(Article published on "The National Organization for African-American Women"....http://noaw.org/tabid/62/Default.aspx)
“The Victim Becomes the Oppressor”
“The Victim Becomes the Oppressor”
Paolo Friere, in his timeless and dynamic book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968/1970), said it best….”the oppressed becomes the oppressor” without the essential mental emancipation and conscientization necessary to avoid this cyclical or recurring form of imprisonment. So far ahead of his time, Friere’s accurate depiction of the equally subjugated dichotomy between both parties still rings true today in our assumed “modernized” and “progressive” society. Classically, we’ve witnessed the oppressor and oppressed relationship between groups, such as men and women, young and old, the rich and the poor, heterosexuals and the LGBT community, whites and people of color, and countless others. However, the inequitable symbiosis among these groups has in NO WAY been eradicated, but still remains and exists today through more obscure and covert characteristics. But what happens, [as Friere expressed,] when that group who has been on the incessant receiving end of subjugation becomes a repressive group over another historically marginalized ilk?
I see this very unfortunate phenomenon among those I consider my absolute closest and dearest friends and colleagues, as well as certain acquaintances in my life whose heritage constitutes that of the very same racial/ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic communities that have stared into the face of hate and institutional domination for hundreds of years. More and more each day, I see an upsurge of this socio-cultural trend of the “oppressed becoming the oppressor” among a particular historically oppressed group whose plight and experience has opened doors for others to be freed from socially indoctrinated bondage and extreme forms of marginalization. Given the condition of this group’s historical identity, it is quite an unnerving concept to consider, but moreover realize. This group is unfortunately that of African-Americans and those of direct African descent. Now I am sure that most readers have become enraged reading this statement thinking, “how could she say that African-Americans are oppressive?” “Why wouldn’t she discuss how ‘other’ groups also exert cruelty to members of societies that have been historically subjugated?” It is my hope that people will continue reading with an open mind and heart to fully understand the validity and depths of my message. More importantly, my main concern in this movement towards mental emancipation and unity WILL ALWAYS place priority on addressing the innumerable critical issues among people of African descent as it is this group that I share a genetic code, racial/ethnic, as well as cultural history with! Therefore, why wouldn’t I bring this imprisoning and very valid issue to the surface?!
It is true that when we examine and discuss the issue of “oppression” in its totality, it is impossible for African-Americans and people of direct African descent to subjugate other groups on a global level [as those of direct European descent have and continue to do] given the lack of economic and political power required to institutionalize hatred. With that said, there are unfortunately many other ways, mostly social and ideological in nature, in which people of African descent are able to ostracize groups that face injustices and discrimination unimaginable. One of the primary ways that African-Americans have transitioned from being the oppressed to the oppressor is enacting prejudicial behaviors, as well as perspectives and thoughts onto groups considered to be the “new underdogs.”
An example of this would be an experience I had last November while visiting one of the Smithsonian’s where I had an encounter with a middle-age African-American female security guard who exposed her oppressive character in a generalizing prejudicial manner against Mexicans and those of Latino descent. I was attending an exhibit which housed diverse types of African-American artifacts, documents, paintings, sculptures, etc., dating back since the enslavement period. In the midst of this rich, cultural atmosphere, I was completely engrossed in the collection of art, feeling a sense of pride and motivation to tell others about this compelling exhibit. I was then approached by the security guard who began talking about how wonderful the collection was and expressed her excitement about the upcoming Smithsonian for African-American History. She stated that “we [African-Americans] need to have our history in museums,” given our undeniable contribution to society. Sharing this sentiment with her, my exhilaration was soon shattered when she, out of nowhere, began stating that “the Mexicans and Latinos, they are the ones taking over!” She continued her bigoted tirade with the comment, “I’m glad that we [the United States] are closing the borders, ‘cause they are taking all of the jobs!” Now while this was not the first time I’ve heard people, including African-Americans, make these heinous and completely ignorant comments, it still completely caught me off guard given the glaringly racially offensive and Westernized nationalist ideology regarding “territory and ownership of land.” In many other conversations I’ve had with friends and co-workers over the years concerning this topic of immigration and race relations, the aforementioned thought about “Mexicans and Latinos taking over” has emerged from the mouths of countless African-Americans, which has truly been a painful experience! Even some comedians, like the deplorable Katt Williams in his recent Anti-Mexican tirade, attempt to bring laughter to their audiences by making quips about this very same issue. Nevertheless, as most of us have discovered, a “simple joke” is always motivated by some element of a socially-constructed and publicly sanctioned truth, which brings an overwhelming amount of hurt upon those whom the joke is about; let’s not forget the explosive racist rant from Comedian Michael Richards where he screamed the “N” word several times during a stand-up routine just 5 years ago!
