When it comes to dismantling systemic oppression, it seems we most often place our focus on the identity of the subject: the oppressor. Or we direct our focus to the objectified identity– the oppressed— who have (out of necessity) become the subjects of their struggle against the oppressor.
But if we were to ask an individual in the oppressive class if they are racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or transphobic, it’s very likely they would answer, “No.” And even some individuals within the oppressed class, when asked if they are oppressed, would answer, “No.”
Of course, it’s vital that we listen to the narratives, the truths, the many experiences of individuals within each intersecting oppressed group. But if our fight against systemic oppression becomes a question of how people feel about themselves (for instance, do they believe they are oppressive as racists? Or do they believe they are oppressed by racists?) then we won’t be able to find an effective means for identifying and describing the main enemy of social progress.
After all, how many whites are going to admit we’re racist? Or the extent to which we are racist? And if we say we aren’t racist, should people of color (specifically, Black people or Africans) simply take our word for it and try to get on with their lives? No– because the material reality of racism isn’t based on how racist the racist feels.
In order to identify systemic oppression, for the purpose of dismantling it, it seems we ought to focus on the measurable effects of oppressive behavior. This approach involves much more than just saying an individual’s behavior is oppressive (such as, racist or transphobic, or both). In this approach, we are examining the results of this behavior. And if the results are oppressive, it doesn’t really matter how the oppressor feels about their behavior or what they originally intended. It’s also not all that important who the person carrying out this oppressive behavior is.
Anyone can carry out the ideological aims of an oppressive system of power. And, before anyone else, capitalism tries to make a person within an oppressed community carry out this negative or reactionary behavior against themselves. So anybody can behave in a way that is transphobic. At least, this is true if we think of transphobia as behavior that harms trans people. Since capitalism is inherently exploitative, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, ableist, and transphobic, it will reward all oppressive behavior that helps it achieve its ideological aims, no matter who is carrying out this behavior.
However, it seems important for us to understand the actual patterns of overlapping or interlocking systems of oppression within the capitalist system, rather than attempting to put economic exploitation, racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism and transphobia on one continuous line. Systemic oppression always involves a dialectical relationship: the unity of opposites. One is above; the other is below. If we think of all these forms of systemic oppression in a linear way, putting them on the same plane, it becomes difficult to recognize a pattern of negative effects within potentially oppressive behavior. We simply think: women are oppressed, gays are oppressed, people of color are oppressed. Then it seems that the only source of oppression is a small group at the top: wealthy, able-bodied, white, straight, cis men.
While it’s true that the capitalist hierarchy is structured to benefit wealthy, able-bodied, white, straight, cis men, the negative effects of capitalist oppression are carried out by anyone who acts in the interests of this tiered system, no matter where they are situated within it. By focusing on the patterns of systemic oppression’s negative effects, and how these patterns reflect the primary dialectic in the historical and material relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed, we can then identify the problem, and define it in terms of power. That is, we can answer the question: what is the source of the oppressor’s power? Because, once we take their power away, then we have dismantled the oppression itself.
For an example, let’s consider the current presidential election in the United States. If we were to talk about the candidate who is sexist, it seems we’d be referring to Donald Trump and not Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump is a wealthy, able-bodied, white, straight, cis man. So, if we want to fight against capitalist oppression, as well as ableism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexism, it seems we need to defeat Trump. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is a wealthy, able-bodied, white, straight cis woman. Does the fact that Hillary is a woman automatically place her in the class of the oppressed? Isn’t she also oppressed by sexist behavior?
Yes, Hillary is oppressed by sexist behavior, but what are the negative effects of this oppression? She might be the next President of the United States. She is relatively healthy. Her material needs have been provided for by the system of power, and then some. Misogynistic attitudes may endanger Hillary on some level, but she is able to live in spite of these and — more than that– may be on the verge of becoming President. Hillary doesn’t have to worry very much, if at all, about going hungry, not being able to find a job, not being able to pay her rent … or about having a bomb fall on her home. And, in fact, Hillary is the beneficiary of a system that causes people to go hungry, to become unemployed, to become homeless … or to have their homes destroyed by bombs.
Hillary is empowered by the system to behave on an individual level in such a way that people will lose their jobs, their homes, and their lives on account of the power that she wields. These are the negative effects of Hillary’s behavior, even as she also experiences sexism. Capitalism is the source of Hillary’s ability to oppress, for she has aligned herself with its reactionary force, one that moves against oppressed communities, in spite of the fact that she is also a woman. Capitalism will use women to oppress women.
The “super predators” in the U.S., and the people abroad who have been identified by capitalism as the “enemy,” include women and girls. If our actions harm women and girls, we are engaging in misogynistic behavior. It doesn’t matter who we are. It doesn’t matter what we intend. And the only power we have to harm women is the power that comes from the system of capitalism, which is based on sexism (as well as transphobia, racism, homophobia, ableism and economic exploitation).
The aim of capitalism is to create incentives for anyone to align themselves with its power in order to carry out its oppression, so the ruling class can enjoy the material advantages of this violence– more profits.
If we point to the negative effects of this oppressive behavior, rather than the specific identity of the person carrying it out, then we can recognize the patterns that emerge from the system’s overall movement against oppressed communities. And this is how we can determine the identity of the enemy, and then move against it.
