Individuals and systems are connected to each other through a dynamic relationship. If we use it as a model for thinking about the world and ourselves, it’s easier to bring problems like racism, sexism, and ableism out into the open and talk about them. In particular, it’s easier to see the problems in relation to us, and to see ourselves in relation to them.
If we think the world is just about individuals, then a white woman who’s told she’s ‘involved’ in racism is going to think you’re telling her she’s a racist person who harbors ill will toward people of color. She’s using an individualistic model of the world that limits her to interpreting words like ‘racist’ as personality flaws. Individualism divides the world up into different kinds of people – good people and bad, racists and nonracists, ‘good guys’ and sexist pigs. It encourages us to think of racism, sexism, and heterosexism as diseases that infect people and make them sick. And so we look for a ‘cure’ that will turn diseased, flawed individuals into healthy, ‘good’ ones or at least isolate them so that they can’t infect others. And if we can’t cure them, then we can at least try to control their behavior.
But what about everyone else? How do we see them in relation to privilege and oppression? What about the vast majority of whites, for example, who tell survey interviewers that they aren’t racist and have nothing against people of color? Or what about the majority of men who say they favor the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?
From an individualistic perspective, if you aren’t consciously or openly prejudiced or hurtful, then you aren’t part of the problem. You might show disapproval of ‘bad’ people and try to help out the people who are hurt by them. Beyond that, however, the trouble doesn’t have anything to do with you so far as you can see. If your feelings and thoughts and outward behavior are good, then you are good and that’s all that matters.
Unfortunately, that isn’t all that matters. There’s more, because patterns of oppression and privilege are rooted in systems that we all participate in and make happen. Those patterns are built into paths of least resistance that we feel drawn to follow every day, regardless of whether we think about where they lead or the consequences they produce.
When male professors take more seriously students who look like themselves, for example, they don’t have to be self-consciously sexist in order to help perpetuate patterns of male privilege. They don’t have to be bad people in order to play a ‘game’ that produces oppressive consequences. It’s the same as when people play Monopoly – it always ends with someone winning and everyone else losing because that’s how the game is set up to work as a system. The only way to change the outcome is to change how we see and play the game and, eventually, the terms of the game itself and its paths of least resistance. If we have a vision of what we want social life to look like, we have to create paths that lead in that direction.
Of course there are people in the world who have hatred in their hearts – such as neo-Nazis and “skinheads” who make a sport of harassing and killing blacks or gays or lesbians – and it’s important not to minimize the damage they do. Paradoxically, however, even though they cause a lot of trouble, they aren’t the key to understanding privilege or to doing something about it. They are participating in something larger than themselves that, among other things, steers them toward certain targets on which to vent their rage. It’s no accident that their hatred is rarely directed at privileged groups, but instead targets people who are culturally devalued and excluded. Hate crime perpetrators may have personality disorders that bend them toward victimizing someone, but their choice of whom to victimize isn’t part of a mental illness. That’s something they have to learn, and culture is everyone’s most powerful teacher. In choosing their targets, they follow paths of least resistance that are built into a society that everyone participates in, that everyone makes happen regardless of how they feel or what they intend.
So, if I notice that someone plays Monopoly in a ruthless way, it’s a mistake to explain that simply in terms of their personality. I also have to ask how a system like Monopoly rewards ruthless behavior more than other games we might play. I have to ask how it creates conditions that make such behavior appear to be the path of least resistance, normal and unremarkable. And since I’m playing the game, too, I’m one of the people who make it happen as a system, and its paths must affect me, too.
My first reaction might be to deny that I follow that path. I’m not a ruthless person or anything close to it. But this misses the key difference between systems and the people who participate in them: we don’t have to be ruthless people in order to support or follow paths of least resistance that lead to behavior with ruthless consequences. After all, I am trying to win, because that’s the point of the game. However gentle and kind I am as I take your money when you land on my Boardwalk with its four houses, take it I will and gladly, too. “Thank you,” I say in my most sincerely unruthless tone, or even “Sorry,” as I drive you out of the game by taking your last dollar and your mortgaged properties. Me, ruthless? Not at all. I’m just playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played. And even if I don’t try hard to win, the mere fact that I play the game supports its existence and makes it possible, especially if I remain silent about the consequences it produces. Just my going along makes the game appear normal and acceptable, which reinforces the paths of least resistance for everyone else.
