The Power of Collective Oppression

Race, as our generation knows it, has been at the forefront of any and all cultural, political, even sports and entertainment, or otherwise societal conversations. Under the current political climate, one of the most common complaints, among many, is that everyone seems to feel attacked at all times: under white fear, white people, rightfully so, do not want to lose many of the things they’re worked so long and tirelessly to attain (nor do they or anyone want to lose even the things that they didn’t necessarily work for). On the other hand, people of color and other marginalized groups are learning what it means to fight for the inherent rights every human being deserves, regardless of color, gender, orientation or otherwise.

It’s quite simple actually: people who are winning do not want to be losing, and the people who are losing would in theory like to be winning, but for now will start by at least offering a draw.

So what happens now?

You have two groups of people, the oppressor and the oppressed. The oppressor, sometimes unaware of their own oppressive nature, is quite comfortable with their status and position in society; obviously, the oppressed is not. As a matter of fact, the only way for the oppressed to become satisfied is for some of that good ol’ fashioned privilege, power and voice to be transferred over from the oppressor(s) to the oppressed, aimed at creating a relatively equitable dynamic.

Is this even possible? Will we ever understand or listen to each other in a way that this can become a reality?

Well, as a black man, I unfortunately, but also fortunately, feel I can empathize with these two groups, both the oppressed and the oppressor. This is a thought that I continue to have, but most recently when engaging in political or otherwise intellectual conversations with my girlfriend, who is also of color. She is obviously very passionate about human rights in general, especially those regarding race and gender. I, on the other hand, find myself naturally gravitating towards, learning about, and ultimately empathizing with conversations and topics solely around race — being black in America. For context, some of my current most-read’s are Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell [who, although he doesn’t write as much about race, is nevertheless is a black intellectual and therefore my idol], and James Baldwin. It is these authors whose stories are, for better or worse, the most relevant to me, and ultimately where I find myself most engaged.

When my girlfriend, my mother, and other incredibly intelligent, driven women in my life introduced me to topics about how I may indeed be the oppressor without my intention or deliberation — something that sunk deep, as I am used to, for the entirety of my life, being the oppressed in virtually every professional or academic space I’ve been a part of — my perspective changed forever. By hearing, and moreover intentionally listening to the voices and anecdotes of some of the closest women in my life, I at least started to become aware of the ways that every day, men, whether of color or not, consistently and continually undermine the voices and power that women and people of underrepresented genders deserve, are reluctant to even institute something as simple and imperative as pay parity, and continually take advantage of the conditions that our society has constructed to make women feel as though they are inferior. For a large portion of my life, not only was I not as involved in these types of conversations as I should’ve been, but I did not realize to utilize these as a foundation upon which we can formulate solutions, together. In hearing the voices of women close to me and all of the world, these issues became relevant — all of this, yes, I had read about in many formats and countless academic texts and New York Times articles, but although I had been aware of it for a very long time, I did not understand it.

All of sudden, the dichotomy was tearing me apart. Am I a monster? Am I hyper-masculine? Who have I hurt?

It was when I truly became aware of these notions of subconscious, unintentional, yet destructive behavior that I found myself finally able to empathize and understand the perspective of both the oppressed and the oppressor.

I know exactly what it feels like to be oppressed, for white people to run around the world doing things I could only wish of doing, whether due to physical, financial or political circumstance. I know what it feels like to have teachers assume it was you who stole from the cafeteria or pulled the prank in school, and to have that extend to similar yet more consequential accusations from the police in the real world. I know exactly what it feels like to be looked at and treated like you’re not good enough, and undergo that mental and emotional toll at a young age.

On the other hand, I also now know what it feels like to not realize that damage you are inflicting, to live your day to day, sometimes just trying to get by but unaware of the toes you are stepping on in order survive. I am now attempting to open my ears, consistently learn, and realize that I do indeed also know what it’s like to be the oppressor: the one running around, enjoying the things I’ve been blessed and privileged to enjoy, to blindly interrupt in business meetings because I have indeed been conditioned to think my voice is louder and therefore deserves to be heard more than my female counterparts. I am constantly learning that, in my workplace in particular, my voice is often listened to much more seriously than my peers of underrepresented genders. I am realizing that although I have enjoyed all of these privileges and opportunities my entire life, they should not be mine only to enjoy.

