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The Responsibility to Unlearn

Opinion | April 22, 2014

A few Saturday nights back, a drunken acquaintance of mine greeted me with the following remark: “Oh look, it’s the feminist!”

Aside from the initial surprise from this sudden tongue-in-cheek outburst, I felt no anger or offense. Instead, I felt frustrated. I sensed that to him, the word “feminist” was synonymous with someone who hates men, blames all men for the world’s problems, and assumes that men are all sexists and/or rapists. To him, feminism is the exclusion of men, and patriarchy is just a buzzword used to justify this exclusion and “misandry.”

The encounter reminded me of a discussion I had in my Environmental Justice and World Literature course. While discussing an essay that addressed the intersections between patriarchy, the military-industrial complex, and environmental degradation, some students said they felt personally offended by the text because it said that “all men” were responsible for perpetuating not only the military-industrial complex, but also the degradation of women and the environment. But these students missed the point of the essay. In reality, the blame does not lie on (most) individual men, but on larger systems of oppression at play—primarily patriarchy, in this case.

Similarly, during Israel Apartheid Week, I overheard a few Tufts students complaining about Students for Justice in Palestine’s actions because the group made them feel guilty for being able to go on Birthright trips while Palestinians are denied access to their ancestors’ homeland. For this reason, they dismissed SJP’s efforts to educate Tufts students about this form of oppression because it made them feel uncomfortable, and they misunderstood SJP’s critique of Israeli policies as an attack on them.

I wish that these students, my peers in Environmental Justice and World Literature, the boy who intended to insult me by calling me a feminist, and the entire Tufts student body could understand what oppression entails. While oppression can be personal, it is also systemic. Being a feminist does not correspond to hating all men, just as advocating for racial justice does not entail hating all white people and educating people about racist Israeli policies does not entail hating all Jews or people who have the privilege to go on Birthright trips.

It frustrates me to see people choosing not to learn about these forms of oppression because they feel personally attacked in talking about them. Patriarchy, racism, classism, and other systems of oppression are not the fault of those who benefit from them. Rather, people who benefit from these systems were born into them, just like those who suffer from them. We have all been taught, explicitly or implicitly, to adhere to them. Jewish Americans who have gone on Birthright trips should not feel uncomfortable or guilty discussing injustices committed against Palestinians or the problems with the Birthright program simply because they benefit from a system over which they have no control. Most often, they have been taught that they have a “right” to reap the system’s benefits, and it can be difficult to unlearn what they have been taught.

But this does not mean that it is not our responsibility to unlearn.

In order to stop perpetuating these systems of oppression, those who benefit from them need to join the effort. They—or we, since I benefit from many systems of oppression—need to recognize that although we are not at fault for systems of oppression, we are implicated in them, and it is our responsibility to educate ourselves about them. It can be hard for those in positions of privilege to see these systems, because we often assume that the privileges they grant us are not privileges at all but just rights that we have as people. This is exactly why we must be willing to educate ourselves about the experiences of marginalized peoples and confront our own responsibilities to combat these systems.

In another essay I read in my class, “Moving Beyond White Guilt,” author Amy Edgington makes an important point: “The more I learn about racism, the less I tend to see it as an individual moral problem and the fewer mistakes I make as an individual.” This is because racism is “built largely on the complicity and inaction of white people.” Other systems of oppression endure for this same reason.

White people must not refuse to talk about racism because they feel that there is nothing they can do to change history, or because they feel that it is not an issue that concerns them; this very act perpetuates and engrains white supremacy. The boys who scoff at feminism must recognize that feminism exists because of the very systems they perpetuate simply by not educating themselves and by not taking action.

It can be scary to talk about our own privileges and the systems from which we benefitbecause of the guilt that often ensues. Some people even feel threatened once they recognize that they have had an unfair advantage over others in many aspects of their lives. The boy who scoffed at feminism, for example, might feel threatened by feminism because it strives to eliminate male privilege and give men and women equal opportunities. But this minor fear pales in comparison to the reality that many marginalized people deal with oppression every day of their lives, and they will continue to be at a disadvantage if these systems do not change.

Patriarchy and sexism involve men just as much as they do women, racism involves white people just as much as it does people of color, homophobia involves straight people just as much as it does gay people…I could go on. Unfortunately, those who benefit from systems of oppression have the privilege to choose when to address these issues, whereas those who are discriminated against, ignored, harassed, and marginalized because of them cannot opt out when they want to. Nonetheless, those who benefit are just as affected by these systems, even though they have the privilege to take them for granted.

I’d like to tell everyone at Tufts who feels guilty, uncomfortable, or simply annoyed in hearing about privilege and oppression on campus that the only thing they have to feel guilty for is their refusal to learn about these issues. We cannot let our guilt about our privileges scare us into inaction; we should let it inspire us to take action, to change the way people think and help tear down these huge, longstanding systems of oppression