How has it come to pass that some members from the African-American community possess these beliefs about another historically oppressed group and do not see the larger institutional elements involved?! The answer is simple: it is only through the infectious disease of mental enslavement, due to an imposed Eurocentric value system [unconsciously adopted through the enslavement and post-enslavement eras] that African-Americans could EVER think along these terrible lines! To not at all recognize the indisputable fact that the ORIGINAL inhabitants of this land were those of Native American descent [AND African descent], whose progeny are the present-day members of the very same group that we shun and have somehow rationalized as “the thieves of ‘our’ land and robbers of employment positions” is an irrefutable indication of the psychological genocide and trauma that African-Americans as a whole have experienced! Ironically, the same African-Americans that cast this ridiculous blame on other groups, like Mexicans and Latinos, whom have undoubtedly been victimized themselves, never once if ever, acknowledge the incontestable fact that the European settlers, or more appropriately termed terrorists, obtained this land through racial oppression, rape of the land, people and its resources, along with the exploitation of entire groups of people! And it is this same group’s descendants that continue to co-opt the cultural traditions and historical identity of those traditionally marginalized groups, while seizing and rationing their land, (i.e. neighborhoods) for economic and political gain! Why else do we have the pervasive issue of gentrification in EVERY major city across the United States, in addition to the rest of the world?! For our people to maintain these appalling and racially xenophobic perspectives about Mexicans and Latinos, as well as any other maltreated group, highlights the unfortunate, yet obvious truth about OUR community: we may no longer be in physical bondage, but our collective psyches are in a constant state of slavery and imprisonment, which causes us to remain enslaved!
Having discussed the way in which African-Americans have taken on the role of oppressor in the Eurocentric ideological and culturally insular contexts, let’s examine another manner in which those members from the African-American community and those of African descent have shifted into the “oppressed to the oppressor” position, most notably among their own people. A couple of weeks ago, I was perusing some of the status updates on Facebook, when I came across the status of someone who has identified himself as THE authority on all things “Black!” He is quoted exactly broadcasting the following message:
“It’s a shame we have men and women who aren’t even 25 years old and they are THROUGH! They already have a gang of kids, a ton of debts, a criminal record and problems that only OLD folks should have. They are trapped and their lives are already done. I’m 34 and I haven’t even PEAKED yet! That’s how it’s SUPPOSED to be. You life is supposed to get better and BETTER…..not be over before it started.”
[Please note that even though this “authority of blackness” has decided to place himself on a pedestal while belittling others, he has misspelled ‘your’!] In the past, I have seen many status updates from this particular person, many of which have been extremely sexist and intolerant in nature [which is quite contradictory of a TRUE revolutionary,] however it wasn’t until I saw the above message that I felt compelled to address it. While I understand this “Authority’s” crusade/campaign to speak to the multi-level crises among “Black” people, there are many oversights in the delivery of his message, not to mention the undertone of self-righteous piety! If you look at his “message” more closely, you’ll find that he merely states the problems without EVER addressing how these excessive ills came to be! His inability to link these present-day societal calamities to the atrocities of the past renders nothing but a half-baked attempt at “saving his people!” Moreover, what his slanted proclamation does is place responsibility of the circumstance, (i.e. a gang of kids,) on the victim, which creates a polarizing dissension among the African-American community fostering an “us versus them” mentality! Even the comments left on the “authority’s” page from his many followers [and I do mean that in every sense of the word] reflected the distancing of themselves from “those people,” with statements like, “I’m only 30 and don’t have any of those problems,” to labeling the very people they speak of as “the weak links of our community!” For one to gloat about their own personal “accomplishments” while oppressing others, specifically one’s own people, does absolutely NOTHING to resolve the innumerable maladies that plague our community! Regrettably, many African-Americans and other people of African descent, in their “attempt” to unite and save our people, actually cause the further marginalization of those that they intend to empower, which disempowers us all! To those self-identified “Talented Tenth” who believe that their harsh verbal declaration of these communal issues is in fact their method of “holding people accountable,” let it be known that there is a colossal difference between working with the community as an advocate to enact REAL CHANGE that is sustainable and simply spouting empty and hegemonic rhetoric against the very groups you intend to strengthen! When this incessant venomous verbal discourse takes place, the end result is a devastating polarization among the entire African-American community based on a Europeanized version of socioeconomic status, level of “education,” cultural interests and intellectual capacity in reference to those we find “objectionable.”
