Margaret Biser recently wrote an essay describing her experiences working as a tour guide for what used to be a plantation in the South of the United States and had had more than 100 slaves working in it. It’s a very interesting article, particularly because of the tone she employs when writing about people who are clearly racist—it’s not an aggressive tone, or even an angry one; it’s analytical, and almost pitying.
“Other guests seemed to have come around to slavery apologetics through a different route: They seemed find part of their identity in a sense of class victimhood, and they were unwilling to share the sympathy and attention of victimhood with black Americans… These guests felt that the deck had been stacked against them for generations, and their sense of ancestral victimhood was so personal that the suggestion that any group of people had it worse than their ancestors did was a threat to their sense of self.”
It’s a different perspective on racism, and one we often don’t talk about. As people who have been on the receiving end of culturally ingrained and institutionalized prejudice, it can often be difficult for us to see those who are invalidating our struggle as being anything more than cruel or ignorant, every time someone retorts that courts are biased against men in custody hearings, or uses #AllLivesMatter, or holds that immigrants are inherently more likely to be responsible for violent crime.
Indeed, when it comes to governments and bodies that should be responsible for the safety of humankind, regardless of race or gender or social status, their tendency to gloss over the needs of minorities—or majorities, as women are estimated to conform 51.9% of the world population, white people less than 5%, and 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day—this incoherence becomes harder to forgive. But disregarding the institutions that are based on the supremacy of one section of population at the expense of the rest, the tendency to pit negative experiences against those of others is probably one of the main proponents of dialogue that diminishes the very real sufferings a great part of the world is subject to.
Because at the end of the day, it’s only a very small fraction of the world that is not a woman, has never had ancestors belonging to an oppressed race, and whose family has never struggled with poverty. Most of us will fall into at least one of the ‘suffering’ categories, and will have had experiences that acutely shaped and continue to shape our identities. We cannot discount how prejudice, so ingrained into our social structure and culture, has harmed us. And it is natural to be defensive of these experiences—especially when we feel that our pain has been overlooked.
The idea of the social ladder is still too prevalent in our collective minds, and we all like to imagine ourselves as being at the very bottom of the part that matters. Our sense of empathy and selflessness are not consistent with the ‘Ancestral Victimhood’ that has shaped our family history. The idea that there are people that are suffering as well, or even more than we are, seems to be a disservice to years of struggle—like an admission that our pain wasn’t valid.
Homelessness, then, goes ignored. The rape of women is viewed as a small statistic which is probably fed only by liars seeking attention or financial compensation. The wage gap is dismissed as false data. Movements to stop institutionalized racism, the rampant violence directed towards people of color, and the dehumanization of Muslims are interpreted as an attempt on the part of minorities to assert themselves above everyone else. Immigrants come to be seen as numbers instead of people. And empathy is pushed to a side, welcomed only for those who share the pain we ourselves have experienced.
We cannot be constantly aware of all the different brands of suffering that exist in the world. But there is a large gap placed between ‘us’ and ‘them’, a tendency to dehumanize those whose struggle we deem to have never shared. Unable to look past our own experiences and look into those of others, we shut our minds to open communication and dismiss reality as overreactions and victims as attention-seekers.
There is no quick solution to prejudice. The process of replacing the systems that normalized oppression, altering our collective vocabulary, and rethinking attitudes we once thought acceptable, is one that will continue for generations. But more than anything, we must stop the tendency to distance ourselves from each other. In a society that has been based for so long on selfishness, it is difficult to give way for other struggles to also come to the surface. But openness is the only way that problems can be resolved in a thorough manner—we cannot solve poverty without understanding the history of discrimination that has shaped our economy; we cannot solve gender inequality without understanding the implications it holds for racial minorities, and we cannot solve racism without understanding how it entwines with classism.
And more than anything, we must learn to fight the creature that lives within each of us, that feeds on the insecurities the world creates inside us regardless of race, gender or social class—the fear of being thought irrelevant.
As Miss Biser said,
“Addressing racism isn’t just about correcting erroneous beliefs — it’s about making people see the humanity in others.”