Barely Scratching the Surface: Thoughts on Social Identities, Power, Privilege, & Oppression

“Because oppression is seen as systemic, we tend to absolve ourselves of blame, but unless someone chooses to identify themselves with institutions and systems, the act of honest confession will never take place”–Author unknown

It’s easy to point fingers at others as if our own stuff doesn’t stink. What’s harder, but possibly even more necessary is to look at ourselves and find ways that we contribute to the chaos, so we can change that.

As I have said in my Vision & Values Statement, my experiences have shown me that in the process of working toward social justice outwardly, it is also important for me to continue to critically examine myself; shedding attitudes/behaviors that are oppressive, to make room for those that are more inclusive and humanitarian.

The following collection of thoughts are just some  examples of a critical analysis and self-reflection about some of my own social identities for the purpose of improving my understanding of my ability to serve.

I begin with some thoughts on my African-American identity because I believe that my experiences with racism, including how I perceive things as a result of it, as well as how I think I am perceived  based on my status as a member of  this group have not only been the catalysts to my learning about my own oppression, but has also given me a sensitivity to be able to see inequality in groups other than my own.

As an African-American Male, I am reminded of my skin color on a daily basis. News reports, television shows, movies, and other forms of media perpetuate the image of African-American men as being over-sexualized, crime-prone, irresponsible, untrustworthy, and overall threatening.

From a young age, a great deal of my socialization within my racial identity has revolved around making sure that I appear non-threatening to white people. The message that was conveyed through this socialization (both verbalized and unsaid was intended to say:

“You are Black and a Male and are seen as a threat. The rules are different for you, they (meaning racist white folks/dominant culture) are already watching  and wary of you. There are already so many obstacles stacked against you because of racism, so it’s up to you to do whatever you can to not make yourself a target. The rules are different for you. If you somehow end up in a court of law and expect to be treated like everyone else you’re kidding yourself. Don’t intentionally put yourself in the crosshairs.”

I still act today with that message in mind. Many of the decisions I’ve made, including not to use drugs, alcohol, or become involved in illegal activities stem from an attempt to “stay out of those crosshairs”.

In my view, If I were to ever go to prison, it would be for civil disobedience in working against some unjust law or for human rights, not for selling drugs, robbing someone at gunpoint, etc.

However, I still remain conscious of the reality that no amount of education, status, or money can shield me from the effects of racism, including racial profiling.

Although the word privilege does not readily come to my mind when considering my identity as an African-American male, I know that I receive unearned benefits from a society that promotes men and subjugates women.

I have automatically been placed in the position of leader or authority figure on some occasions in work and group settings where I have been the only male, regardless of experience.

No one has ever told me that I will have to make a choice between having a career and having a family.

My male identity also allows me the privilege of  not having to worry about being harassed in the street because of my sex.

In one of my video blog posts, I talked a little about how in thinking specifically about my social identity as a male (excluding race), I am generally not concerned about my safety when walking at night. However many women must be concerned about traveling in groups, with a trusted friend, etc out of fear of being assaulted by men (generally speaking). However, I will say that as an African-American male, I am more concerned with being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or falsely accused by law enforcement or someone else and imprisoned for a crime I didn’t commit than I am with being assaulted at night.

In the doctrine of christianity on which I was raised, men were promoted as the leaders and decision makers, while women were expected to be ‘submissive” and go with the flow.

They were forbidden from preaching, and biblical scripture was used to sanction their banning. They were permitted to “speak” however, but not in the pulpit.

They had to stand on the main floor, just below the pulpit where only men could sit or stand.

While they could serve as ushers, charity workers, or cooks in the kitchen, they did not have hands in many of the decision-making processes of the church.

Although I do not currently identify with a specific religious practice, my christian upbringing allows me the privilege to be able to blend in (which I have done in the past) and protect myself from loss of respect, credibility, and rejection in close relationships and other social situations, differential treatment in working environments, and a range of other areas.

My familiarity with the faith allows me opportunities to blend in where others who are either unfamiliar or visibly different in some way due to different practices cannot.

I freely enjoy the christmas season, and the time I spend with my family and other loved ones. I can celebrate christmas without someone thinking what I’m doing is wrong, and will not be viewed as a threat to national security if I decide to decorate a tree this year.

While my christian upbringing has indeed allowed me to make connections with a variety of people, the benefits that I have received in the past and could still stand to gain by promoting this view as the only view at the expense of other faiths far outweighs  the consequences of asserting my belief that peace can be found in a variety of perspectives and belief systems.

