Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Michael Kimmel: Toward a Pedagogy of the Oppressor

Michael Kimmel


To run or walk into a strong headwind is to understand the power of nature. You set your jaw in a squared grimace, your eyes are slits against the wind, and you breathe with a fierce determination. And still you make so little progress.

To walk or run with that same wind at your back is to float, to sail effortlessly, expending virtually no energy. You do not feel the wind; it feels you. You do not feel how it pushes you along; you feel only the effortlessness of your movements. You feel like you could go on forever. It is only when you turn around and face that wind that you realize its strength.

Being white, or male, or heterosexual in this culture is like running with the wind at your back. It feels like just plain running, and we rarely if ever get a chance to see how we are sustained, supported, and even propelled by that wind.

It is time to make that wind visible.

In recent years, the study of discrimination based on gender, race, class, and sexuality has mushroomed. Of course, the overwhelming majority of the research has explored the experiences of the victims of racism, sexism, homophobia, and class inequality. These are the "victims," the "others" who have begun to make these issues visible to contemporary scholars and lay people alike. This is, of course, politically as it should be: The marginalized always understand first the mechanisms of their marginalization; it remains for them to convince the center that the processes of marginalization are in fact both real and remediable.

When presented with evidence of systematic discrimination, many members of the "majority" are indifferent, sometimes defensive and resistant. "What does this have to do with me?" they ask. Some mention several "facts" that, they believe, will absolve them of inclusion into the superordinate category. "My family never owned slaves," "I have a gay friend," "I never raped anyone," are fairly typical responses. Virtually none seems able to discuss white people as a group. Some will assert that white people are dramatically different from other white people (ethnicity and religion is more important than race); others maintain that white people, as a group, are not at all privileged. And virtually all agree that racism is a problem of individual attitudes, prejudiced people, and not a social problem.

Such statements are as revealing as they are irrelevant. They tell us far more about the way we tend to individualize and personalize processes that are social and structural. And they also tell us that majority members resist discussions of inequality because it will require that they feel guilty for crimes someone else committed.

Even those who are willing to engage with these questions also tend to personalize and individualize them. They may grudgingly grant the systematic nature of inequality, but to them, racism, sexism, and heterosexism are still bad attitudes held by bad people. They are eager to help those bad people see the error of their ways and change their attitudes to good attitudes. This usually will come about through "better education."

Those of us who are white, heterosexual, male, and/or middle class need to go further; we need to see how we are stakeholders in the understanding of structural inequality, how the dynamics that create inequality for some also benefit others. Privilege needs to be made visible.


To be white, or straight, or male, or middle class is to be simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible. You're everywhere you look, you're the standard against which everyone else is measured. You're like water, like air. People will tell you they went to see a "woman doctor," or they will say they went to see "the doctor." People will tell you they have a "gay colleague" or they'll tell you about a "colleague." A white person will be happy to tell you about a "black friend," but when that same person simply mentions a "friend," everyone will assume the person is white. Any college course that doesn't have the word "woman" or "gay" or "minority" in the title is, de facto, a course about men, heterosexuals, and white people. But we call those courses "literature," "history," or "political science."

This invisibility is political. This was first made visible to me in the early 1980s, when I participated in a small discussion group on feminism. A white woman and a black woman were discussing whether all women were, by definition, "Sisters," because they all had essentially the same experiences and because all women faced a common oppression by men. The white woman asserted that the fact that they were both women bonded them, in spite of racial differences. The black woman disagreed.

"When you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, what do you see?" she asked.

"I see a woman," replied the white woman.

"That's precisely the problem," responded the black woman. "I see a black woman. To me, race is visible every day, because race is how I am not privileged in our culture. Race is invisible to you, because it's how you are privileged. It's why there will always be differences in our experience."

As I witnessed this exchange, I was startled, and groaned - more audibly, perhaps, than I had intended. Being the only man in the room, someone asked what my response had meant.

"Well," I said, "when I look in the mirror, I see a human being. I'm universally generalizable. As a middle-class white man, I have no class, no race, and no gender. I'm the generic person!"

Sometimes, I like to think that it was on that day that I became a middle-class white man. Sure, I had been all those before, but they had not meant much to me. I enjoyed the privilege of invisibility. The very processes that confer privilege to one group and not another group are often invisible to those upon whom that privilege is conferred. What makes us marginal or powerless are the processes we see, partly because others keep reminding us of them. Invisibility is also a privilege in another sense - it is a luxury that only white people have in our society not to think about race every minute of their lives. It is a luxury that only men have in our society to pretend that gender does not matter.

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