When the Ordinary is Horrible: Confronting an Oppressive Society

Two recent news stories, and some sharp analysis of them, have shed some light on both the nature of oppression in 21st Century America and also on the shortsighted ways that are often taken in addressing it. The first is that of two teenage boys who were recently found guilty of raping a female classmate in Steubenville, Ohio. The second is the rightfully less headline-grabbing incident in which Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker was falsely accused of shoplifting and frisked by a New York City deli employee. Both cases are examples of everyday people doing bad things; bad things that happen everyday in this society. In both instances, the media has shed a national spotlight on these issues. These harmful events were both caused by and representative of a larger societal climate of oppression; sexism in the Steubenville case and racism in the Whitaker incident. But debate has been almost exclusively focused on the individual cases and not the cultural factors that make these types of things so common in our society or what can be done to address their root causes to prevent these types of things from happening in the future.

Zerlina Maxwell was thrown into national spotlight after a recent appearance on Fox News in which she suggested that instead of encouraging all women to pack heat (Sean Hannity’s enlightened solution to rape), men should be taught not to rape. Maxwell made some great statement (which earned her a deluge of hate mail and threats in the days after the show) but, as often happens on Fox, many of her thoughts were drowned out or cut short by a louder white man. She appeared on Democracy Now! a few days later to expand on her message. The whole segment is powerful but I was particularly struck by her statement that starts at about 50:18:

“Rape, in many instances—and I think Steubenville is a perfect example of this. It’s not about evil, right? In Steubenville, those boys are very—fairly ordinary, right? They play football. They’re from a small Midwest town. They’re really ordinary. And it’s the conditioning they received as young men leading into their teenage years that led them to allegedly do this.”

She’s absolutely right. When I was in 8th grade, I overheard two male classmates talking about a guy who had been a year ahead of us and had graduated to high school the year before. One relayed to the other, with a smile and slight laugh that, our former schoolmate had been expelled from his high school because “he raped a girl.” I didn’t know whether I should be more shocked that someone who I knew could do something like that or that my two classmates seemed to think that it was somehow both mundane and moderately humorous. I didn’t say anything. We were all “normal” boys. My former schoolmate who had raped a classmate. My two classmates who seemed to condone it. And me who was appalled but silent. All of us were “normal.” But, by 8th grade, we had also been conditioned to believe that rape was either funny, acceptable, or just not worth speaking out against. That horrible truth was and is the norm.

A recent New York Times op-ed by Ta-Nehisi Coates sheds a similar light on the ordinary way that racism plays out in everyday American life. Coates, a black patron of the deli where Forest Whitaker was frisked, explains how an ordinary and “good” guy could end up mistreating a customer just because he’s black.

“In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist…The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion.”

Like sexism, racism is a deeply ingrained feature of American culture and everyday life. I have some personal experience with that too. My mother’s mother was a truly beautiful person who I loved and who I know loved me deeply. But as good as she was, and as much as she had taught my mother and her siblings to treat everyone as equals, she vehemently opposed my mother’s relationship with my father purely because she didn’t want her white daughter marrying a black man or having a brown baby. She knew she was wrong for how she felt. She didn’t imagine herself as a racist. She felt guilty about her feelings and that guilt helped her to eventually grow past them. She was a good person, but racist.

Too often we talk about racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia (and all of the other isms and phobias) like they are a disease that you either have or you don’t. If you don’t have it, you’re healthy. If you have it, you’re sick. If you have it and you get rid of it, you’ve been cured. But it’s never that simple. Oppression manifests itself in various forms and degrees. I know that I have and still do suffer from all of those isms and phobias. It’s not because I’m a bad guy. It’s because I’ve grown up in an environment where those things are normal, accepted, expected. There is often a zeal to punish wrong-doers, but no movement to address the culture that lead to their behavior. Instead of trying to act like we’re “pure,” we’d be better off acknowledging our flaws, where they come from, and going from there.

In an inhumane society, ordinary, “good” people can do horrible things. Regular boys rape their peers; store owners treat their customers like criminals; mothers ostracize their daughters. If we don’t work towards a more humane society, where people learn to interact as human beings with love and compassion, these horrible stories are going to continue being horribly commonplace.

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