When Privilege and Oppression Intersect

By Marie-Emmanuelle Tano ’21

My name is Marie-Emmanuelle Tano. I am an Ivorian-American, and I am privileged.

As an undisputed American citizen, born and raised in North Atlanta, I have never had to worry about legal privileges in being able to qualify for things like state insurance and government aid. Additionally, I have never had to defend my right to live in this country, thanks to my assumption of permanence. For a great portion of my life, gender, socioeconomic class, and skin color were the only sources of my oppression. I later discovered, however, that many members of my family immigrated illegally, or overstayed their visas. Despite its prevalence, illegal immigration was not something we really talked about in the Ivorian community, due to past (and obviously current) trauma. I vaguely remember hearing of the detaining and eventual deportation of members of my community, but their criminalization was usually framed in a way that made it sound like they chose to go back home.

Once I started college, though, gears started churning and things started clicking, as the liberal environment of Pomona encouraged an atmosphere of awareness and discussions of intersectionality. Eventually, I was able to figure out very quickly the complicated situation of many of my close relatives. But, instead of becoming outspoken about my privilege as an American citizen, I became outspoken about their oppression. I acted as if I shared their worries regarding legal status and as if I suffered just as much in their risk of being sent back to a country that they do not know. To be frank, I was co-opting their oppression. While it is definitely upsetting to watch family members being detained and deported, I am still able to live my life, never truly sharing the same levels of anxiety that they experience whenever they are stopped by the police, as both a black and undocumented person.

Interestingly enough, the real reason why I fell into this problematic way of thinking was due to my college’s liberal atmosphere. At Pomona College (and undoubtedly at other liberal, elite institutions), oppression and marginalization are treated as something righteous. It is cool to be oppressed, and it is even encouraged to walk around with a chip on your shoulder, as you expect everyone around to acknowledge your suffering. At Pomona, I saw white people claim indigenous blood in order to become a person of color who was suddenly owed reparations from a system they never suffered from. I saw low-income and first-generation white people see their socioeconomic oppression as equivalent to being a person of color. I saw middle to upper-class people attempt to downplay their household income to avoid feeling guilty for refusing to lend a friend money. I saw low-income people, who were able to go to private, charter, and overall amazing high schools, refuse to acknowledge their educational privilege. I saw white women reduce their own role in white supremacy by maintaining a belief that white men were more racist. I saw white-passing Latinx individuals claim blackness and indigenous blood, in order to avoid accepting their privilege in appearing white. I saw cishet individuals claim LGBTQ+ as an identity to avoid confronting their internalized homophobia. I saw light-skinned black women defuse conversations of colorism with the “we’re all black” narrative. I saw East Asian people ignore their privilege over Southeast Asians, as well as their anti-blackness. And, I saw black men refuse to acknowledge the oppression they cause black women in dismissing patriarchy and ignoring them as prospective romantic partners.

Regardless of how you may feel, being marginalized in some form does not excuse you from accountability. In every example listed above, the complicit individuals fell into instances of racism, anti-blackness, classism, homophobia, and colorism by attempting to cheat a system that was already set up to benefit them. While for some people it is well-intended, these offenders operated similarly to how #AllLivesMatter supporters, neo-nazis and the alt-right derail actual social issues. They took attention away from actual issues, either by absolving themselves of any accountability of their privilege, or by inserting themselves into a community that they know is owed something. They took up space and caused erasure in the communities that they are further oppressing, by refusing to acknowledge their privilege. Intentional or not, the impact remains the same.

But I understand the sentiment. Since marginalized identities have been oppressed for centuries, it seems unfair to suddenly have to account for the actions of your ancestors. For people of color, poor people and LGBTQ+ identifying individuals: seeing yourself in a context outside of your marginalized identity is hard, especially when society highlights privilege as something to be ashamed of due to the extreme amount of self-awareness it requires. In this society, the act of being oppressed is simplified as being cooler than being oppressive, since it is apparently better to be owed something, rather than actually owing someone something. We ignore how oppression literally cheapens your quality of life through job discrimination, housing discrimination, a lack of access to resources, and overt instances racism by making it seem righteous. And due to our obsession with oppression, we dismiss the harm that marginalized groups can potentially cause to others, as we put them on a pedestal, absolving them from all accountability. For some people, hesitancy in calling out marginalized groups on their oppressive actions is a form of reparations, which is why certain groups are able to get away with anti-blackness, and why homophobia in POC communities is often overlooked. Society has made oppression look desirable, and whenever the privileged claim an unrelatable oppression, the fear and marginalization that others experience is cheapened.

These reasons are why the prevailing movements of menism and white supremacy have resurged in recent years. As they blame the oppressed for essentially not accepting their subjection, these (often) white men transform their frustration with their privilege into their own fictional oppression. To those of us who are actually subjected in some fashion, it is the duty of our oppressors (whether they indirectly or directly benefit from an oppressive system) to make up for the inhumane actions of their ancestors. While this is a very valid outlook on oppression and the right to reparations, the topic unfortunately leaves way for the privileged to take advantage. In a sense, co-opting oppression either silences the oppressed, or reduces the impact of their oppression. In creating a power vacuum where everyone is oppressed, those of us who are still suffering are never able to gain momentum in finding support.

The bottom line is this: Pomona’s students and general campus community need to change the way we look at privilege. Everyone has privilege in some way, shape or form; whether it lies in your skin tone, race, gender identity, religion, US documentation status, sexual identity or class. It is our obligation as human beings to accept our privilege, outside of looking at it as a concept reserved for white people, and actually apply it to our lives. While it is easy for the marginalized to talk about privilege under the context of whiteness, it should be even easier for us to at least acknowledge our own.