Many Layers of Structural Oppression
The knowledge of living as a structurally oppressed person is foremost held within the everyday lived experiences of the oppressed. The location of the knowledge of oppression resides within the bodies and hearts of the very people. As such, the wisdom needed to remedy structural oppression is located within the critical thinking minds of the oppressed themselves. Not all structurally oppressed people are able to move the knowledge from their bodies and hearts to the location of their minds. Remember that critical thinking is a gift and a skill.
Most people know we live in a society that oppresses women. Few people will deny this. But we need to keep in mind that heterosexual, able-bodied, white women only experience one layer of structural oppression, and therefore only know one layer of the knowledge. Further, they lack the intersectional knowledge located within the spaces of having more than one layer of structural oppression.
It can be said that the level of knowledge within the “Well of Wisdom”, needed to challenge oppressive structures that white women have, is not deep and murky. This sounds unkind but this is true. This is one reason why older white feminism was critiqued by women of colour. While white women were happy with the shifts made, women of colour were not ‘celebrating the continuation of the oppression’ as the shifts were mostly the assimilation of white women into patriarchal systems.
While white women do have some of the knowledge of structural oppression and the wisdom of how to address it, it stands to reason that women of colour will have more. What is more, women of colour will also have the intersectional effects of being both a woman and a woman of colour; where the experience of intersectional effects mean they also know the inter-acting results of experiencing two levels of structural oppression. What this means is the level of knowledge in the “Well of Wisdom” that women of colour hold to challenge oppressive societal structures is deeper and more murky than the level white women have.
While women of colour know more than double the knowledge of structural oppression over white women, it stands to reason that women of colour with a disability embody even more of the knowledge and wisdom: more than three times the knowledge in that again they also hold the intersectional effects contained.
We can keep adding to this. For example, a woman of colour with a disability and who is gender non-specific will even have more of the knowledge and wisdom needed to address structural oppression.
In sum, the knowledge of structural oppression is located within the lived experiences of the oppressed where the multiply oppressed have more of the knowledge and wisdom needed to challenge it. My goal here is not to set up a knowledge competition but rather to illustrate why it is that people under more levels of oppression are able to identify the limitations of the less oppressed, that being white women. It is because they hold more of the knowledge.
Cognitive Dissonance is Unpleasant
All too often when white women take on a social justice issue, where they lack a deeper understanding of the knowledge of structural oppression, they are then faced with situations of cognitive dissonance when a person who is more oppressed speaks up letting them know they are not addressing issues in a way that the more oppressed need them to be addressed. Experiencing cognitive dissonance is emotional and the feelings that emerge are negative: embarrassment, shame, anger, hate, toxicity, lateral violence, arrogance, and ignorance. The good thing is the best learning is emotional; not nice though.
What happens all too often when white women are informed or told about their ignorance they become reactionary so much so that they can and will rely on and hurl nasty adjectives to describe the person who was brave enough to speak up. Interestingly, I have come to know that the nasty adjectives actually best describe the less oppressed person’s emotional state brought on by their cognitive dissonance rather than the more oppressed brave person. The emotions are a result of them being challenged in ways they are ignorant about; or result from them being called out about their unspoken political agenda that further oppresses such as them supporting the current Minister of Status of Women Maryam Monsef who is not addressing sex discrimination in the Indian Act, the land claims process, and the destruction of sacred Indigenous land and waterscapes.
On White Privilege; We Need White Women, But …
While it is indeed a wonderful thing that white people are now learning about, reading about, thinking about, and talking about white privilege, white people do not have the everyday lived experience of being at the back end of white privilege where as such they do not hold the monopoly of knowledge on white privilege. It is crucial to keep in mind they do not and cannot ever hold the depth of knowledge and wisdom that people of colour hold on this topic. In short, because it is not their everyday lived misery they do not know it wholistically, deeply, or completely.
Some people may be inclined to think, if white women do not hold enough of the knowledge of structural oppression, and if people who are more oppressed are not happy with the actions of white women, then they need to take a lead role in the process of challenging structural oppression and forget about white women. This line of thought is reactionary and not the thinking of a genuine social justice seeker, not at all. Asking white women to reflect on who has more of the knowledge is valid; it does not mean the more oppressed don’t need them in the struggle. Of course we do. What we need is for them to take a back seat or follow and serve the more oppressed.
What is more, the less oppressed people who argue there is the need for the more oppressed to be nicer when they encounter settler ignorance really need to think critically about intersectional feminism, and stop burdening more oppressed people with settler emotions.
I have produced a large volume of short reading materials that enhance the knowledge shared in this blog:
Follow the Turtle:
Critical thinking and the Charity Model:
Kawartha Truth and Reconciliation Support Group on Maryam Monsef:
White Woman’s Gaze:
On Nice People:
Lynn Gehl, Ph.D. is an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley. In 2017 she won an Ontario Court of Appeal case on sex discrimination in The Indian Act, and is an outspoken critic of the Algonquin land claims process. Recently she published Claiming Anishinaabe: Decolonizing the Human Spirit. You can reach her through, and see more of her work, at www.lynngehl.com