White Is NOT The New Black: The Alt-Reality Oppression

07/18/2017 01:56 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2017
Sophie Labelle

During a lecture years ago, a keynote described how ”people” have appropriated the language of oppression to describe their own place in the world. In fact, she stated, white is the new Black. She continued, “White folks are becoming more and more oppressed—as if we are in some alternative universe.” In fact, I argue that currently the language of oppression is used unapologetically to describe having suffered the perceived loss of unearned and normal accouterments of privilege and power. Even more unsettling, language from The Civil Rights Movement has become cachet to the perpetually entitled.

I stumbled upon the Labelle cartoon posted above—and thought, how appropriate. When “people” become so used to unearned privileges, shared equality can actually seem unfair, uncomfortable and downright indignant. I refer to this new alt-reality—where privilege and entitlement are normal, perpetual, expected and demanded as “the neo-oppression”.

The educational context is a peculiar space where neo-oppression is pervasive [p-20]. For instance, you will often hear the rhetoric about how universities routinely hire and enroll “people” who are not qualified. These same unqualified “people” tend to always be people of color who “steal all the jobs and take all of the educational spots” from more qualified and deserving “people”. Guess who those people are?

Embedded in the rhetoric is an important assumption— and that is, “jobs and spots” are earmarked for certain individuals. This rhetoric is then often followed by a poignant discussion about reverse discrimination and the wrongs of affirmative action policies. The discussion then moves to someone’s cousin, aunt, uncle or friend, or someone who lost a position or spot in a school because person X was the diversity pick and less qualified or that the standards were lowered [reserved or earmarked positions—right?]. Other arguments insinuate a birthright. “I was here first, so I deserve it”—whatever “it” might be. Of course there are the court cases that make those same arguments—using similar assumptions.

Interestingly, I have yet to hear the research supported reality, and that is, people tend to hire and hang out with folks who look exactly themselves. In fact, most businesses are owned and lead by whites. Those owners, managers, leaders tend to hire “kin”. Nepotism is the way of the world. And guess what? Some institutions of higher education engage in the practice. Universities dole out legacy “enrollment points” to graduates of institutions [you know, actual points to offspring of alumni—like an advantage]. Further, let’s not forget that the majority of organizations throughout the entire United States, do not disproportionately employ, admit, enroll, etc., people of color. In fact, just the opposite occurs.

Then why do folks get so confused? The problem is that when “people” have been historically accustomed to certain unearned, exclusive and exclusionary benefits, and suddenly there is the slightest of change in those perceived entitlements or birthrights, the response is typically traumatic and triggers a number of defensive moves in order to maintain racial equilibrium—i.e. comfort [see Robin DiAngelo anything that she writes]. These sorts of responses have lead me to think more critically about the neo-oppressed —language gentrification and how this alt-reality confuses folks.

Much like that viral social media meme blue or gold dress that had us all in a kerfuffle—privilege and entitlement have become the new equity lens; kerfuffle number 2. Let’s begin by deconstructing the culturally appropriated language that is used to describe the neo-oppressed and their “human condition”. The neo-oppressed use words and phrases like, “victims of politics”, “the most qualified”, “I work hard,” aggression, civility, attacked, feeling safe, feeling comfortable, inhumane, marginalized, oppressed, and even protected class, to describe their “oppression” [loss of unearned power and privilege].

The Civil Rights Movement language once intentionally used to assure the rights, safety, and equity for underrepresented groups has been co-opted and mixed with a smidgen of the white fragility framework so carefully described by Robin DiAngelo. The result? Neo-oppression becomes the pathological alt-reality which means that the benefits and privileges of the powerful and entitled have been violated [refer to the cartoon again and read DiAngelo’s White fragility]. What better legislation to use to protect a class, a privileged group, from the “isms”, than those legislated via the Civil Rights Movement?

