It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the face of one’s victim one sees oneself. (Nobody knows my name, 78)
In this post I have a few more quotes to share which shed further light on how systematic oppression hurts everyone involved. Even if, in a clear example, slave owners believe they are profiting from owning slaves, they are doing harm to their own humanity. Frederick Douglass gives a stirring account of this happening through his own experience of being sent as a slave child to live with a young couple who had never owned slaves before.
My mistress was, as I have said, a kind tenderhearted woman; and in the simplicity of her soul she commenced, when I first went to live with her, to treat me as she supposed one human being ought to treat another. In entering upon the duties of a slaveholder, she did not seem to perceive that I sustained to her the relation of mere chattel, and that for her to treat me as a human being was not only wrong, but dangerously so. Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of those heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness. The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct me [to read]. She now commenced to practice her husband’s precepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded; she seemed anxious to do better. Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper. She seemed to think that here lay the danger. I have had her rush at me with a face made up of fury, and snatch from me a newspaper, in a manner that fully revealed her apprehension. (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. 81-82)
While traveling in Africa in 1965 Malcolm X arrived at a new insight about the way in which a racist atmosphere sinks into the psychology of individuals.
I told him, “What you are telling me is that it isn’t the American white man who is a racist, but it’s the American political, economic, and social atmosphere that automatically nourishes a racist psychology in the white man.” He agreed.
We both agreed that American society makes it impossible for humans to meet in America and not be conscious of their color differences. And we both agreed that if racism could be removed, America could offer a society where rich and poor could truly live like human beings.
That discussion with the ambassador gave me a new insight –one which I like: that the white man is not inherently evil, but America’s racist society influences him to act evilly. The society has produced and nourishes a psychology which brings out the lowest, most base part of human beings. (The Autobiography of Malcolm X. 371)
The last quote I want to relate to these others is from Michel Foucault.
Do not regard power as a phenomenon of homogenous domination –the domination of one individual over others, of one group over others, or of one class over others: keep it clearly in mind that unless we are looking at it from a great height and from a very great distance, power is not something that is divided between those who have it and hold it exclusively, and those who do not have it and are subject to it. Power must, I think, be analyzed as something that circulates, or rather as something that functions only when it is part of a chain. It is never localized here or there, it is never in the hands of some, and it is never appropriated in the way that wealth or a commodity can be appropriated. Power functions. Power is exercised through networks, and individuals do not simply circulate in those networks; they are in a position to both submit to and exercise this power. They are never the inert or consenting targets of power; they are always its relays. In other words, power passes through individuals. It is not applied to them. (Society must be defended, lectures, 14 January 1976)
In all of this I see the importance of forming new networks so that power can circulate in liberating ways rather than oppressive ways. The problem with systematic oppression is that the oppressive system is within –and functions through –each individual. It is not just the 1% who are to blame for perpetuating this system. Each person relays power through everyday interactions. How can this situation be changed? In my opinion an important change happens when individuals choose to give power to each other –share power through solidarity –rather than exercise power over each other.