more interesting and fruitful line of inquiry might be why so many people are so invested in insisting that the minoritized group is “just as” prejudiced or oppressive as the dominant group. What does this insistence rationalize or excuse? What is served by the refusal to acknowledge institutional power?