However, we shouldn’t let capitalism confuse us about who has the power to oppress. There is one economic system that dominates the globe, as it has since Europe invaded Africa and the Americas more than five centuries ago: capitalism. It’s a global economic system. And this means that all the power we have in this economic system comes from one source. This source of power– capitalism– wasn’t created by Black people or Africans. It wasn’t created by cisgender Black men. It wasn’t created by cisgender Black women. Capitalism wasn’t created by wealthy Black people or able-bodied Black people or heterosexual Black people. Capitalism wasn’t created by Black people– except through their stolen labor, land, resources and lives.
Capitalism was created by white people for the benefit of white people: cis, trans, straight, gay, bi, man, woman, nonbinary, wealthy, poor, middle-class, able-bodied, differently abled, disabled, young, old, middle aged, religious, atheistic, agnostic.
As Europeans have spread across North America (and Hawaii) in the settler colony called the United States, the main factor differentiating the colonizer from the colonized has been whiteness. Capitalism then uses any identity within whiteness to carry out its aims of accumulating wealth through racist, patriarchal, colonial violence.
Capitalism isolates individuals within historically oppressed categories (such as gays, women, poor people) by incentivizing reactionary behavior that will increase profits for the racist, patriarchal, colonial ruling class while diminishing the oppression of whites in these categories. White gays, white women, poor white people (or all the above) are empowered by capitalism to behave in ways that negatively effect oppressed communities (even within their own community), alleviating their individual oppression by helping the overall system expand its wealth and power.
Hillary Clinton is a good example of a white woman who has worked very hard, and displayed tremendous talent, intelligence, and perseverance to overcome the obstacles that the current system has put in her way– by aligning herself with the power of this system, with capitalism. We don’t have to ask what’s in her heart, or how she feels about the systemic oppression of identities she doesn’t share, or how she feels about her own oppression, in order to determine the level of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist violence that she has been empowered to carry out on behalf of capitalism.
All we need to do to measure Hillary’s oppressive behavior is examine the negative effects of this behavior. And from Haiti, to Honduras, to Libya, to the prisons across the U.S., the gentrified neighborhoods in big cities, the police murders of Black people, we recognize the negative effects of her behavior– as it has been empowered by capitalism. We recognize the evidence of Hillary’s misogyny, because, yes, many of the lives devastated by Hillary’s actions have been women (like Hillary).
But Hillary Clinton is an exceptional person– a person with exceptional power. So how do white women who are less powerful than Hillary Clinton perpetuate sexism? And how do white trans women (like me) perpetuate transphobia?
In order to measure the transphobia of white trans women, we don’t ask how they (or we) feel about trans women, or what we intend by our behavior. A different question is necessary when it comes to measuring the level of our racism, sexism and transphobia directed at trans women of color– at Black trans women. We may love trans people and intend only the best things. But the question is: what are the negative effects of our behavior as white trans women? Once we recognize the negative effects of our behavior against trans women, then we can measure the level of our transphobia. And, again, the objective measure is: how does this behavior harm transgender women?
What we can determine, in our search for the answer to this question, is that poor (or impoverished) white people, while they are stereotyped as being the most racist, most sexist, most homophobic, and most transphobic, actually have the least power to carry out behaviors that harm people in these intersecting categories of oppression. The people who are empowered the most to carry out violence against oppressed identities are in the middle-class or wealthy class– the petit bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie of the white identity.
In terms of the actual effects of our racist, transphobic, and sexist behavior, it doesn’t matter if we– as white people– are conservatives, liberals, socialists, libertarians or anarchists. Whenever white people are situated within the petit bourgeoisie or bourgeoisie, this elevation of our class status has come about only through the violent subjugation of oppressed identities, and we are the main beneficiaries of capitalism’s reactionary movement against marginalized peoples.
In the competition for limited resources– for jobs, housing, healthcare, food, education (especially college), and for security and comfort– white transgender women are incentivized by capitalism to carry out its racist, transphobic, sexist aims. And the negative effects of this behavior on the part of white trans women are the murders of Black trans women, and the higher rates of homelessness, poverty, sexual assault, police brutality, HIV, sexual harassment, depression, and suicide among Black trans women and (more generally) trans people of color. In the rush to secure a better life for ourselves, as individuals, white transgender women perpetuate the transphobic violence that erases our own sisters in (what should be, but isn’t yet) the “transgender community.”
Therefore, the only effective means that trans women have to stop transphobic violence– speaking directly to European (white) trans women like me— is to align ourselves with the revolutionary force that is moving against the capitalist system.
As long as capitalism exists, whites will be racist– not on account of our thoughts and feelings about people of color (or, specifically, Black people), but on account of the negative effects of our behavior within a system that empowers us to live off the oppression of Africans and all the colonized world.
As long as capitalism exists, white trans women will be transphobic. The measurement of our transphobia isn’t how we feel about ourselves or about any trans person. The measurement of white women’s transphobia is how our unequal share of finite resources, and our elevated status in the tiered structure of a racist, transphobic, misogynistic, capitalist system, have come entirely at the expense of colonized communities, within which Black trans women and trans people of color are the most marginalized.
By focusing on the negative effects of oppressive behavior, we can recognize patterns in this behavior that point to one enemy: white supremacist, patriarchal, colonial capitalism. Then we can identify the primary dialectic: the white colonial power, and colonized Africans (Black people), indigenous peoples, and the majority of humanity outside Europe, whose exploited labor, land, resources, and very lives are the basis for this white power.
The main enemy is capitalism. Destroy capitalism, and then the power that whites have to be racist, transphobic, and sexist will be destroyed. Until then, capitalism will empower white trans women to carry out transphobic oppression against our sisters of color in (what should be) one trans community.