The following directly deals with racism, but the same misconceptions apply to discussions of sexism or any other type of oppression.
First, a definition: Racism is prejudice plus power.
1. “Racism is intentional.”
Intent is not necessary for an act to be perpetuating racism. Racism is often unintentional. Not intending a comment or action to be racist does not preclude it from giving advantages to white people over people of Color, or from portraying people of Color in a stereotypical way, etc.
2. “Racism is blatant and easily recognizable.”
Racist acts do not need to be blatant to be considered racist. Racism is often subtle, latent, and insidious, especially in the present United States where overt acts of prejudice against people of Color are usually looked down upon. Racism is systemic and institutionalized (i.e. it’s part of the larger system; it’s built into our societal institutions). We’re used to how our society works. It’s normal to us — including the parts that marginalize people of Color, women, the poor, etc. Additionally, socialization conditions us to overlook and not recognize racist acts — especially white people, for whom it is a privilege to not see privilege and oppression. Part of understanding oppression is acknowledging that we may not always recognize it personally. Just because the actor or the audience doesn’t perceive an act as racist doesn’t necessarily make it not racist. (This is where listening to people of Color is incredibly important.)
3. “Individual exceptions to racial inequality (like the success of Oprah or President Obama) disprove the existence of racism and racial inequality.”
No, they don’t. The overarching patterns of inequality and disparities between white people and people of Color still exist.
Suggestions for the new anti-oppressionist:
1. Don’t defend.
Defensiveness closes your ears to the experiences of those around you. If your intended comment begins with “But…”, don’t say it. Keep listening.
It also inserts yourself into a conversation that you don’t necessarily need to be a part of. Often white people figuratively or literally talk over people of Color, and POC don’t get as much space to speak as white people do.
2. Listen to others’ experiences and treat them and their feelings as valid.
It’s called respect. This is also important because it’s a common theme for white people to tell people of Color that they’re wrong — wrong about racism, wrong about their perceptions of situations, wrong about how the system works, etc.
3. Acknowledge any harm or injustice that has been done to others.
This is a lot easier to do when you stop defending and start listening.