Life after structural oppression

Oct. 27, 2016, 12:30 a.m.

The school-to-prison pipeline and the War on Drugs continue to make America the incarceration capital of the world, jailing countless Black and brown bodies over the past few decades. Class inequity, failing infrastructure and low investment in under-resourced communities keep the rich rich and the poor poor. The confluence of cisnormativity, heteronormativity and patriarchy (amalgamated as cisheteropatriarchy) subordinate women under men, queer people under straight people and trans people under cisgender people. Muslims are harassed; the disabled and/or neurodivergent are mocked; survivors of rape, war, colonialism and imperialism live with intergenerational trauma.

I’ve written similar words in The Daily before, and every time I’ve had to sit back for a moment and come to terms with the weight of these realities. The world kinda sucks, and coming to terms with that has been a large focus of this column over the last three years. It’s afterwards, though, as we attempt to reconcile our knowledge of the world’s injustices with the demands of being a student and adult in society, where the true difficulties lie.

How do we apply for jobs knowing that white men with criminal records are more likely to get hired than Black men without? How do we take care of our loved ones knowing that women and femmes exhaust themselves with emotional labor that is neither paid nor acknowledged? How can we go to class, do our laundry and finish our take-home finals knowing that our identities will affect how useful our degrees will be after we graduate?

Some people might contend that the arguments of structural oppression are exaggerated, and that inequities are born primarily out of the laziness or perhaps even inherent inferiority of certain peoples. This perspective typically accompanies a strong respect for the individualistic self-made entrepreneur, that hero who pulls themselves up by their bootstraps into greatness, despite their disadvantaged, underdog background. I am reminded of the first Pokemon movie, in which Mewtwo delivers the poetic line, “the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant; it is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.”

Mewtwo clearly has never lived in America, because the perspective he espouses does not match the realities of living in this society. The circumstances of an individual’s birth — the family they are born into — as well as that person’s later gender, sexual or religious identities, among many other factors, dictate the relative advantages or disadvantages they will experience for much of their entire life. By denying the reach of structural oppression, people fail to support marginalized members of their communities at best and actively exacerbate this marginalization at worst.

Taking the other ideological extreme, some people may argue that the collection of injustices experienced by marginalized peoples in society determines practically every aspect of their lives, public and private and everything in between. This perspective typically accompanies a strong respect for the revolutionary, that hero who burns down the racism, transphobia, misogyny and classism of the current social order and builds a utopia from its ashes.

This view has its flaws as well; it minimizes the variability and diversity of people beyond a surface level of identity (one queer trans woman of color is not equivalent to another queer trans woman of color) and the agency of marginalized people to act independently in their own lives. By taking this deterministic stance towards marginalization, additionally, people may give up on taking care of themselves and their communities in the ways they need. I joke sometimes, for example, that a Stanford activist co-op could never succeed: Everyone would be too busy planning the revolution to wash their dishes.

So far I’ve avoided using the words “Conservatives” and “Progressives,” “Reactionaries” and “Radicals” — the lines between the perspectives I talk about are blurrier than these, and the critiques, I hope, less partisan. Most people on this campus find themselves on the spectrum between these two extremes, trying to figure out their own relationships to academics, advocacy, activism and student life in light of the increasingly apparent inequities revealed to us by current events in the world.

My own two cents is that there is a happy medium we can arrive at, one that acknowledges the scope and complexity of structural oppression without taking a fatalistic approach to its power over us. By learning more about the histories, nuances and workings of inequity in our society, we can learn how much wiggle room we have in our daily lives and take pride in living our lives in the ways we want, whenever we can. And all the while, as we do this, we must work towards influencing, chipping away at or otherwise dismantling these oppressive structures — so that we can reduce the power that oppression has over us, and have more agency over our own lives.


Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' – she loves messages!

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