Week in the Word: Educating the Oppressor

In our week in the Word feature, I try to lift up an emerging southern voice of faith speaking about progressive values and, failing that, a voice speaking from a progressive faith perspective directly to issues we are facing here in the south-land.

This week’s word comes, with permission, from the Rev. Hugh Hollowell, a Mennonite pastor who leads Love Win, a ministry center which supports individuals experiencing poverty and homelessness in the Raleigh, NC, area.

I want to invite you to email me at micahbroyal@yahoo.com or comment on my Week in the Word blog posts if you see a good message to share in this feature as well.

Here is Hugh’s message, taken from http://hughhollowell.org/education-of-an-oppressor/

Education of an Oppressor

One of the foundational principles in my ethical system says:

When there are two groups of people, and one group has more than the other group, the moral responsibility for fixing the disparity lies with the group with more.

More what? More of almost anything. Money. Rights. Property. Privilege. Snickers bars.

If I have food, and you do not, the right thing to do is share my food with you. It isn’t your responsibility to demand I share. If you find yourself on top, the responsibility for lifting the others up is yours.

To point out that this seldom happens and, as Fredrick Douglas tells us, power concedes nothing without demand is to point out moral failure.

It is the responsibility of the group with more to change things, including ourselves. Especially ourselves.

* * *

In the notes to this post last week, I wrote the following:

The oppressed never have an obligation to educate the oppressor, but I am grateful to those people who have been patient with me, who have taught me, who have educated me and who teach me still. Every single time, it has been a gift. 

Every single time I say that first clause (The oppressed never have an obligation to educate the oppressor) anywhere, I get push-back. It generally takes one of two forms, and almost always from people who do not fall into groups that have historically been oppressed. In other words, people who have big problems with that concept seem to be white, cisgender and usually, male.

The first form of push back is to say, “But how am I supposed to know, if they won’t explain it to me?”

It is a sign of privilege that you think that, by virtue of your asking, people you do not know have an obligation to explain their life to you.That doesn’t negate the fact that there are people who have been oppressed who desire to educate. It is the job of the oppressor to shut up and listen to them.

If you are cisgender, and you call someone “trangendered”, and they ask you to not do use that term, it isn’t your job to argue with them – it is your job to find out why that is objectionable. Say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Thank you for telling me.” And then move along, and fire up Google and educate yourself.

It may well be that they will want to explain why that was offensive. If they do, it is a gift, and you should thank them profusely. But it is not fair to expect them to tell you a list of books you should read, or explain queer theory to you. And is not fair at all to expect them to be willing to argue about it.

After all, you don’t get to decide what is offensive to other people. And if you learn something is offensive to someone, and you insist on continuing to do it, you are just being a jerk.

The second form of push-back is to say, “I’m not an oppressor.”

Ok, I will try to take this slow.

There is active oppression – like calling a Black man the N word, or catcalling women. Then there is passive oppression – like benefiting from being white when you are pulled over by the police, or that people tend to trust male-bodied people more when they are in positions of leadership.

Active oppression is mostly obvious, and while it happens, it is the easiest form to call out. But passive oppression is harder to recognize, and the form people like me – male-bodied, white, and educated – are most complicit in.

No, we didn’t create the system that puts us in the group with more – but if we do nothing to tear it down, we are just as guilty as those who built it. Perhaps even more so.

The most effective way I have found to battle systemic oppression is what I call “Downward Bias”. It is one of our core values at Love Wins Ministries, and here is what we say about it on our website:

History has taught us that when there are two groups of people, policies and decisions tend to bias upward, benefiting the group in power. The people we work among have often been on the wrong end of this power dynamic, so we seek to bias downward whenever possible. Asking ourselves, “Does this benefit the people in our community, or just the people in power?” is a useful decision-making filter.

It requires that you be alert, that you be introspective and ask yourself hard questions and, yes, that you listen to other people’s voices – specifically the voices of people in the group with less than you.

No one expects you to apologize for being white, or being educated or being male-bodied. But they do expect you to educate yourself, to listen and to change the disparities you find out about. Because you are the people group with more, and it’s your responsibility to fix that shit.

* * *

Helpful reading: Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s