Currently, I consider myself to be young, and otherwise healthy. Although it is true that anything can happen to me at any moment, I do not always think of my health or ability on a daily basis. I can read without assistance, I do not need to worry about closed captioning while watching a tv show or movie.

I can actually watch tv shows or movies.

I do not have a condition that would cause people to gawk or stare in the way that I have seen happen to some people with disabilities. However, as a person of color I have experienced stares and looks when I walk into restaurants, stores, or other public places as if my “audience” has never seen a person of color in real life before, or aren’t used to seeing people of color in “this part of town”.

As a heterosexual, I can walk in public places with my partner without receiving hateful comments about our relationship or sexuality. I can hold her hand, or show other public displays of affection without someone telling us that our union is unnatural.

Any talks of future plans about “settling down” are met with interest good wishes, or excitement. I do not have to validate my sexuality or my relationship with my partner to others.

I know what it is like to live paycheck to paycheck. I know what it is like to see signs on my way into a store that read “Accept no checks from 313 area code” (that’s an area code in Detroit, MI where I grew up for readers who may be unfamiliar) , because apparently, all Detroiters write bad checks.

I have had the experience of having my own home broken into, and experienced feelings of helplessness after calling the police, only to wait for hours for them to arrive at the scene. Sometimes no one would come at all.

Still, I cannot deny the fact that my college education allows me opportunities for change in status and upward mobility that is not given as easily to those who do not have degrees. In many cases, people without a college education are automatically locked out altogether.

“Because oppression is seen as systemic, we tend to absolve ourselves of blame, but unless someone chooses to identify themselves with institutions and systems, the act of honest confession will never take place”

I can claim that I am striving to work towards a more socially just society all day long, but going around pointing fingers without acknowledging ways that I contribute to the chaos implies a level of blamelessness that in reality does not exist.

Sometimes I get into conversations with helping professionals who talk about receiving “misplaced” anger and mistrust from their clients, when they the “professional” are in a dominant position in comparison to those clients.

Yes, it does happen.

We may experience suspicion from targeted folks who may perceive us as being apart of a system that has oppressed them, and continues to do so, but the fact is, in some ways we are a part of that system. Our membership could be found in the unearned privileges we have, including a lack of awareness of their day-to-day issues depending on the identity, the things we say or don’t say, or the symbols we might choose to display in our offices (for those who have one).  Sometimes, It can happen just because of who we are or who we might present to be initially.

In my view, how we end up using ourselves is what matters. I can’t escape the fact that I’m a male and men have oppressed and still oppress women, but I can do the best I can to make sure I don’t add to it. The same goes for other areas where I am privileged and others are not. Working to do so is a lifelong process.

I know that I am only barely scratching the surface here, but I hope that these thoughts will be thought-provoking to others. My point of view, is not the only point of view, neither is it my only point of view.

Having conversations with others can help add pieces to the puzzle. Having those conversations honestly takes courage, humility, a willingness to listen, and an understanding that no one is perfect and we all will make mistakes.

Learn with me..

Join the conversations..


From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins, MSW



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Written by

I'm a Social Justice Educator and Aspiring Humanitarian who is interested in conflict resolution, improving intergroup relations, and building more equitable and inclusive communities. "Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian" is my blog, where I write about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to continue to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action while encouraging others to do so as well in their own ways.

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9 Responses

  1. LovEternal says:

    wow, you have covered a lot of examples about the unearned privileges that you have. It makes me think about how unaware I am about my own.

    I can remember being at a home visit where I forgot my Coach bag. The fear that the client would invade my privacy by going through my bag went through my mind. So, I immediately went back to get it. There was no answer at the door and there was music playing loudly. I tried the door and it was open. I let myself in and turned off the music from the stereo. I did not think about how intrusive I was being at this moment because I felt I had the right to behave that way. After all, I wasn’t the one attempting to steal from anyone.

    My clients daughter came downstairs and I explained what happened. She went downstairs into the basement to get her mother. I had left my bag on the couch in the living room, and I did not see it there. That immediately reinforced my position that I had not done anything wrong. “See, I was gone five minutes and they were already going through my stuff.”

    My clients boyfriend came upstairs from the basement with a laundry basket and went upstairs. My client came behind him and explained to me that she had “put it up” in her room so that no one would bother it. She went upstairs and then came back down with my bag. I told myself that this lady had a lot of nerve lying to me. She should have told me the truth and I would have forgiven her, I thought.