Let’s look at an example. Civility has become one of the buzz words used by organizations to describe how individuals in organizations should “behave” in order to inculcate a positive and productive work environment. However, all too often conversations about civility and its white and fragile definition seem to be coincidental with reactions from underrepresented groups who resist the many institutionalized “isms” that reside in organizations. According to the neo-oppressed, speaking out against the organization, whether it exhibits all of the attributes and traits of institutionalized racism or not, would be considered uncivilized, aggressive, and barbaric—because in an alt-reality, institutionalized racism does not exist. Since the neo-oppressed have gentrified or appropriated “civility,” they make the decisions about it’s “neo-meaning.”

Think about Colin Kaepernick and kneeling in response to violence against young Black men [murder in most cases]. The neo-oppressed have blackballed and vilified Colin for his silent protest. Mind you, he is well within his rights to do so. Surely, I needn’t remind anyone that the Civil Rights Movement included protests, sit-ins, boycotts, discussions, legal actions, and other transgressive forms of protest against white supremacy? Schools routinely teach about such protests in classrooms across these “Great” Americas. Those transgressions were referred to as civil disobedience before “revising” the narrative and reality created by the neo-oppressed. Recall that during the Civil Rights Movement, the uncivilized behavior included the beatings, tear gas, water hoses and don’t forget the dogs. Civilized behavior included protest, boycotts, fighting against incivility, brutality and savagery. You know, kind of like kneeling, in silent protest against murder. The uncivilized behavior would have included those organizations and people who allowed such savage attacks to prevail [including the “friends who do not open their mouths”]. You know— kind of like blackballing an athlete for exercising their civil rights to protest.

The word “attacks” has been gentrified and appropriated- as well. When members of underrepresented groups resist racism, the neo-oppresed use “attack” to describe how POC are resistant to the racial violence [mental and physical]. For example, the emotional and mental abuse that is inflicted on Black and Brown males in schools, in organizations, and as ordinary citizens while residing in the United States are rarely if at all described as attacks. When Black males are disproportionately suspended and expelled or imprisoned, or stopped for no apparent reason while driving, walking or just living, they are not described as being under attack or victims of savagery or targeted by the thuggery of the uncivilized. In our current context, dehumanizing young Black males as aggressive, brutes is the norm. When people of color call for reform, boycott and protest loudly—the neo-oppressed claim to be under attack. The neo-oppressed then call for an end to violence, ask for a peaceful resolution, “healing”, respect for one another and suggest that we all just move on—end of discussion. The whole thing is tiring for the “other” oppressed folks. They get sick and tired of being sick and tired.

So, is there some resolution? Well, to me, it’s really simple. Racially and culturally engaging and understanding should be important to our society—just like we claim to be enamored with the concept of sharing. Simple as that. Learn to culturally engage at the age of 2—the same time that you started to learn how to share.

As a society, we try to impress upon individuals that sharing is the right thing to do. It is a “character” trait that is highly valued in our society, and there are many opportunities that one receives throughout their lifetimes to learn how to share. We can’t hide or live in most spaces without sharing. However, we can live and hide without ever having to engage with some “people”.

Culturally engaging with people who may live within a 5 mile radius seems to be vexing. Yet remarkably many “people” travel to other continents to “save” or come to the aid of folks who look like the same folks who live a few miles away that THEY choose not to get to know. Please do not use the naive and offensive excuse that other folks thousands of miles away are more appreciative of ”the help”. I do not have the room to talk about good white peoples medals [See Cleveland Hayes and Audrey Thompson’s work], seeking atonement, missionary positionality, false generosity, and colonialism [and so many other things].

Ultimately, I argue that we should all go back to the notion of sharing. We didn’t need legislation in order to force people to learn to share. Yet, that Movement conjured up that dirty old word—affirmative action. It was created to force individuals to engage culturally, and to be fair and equitable, a “character trait” that I believe is important. Was the policy perfect? No it was not. It still is not. It was supposed to be a start—just like asking a 2 year-old to learn to share.

Robin DiAngelo....White Fragility [watch the entire episode and read! Pay attention to minutes 40-44!]