This is how most systems work and how most people participate in them. It’s also how systems of privilege work. Good people with good intentions make systems happen that produce all kinds of injustice and suffering for people in culturally devalued and excluded groups. Most of the time people don’t even know the paths are there in the first place, and this is why it’s important to raise awareness that everyone is always following them in one way or another. If you weren’t following a path of least resistance, you’d certainly know it because you’d be on an alternative path with greater resistance that would make itself felt. In other words, if you’re not going along with the system, it won’t be long before people notice and let you know it. All you have to do is show up someplace wearing ‘inappropriate’ clothes to see how quickly resistance can form around alternative paths.
The trouble around privilege and oppression is so pervasive, so long-standing, so huge in its consequences for so many millions of people, that it can’t be written off as the misguided doings of a small percentage of people with personality problems. The people who get labeled as racists or homophobes, for example, are all following racist, heterosexist paths of least resistance that are built into the entire society.
In a way, ‘bad people’ are like ruthless Monopoly players who are doing just what the game calls for even if their ‘style’ is a bit extreme. Such ‘extremists’ may be the ones who grab the headlines, but they don’t have enough power to create and sustain trouble of this magnitude. The trouble appears in the daily workings of every work place, every school and university, every government agency, every community. It involves every major kind of social system, and since systems don’t happen without the involvement of all kinds of people, there’s no way to escape being involved in the trouble that comes out of them. If we participate in systems that trouble comes out of, and if those systems exist only through our participation, then this is enough to involve us in the trouble itself.
Reminders of this are everywhere in our lives. I see it, for example, every time I look at the label in a piece of clothing. I just went upstairs to my closet and noted where each of my shirts was made. Although each carries a U.S. brand name, only three were made here; the rest were made in the Philippines, Thailand, Mexico, Taiwan, Macao, Singapore, or Hong Kong. And although each cost me twenty to forty dollars, it’s a good bet that the people who actually made them – primarily women – were paid pennies for their labor performed under terrible conditions that can sometimes be so extreme as to resemble slavery.
The only reason people exploit workers in such horrible ways is to make money in a capitalist system. To judge from the contents of my closet, that clearly includes some of my money. By itself, that fact doesn’t make me a bad person, because I certainly don’t intend that people suffer for the sake of my wardrobe. But it does mean that I’m involved in their suffering because I participate in a system that produces it. As someone who helps make the system happen, however, I can also be a part of the solution.
But isn’t the difference I make a tiny one? The question makes me think of the devastating floods of 1993 along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The news was full of powerful images of people from all walks of life working feverishly side by side to build dikes to hold back the raging waters that threatened their communities. Together, they filled and placed thousands of sandbags. When the waters receded, much had been lost, but a great deal had been saved as well. I wonder how it felt to be one of those people. I imagine they were proud of their effort and felt a satisfying sense of solidarity with the people they’d worked with. The sandbags each individual personally contributed were the tiniest fraction of the total, but each felt part of the group effort and was proud to identify with the consequences it produced. They didn’t have to make a big or even measurable difference to feel involved.
It works that way with the good things that come out of people working together in all the systems that make up social life. It also works that way with the bad things, with each sandbag adding to the problem instead of the solution. To perpetuate privilege and oppression, we don’t have to do anything consciously to support it. Just our silence is crucial for ensuring its future, for the simple face is that no system of privilege can continue to exist without most people choosing to remain silent about it. If most heterosexuals spoke out about heterosexism, for example, or if most nondisabled people came out of their closet of silence and stood openly against ableism, it would be a critical first step toward revolutionary change. But the vast majority of ‘good’ people are silent on these issues, and it’s easy for others to read their silence as support.
As long as we participate in social systems, we don’t get to choose whether to be involved in the consequences they produce. We’re involved simply through the fact that we’re here. As such, we can only choose how to be involved, whether to just be part of the problem or also to be part of the solution. That’s where our power lies, and also our responsibility.
From Privilege, Power, and Difference, 2e. For more information click here.
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