We’ve highlighted the manner in which African-Americans have exerted their adopted oppressive behaviors and ideologies in the form of Western nationalism and prejudice against various immigrant communities, in addition to the exclusion of certain socially-constructed groups within the African-American community. Let’s now examine another form of subjugation that some individuals within the African-American community shun and ostracize due to the societal creation of “class.” I remember a conversation I had a few months ago with an old friend about some of the contemporary issues among the African-American community. During this verbal exchange, I noticed that he continuously talked about how members of the “low-socioeconomic” class were “the ones holding us back!” Utterly confused by his baseless and classist remarks, I asked him what exactly he meant by this. His egregious point was that those of us from a “higher” educational and socioeconomic position are the individuals that can make our community better, but because of the “ghetto” mentality of the underclass, we are consistently held back from achieving greatness. Recently, while out with a close friend [who is directly from an East African county,] I observed how she constantly used the term “ghetto” to describe a certain type of guy that she didn’t want to date or be in a relationship with. She often stated that men of a “low-socioeconomic” class were “beneath” her and that she is attracted to men of a more advanced social stature! Another painful observation I’ve made surrounding this elitist mentality among some of my other friends and acquaintances is the restriction of their circle of friends solely to those individuals that meet the posh or desirable image of those they intend to socialize with; haughty comments filled with superficial prejudice regarding someone’s style of dress or speech are also paramount tools used in the decision-making process about someone’s worth! I’ve even observed this classist and exclusionary ethos among very prominent organizations within the African-American community that pride themselves on being historical fixtures created to unite our people, but instead only cater to those groups that correspond with the customs, economics, and intellectual capacities that only the polished and middle to upper-class groups can bring.
Once again, we are faced with the issue of exclusion and an unfortunate segregation of human beings with whom we share a multi-level kinship with, based on the artificial creation of societal rank. This oppressive and inhumane evaluation of people reflects the irrefutable severe psychological trauma African-Americans have suffered residing in a globally Eurocentric and Westernized society. When African-Americans and other groups of color discuss the concept of “class,” especially their aspirations to become a part of the “upper-class” sect, it is always in reference to a Europeanized version of socioeconomic success and achievement, while aspiring to possess a universally marketed lifestyle comparable to that of European-Americans.
The topic of the African-American community transitioning from being oppressed to enacting oppression onto other marginalized groups is indeed a difficult and quite uncomfortable issue to reflect upon. However, when heading towards the path of true empowerment, emancipation, and unity among our people, it is necessary to confront the more painful and distressing truths that exist among us to liberate ourselves from the innumerable ills that afflict us. African-Americans as a whole are still oppressed in many ways, most often through more hidden means, veiled under modernity and a liberalistic view of equality for all. However, whether or not we are on the receiving end of the oppression or have become the oppressor, we are ALL imprisoned due to the global departure from humanity! We MUST collectively remove the mentality of ignorance and enslavement to achieve the mental liberation which will free each of us from every other system of bondage, including the Eurocentric psyche that ordains our very existence! As the powerful Marcus Garvey stated, “ Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our mind.”