During recent conversations with several students, I was struck by the way in which oppressed members of society tend to discount their own experiences out of fear that their reactions to oppression are not valid.
For example, in several conversations with students who had experienced street harassment in the past, students recurrently expressed worry that they shouldn’t describe such instances as “street harassment” because these microaggressions were supposedly intended as a well-meaning compliment.
This anxiety that one’s perception of upsetting experiences might be an overreaction applies to multiple situations of oppression.
In our society, victims of oppression are not given the skills they need to be able to confidently define lived experiences – and this lack of ability does not come about by chance. It is a direct result of living in a society that knows there is a peculiar power in being able to define what has happened to you. Often one of the first steps toward liberation and healing after experiencing oppression of any kind is being able to face what has happened and give a name to it. With this act comes a sense of solidarity with other survivors and a feeling of validation.
The dominant demographics in society (males, white individuals and so on) use their power to coerce people to define their experience according to the dominant narratives. In this way, street harassment becomes a “compliment” rather than a microaggression.
Sexual assault becomes “a case of buyer’s remorse” rather than a crime. Terrorism becomes affiliated solely with Islam rather than with any violent act by an individual or individuals perpetrated for political reasons against innocent people. White privilege is mocked as a delusion of the “politically correct” rather than examined as a deeply-entrenched attribute of our society.
The common denominator here is that all of these concepts have been defined in such a way as to alleviate guilt in the dominant demographics. Because of such minimizing tactics, oppressed individuals are repeatedly de-legitimized in their attempts to bring attention to injustice.
The bottom line is this: purposely not equipping people to define their experiences according to valid emotional reactions is, in and of itself, an instrument of oppression. Defining experiences according to the views of those in power consistently allows for the minimization or wholesale negation of social injustices that desperately need to be addressed.
Instead of automatically discrediting the testimonies of victims of oppression, we need to actively work to examine the ways in which we have been taught to view oppression through the lens of those who skew our perspective in order to maintain their dominance in society.