News / 25 January 2016, 05:00am / Eusebius McKaiser
Victims of oppression are not more or less capable of oppression than their oppressors. We sometimes expect it to be otherwise, yet examples to the contrary surface daily. Take remarks made by a black lawyer recently, online.
He is senior counsel, very smart and mostly thoughtful, though often just contrarian. He took exception to me claiming that there is no moral difference between racism and patriarchy. I had argued that just as all whites benefit from anti-black racism, so all men benefit from patriarchy.
Many people who disagree with this claim might disagree with the universal form in which I have expressed it. They might, for example, agree that most whites benefit or most men benefit – from the histories and realities of racism and sexism – but they might insist that it is important to not state these claims in such universal terms. Exceptions must be acknowledged.
This response is interesting. I disagree with it, but won’t address it here. This was not the response offered by the senior counsel in question. He was perfectly happy with a universally formulated claim that all whites benefit from anti-black racism.
His beef wasn’t that it is intellectually sloppy or politically imprudent to make generalisations. Instead, he attacked my embedded claim about the moral equivalence of anti-black racism and patriarchy.
He felt that I was belittling the experiences and memories of victims of racism by making an apparently ridiculous comparison with gender oppression. Why? Because, well, many men work hard, as one of his friends added, to succeed in the workplace. Black men in particular, he claimed, have to overcome racism, and it is simply not true that having male bodies give them any kind of advantage in the sorts of ways that having a white skin might advantage you in corporate South Africa.
I shook my head, desisted from engaging them, and grimaced sadly as I stared at the social media page where they were registering this daftness digitally. They were nakedly displaying a lack of empathy and understanding of others’ oppression, the “others” in this case being half the population.
Here you have a bunch of black men being able to tell war stories of negotiating, confronting, surviving racism. And that, you would reasonably but, with hindsight, naively expect would be experiences that would imbue them with the insight that all arbitrary discrimination is morally warped, and that the history of the world is as much a history of patriarchy as it is of racism.
But not so. Their pushback, without a hint of irony, was identical in form to the kind of pushback they would never accept from white colleagues, friends or strangers.
“I had to work hard to become a partner in this law firm, Xolani! My white skin did not stop me from having to work thousands of long hours to make it! Not all whites benefit from racism!” That kind of response, from a white peer, is one that this black lawyer would laugh at. I know he would because I have seen him demolish that kind of exceptionalism narrative.
Yet, here he was parading the same kind of narrative about gender discrimination being exaggerated by feminists. Here he was wanting exceptions to male privilege to be acknowledged as proof that patriarchy is not universal. What is going on here when victims of oppression show this kind of hypocrisy in their reasoning and in their attitudes?
Well, for banal starters, it is proof that victims of oppression are not morally smarter or dumber than oppressors. Capacities for evil, and critical self-examination, are democratically distributed by Mother Nature between the winners and losers of the world’s histories of oppression.
Second, it seems as if the world’s history of domination has perversely made most of us inclined to dominate others, and to justify the benefits of domination by pretending that is not what we are engaging in. And so we dominate one another on the basis of everything from race, gender, sexual orientation, language, ethnicity, place of birth, institution of learning, accent, bodies and countless other markers that become sites of daily oppression.
And this is why the challenge of domination is bigger than we realise. If you reduce the domination challenge to fighting white supremacy, for example, you miss out on how patriarchy renders women, and black women in particular, mere objects in a meta-narrative about black and white men doing battle.
The way different identities intersect means that there is an irreducible complexity to how we experience oppression. Because we cannot choose to only be black, only be gay, only be poor, only be a citizen of the Global South.
The upshot of this is that the fight against domination is not only a black and white matter. And some allies in the fight against one form of domination might well be the enemy in another fight.
* Eusebius McKaiser is the best-selling author of A Bantu In My Bathroom and Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma. His new book - Run, Racist, Run: Journeys Into The Heart Of Racism - is now available nationwide, and online through Amazon.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Media.