In other words, being a man of color, in relation to women of color, gives me a glimpse into the perspective of being white, in relation to non-whites.

Read that over a couple times, then let that sink in for a second. Especially if you’re a black man.

To be honest, for the first time in my life, I feel like I am able to relate to white people. And by relate to white people, I solely mean that I now realize that I have power and privilege, in the same way that white people do over all other races. I, as a male in this male-dominated society, have a lot of power and privilege over some, if not all, my female counterparts, even though I’m black. It’s a quite a weird feeling, self-identifying as both the oppressor and the oppressed, but as I began to think about it more, it became quite an interesting position to be in.

What was even more eye-opening was for me to realize that black men, or men of color in general, are not alone in this category of being both the oppressed in the oppressor in mainstream society. White women, for obvious reasons, share this position in society with men of color: one part of our identify granting us access, privilege and opportunity, while another part of our identify inherently strips it back away from us.

While the formation and realization of these identities has yet to settle for many of us, I am convinced that the power of this perspective black men and white women share, understanding and identifying as both the oppressed and the oppressor in different spaces, is that it will help us communicate, relate and empathize with people across economic, social and cultural spectrums. Hopefully, just hopefully, this will help create a world where we can, at the very least, get started trying to understand each other better.

As mentioned before, race is undoubtedly at the forefront of most, if not all, conversations for this generation. Another topic, though, which is a little less sad but is nonetheless continually being brought up in various spaces is the idea of emotional intelligence, and how it is one of the most important aspects of cultivating effective leadership.

Emotional intelligence (EQ), per Dr. Travis Bradberry in his best-selling book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, is “your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships.” In effect, one of the main requirements for effective practice of emotional intelligence is to continually put yourself in other people’s shoes, try to understand their perspectives and where they’re coming from, and ultimately use that intentional understanding to cultivate meaningful, long-lasting and respectful relationships. In other words, empathy is at the heart of emotional intelligence, and as research has continually shown, EQ is necessary not only for us to get along, but to thrive.

So what happens now?

As we’ve defined, we have two groups of people in society that have unique, often times competing, yet similarly powerful perspectives: Black Men and White Women, who evidently both understand what it’s like to be both the oppressed and the oppressor. These general categories of people know what it feels like to have privilege, to have inherent power, to feel good about it, to feel bad about it, to be taken advantage of, to be exploited, to be silenced, to feel blessed, and to feel cursed. The complex that each of these groups experiences, however, contributes to their ability and future potential to, in positions of power and leadership, understand more than anyone else the perspectives of both the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, the leaders and the led, and sometimes, even the political right and left. It is with this understanding of many of their peers that they too can practice a high level of emotional intelligence, relating and empathizing with two potentially polar opposite groups of people.

In fact, it is now more than ever that people need to religiously practice empathy, a critical aspect of emotional intelligence. To practice this most effectively, however, requires not only attempting to put yourself in one’s shoes, but to actually experience it hands-on.

It is for this reason that Black Men and White Women are in a very interesting and potentially influential position: they are the only two groups of people in modern day society that understand what it’s like to attain and be given inherent power, but understand what it’s like to also be denied that same power. It is with this level of empathy that I am convinced, together, Black Men and White Women can do a better job of intentionally understanding both sides to every story, for it is us who can relate most personally with both. It is with this perspective that we can hopefully bridge many of the expanding gaps between some of society’s most expressive cultures and communities, work towards equitable solutions, and hopefully get started on eradicating some of the hate in our world and replacing it with understanding.

Although I am arguing that the perspective of these two particular groups of people in society is powerful, I am not saying they can rule the world on their own: effective leadership requires active listening to people of all backgrounds, perspectives and ideologies; knowing who people are, where they have been and where they hope to go, is the only way to build a true, fair democracy. It is my hope that Black Men and White Women can strive to act as third party middlemen between polarizing groups, informed by an attempt to understand the stories of both sides.