    It was just now, after reading your post, I realized how wrong I was after more than three years ago when this incident happened.

    What was I thinking bringing a Coach bag to a home visit in an impoverished, drug infested neighborhood? (Coach is an expensive brand). I would not have had this fear if it had been in a suburban area.

    Here are the examples of how I had unearned privilege in this situation:

    1) I had the privilege of being ignorant of what it felt like to live in poverty and addicted to drugs.

    2) I never had to decide whether or not to steal something in hopes to sell it for my next hit.

    3) I never had to lie my way out of a situation where I could be accused of being a thief.

    4) I had the privilege of entering a residence without permission and without fear that I would be accused of a crime. I lived in the suburbs, have a graduate degree, and own a home. I do not fit the profile of a criminal besides; my skin color and gender.

    5) I felt entitled because I viewed myself as a victim. I never thought about what it was like for a client to feel victimized by a worker who had power over her. How she felt in her day to day life as a victim of poverty and drug addiction. Did she feel entitled to lie and steal because of her victimization by a society that does not value her and her struggles?

    6) I had the privilege of deciding whether to continue using a bag that reminded me of the negative feelings of being invaded by the experience. Or, having the choice of packing it away and forgetting about it. Many victims are forced to carry the “baggage” of negative feelings after being stripped of their privacy and feeling invaded when workers come in and out of their homes. They don’t have the choice to decide whether or not to invite them into their home because they would lose services. This is another layer of victimization that can be numbed out with drugs and alcohol.

    Can you think of others ways I used my unearned privileges in this situation?

    • Reading what you wrote reminds me of the important it is to do the hard work of shedding our preconceived notions about people who are different from us. Its a full time job and I learn as I stumble along. I appreciated your honesty throughout, but particularly when you revealed your concerns about your coach bag being more likely to be stolen in an impoverished area than in a suburban setting.

      Am I correct in assuming that your client did not steal your purse after all?

      I’m glad that this piece encouraged you to think about some of your unearned privileges as well. As I think about my own, I try to find ways that I can use them to be an ally. Keep thinking about them, and I’ll do the same.

      I appreciate your perspective.

  2. LovEternal says:

    Actually, the client was going through my bag in the basement (my assumption) because the boyfriend was really nervous when he came upstairs with the hamper. The client also showed signs of anxiety after leaving the basement. Its my belief that she put the bag in the hamper to hide it so that she could make it seem like she had it in her room the whole time. There was nothing taken from the bag. She was an active user of substances at the time so it was not a far stretch to think that she may have planned on selling it and any contents that she thought was worthwhile. I didnt have any money in it.

    We are taught about safety issues for home visits such as not wearing jewelry, wearing comfortable shoes and clothing, parking on the curb instead of the driveway etc.I was just foolish in using such an expensive bag for home visits in the first place. I was not being sensitive to the environment I was in, and making myself a target for something like that to happen. I had a false sense of safety and was too comfortable around this client. Without trying to be judgmental, I already knew what went on in this clients life so I had no doubt in my mind that she would have sold it if she had the chance.Just being real with you. I just never thought that I would be in a situation like that, and could have gotten myself into a lot of trouble just walking into her house like that. I would never put myself in a situation like that again.

    • Reading the part where you wrote “What was I thinking bringing a Coach bag to a home visit in an impoverished, drug infested neighborhood? (Coach is an expensive brand). I would not have had this fear if it had been in a suburban area” just caused me to think of times in my own life where I’ve been wrong about a person or situation based off of my initial or sometimes ingrained stereotypes or prejudgements.

      Ah I see. So the situation worked out differently than I had originally interpreted. Thanks for the clarification. Your response was still very thought provoking for me though. Thanks for telling it here.

  3. LovEternal says:

    I get what your saying and I have been wrong about people and situations many times before. That scenario, where I am wrong, usually happens more often than not. When I have had visits in the suburbs or rural areas with white families I always think that the client will have a problem with me because I am Black. I was wrong most of the time.

    Thanks again for the thought provoking posts. They do indeed make me think hard about how my biases, prejudices, and stereotypes contribute to problems.

  4. hivdatf says:

    we posted a link to this from our website (Los Angeles County HIV Drug & Alcohol Task Force) I hope that’s okay with you. If not, please let us know.

    • Thanks for stopping by. I dont have any issue with you posting a link on your website as long as you give the blog the proper credit. Did you have any thoughts about this post that you might want to share?

  1. May 24, 2016

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