Welcome back to the “us” in inclUSion. This series discusses how we’re responsible for the culture we live in and for the changes that need to be made. We are in this together, but we all have to do some work individually too. It’s our responsibility, and it will take all of us contributing to make real change.
In our first segment, we talked about that very thing—playing our part and being an ally to people and communities that are experiencing oppression. Part of being a good ally is to challenge the biases we have that were programmed into us by society, pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone. In our second segment, we talked about unintentional or unconscious bias and how the patterns of our brains have been trained to think the way that we do. Being uncomfortable is a part of challenging your own biases.
A year ago, protests broke out all over the country and all over the world over the violence and oppression that happens to Black people in this country. The catalytic event was the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. Many white people in the United States were shocked by these protests and failed to understand the weight of oppression that Black people face in this country every day. Even for white people who protested and supported the protests, their understanding may be incomplete regarding the origin of our country’s system to give advantages to white people and oppress Black people. This is what is called systemic oppression.
Systemic oppression refers to the mistreatment of people within a specific group supported and enforced by society and all of its institutions. It permeates every system, from educational to financial to entertainment, and it causes all of us to suffer with unintentional bias. It’s baked into the way we do everything without us realizing it. In Lonnae O’Neal’s article in The Undefeated, Ibram X. Kendi, author, professor, and historian of race and discriminatory policy in America, says, “You can be someone who has no intention to be racist, but because you’re conditioned in a world that is racist and a country that is structured in anti-Black racism, you yourself can perpetuate those ideas.”
Now let’s look at systemic racism versus individual racism. Individual racism is often identifiable because of its overt nature while systemic racism is less perceptible because it’s far more subtle and covert. Systemic racism originates in the operation of established and respected forces in our society and, because of that, receives far less public condemnation than individual racism.
Systemic racism is discrimination in all parts of our society, including criminal justice, employment, housing, healthcare, political power, and education. It has prevented people over hundreds of years and multiple generations from having the same advantages and opportunities as others, making any degree of progress today seem more significant than it actually is because it addresses only a symptom and not the larger issue. Not only does systemic racism affect every aspect of life, it’s cumulative and it’s everywhere.
There are other types of systemic oppression. Systemic homophobia is the societal norm that implies that heterosexuality is normal, and that everyone is or should be heterosexual. Systemic transphobia is the societal norm that everyone should be cisgender, which means that they identify their gender with their birth sex.
Like systemic racism, systemic homophobia and transphobia can be subtle. An overt example of homophobia and transphobia is when someone yells a homophobic or transphobic slur out of the window as they drive by. That’s obvious, right? Examples of systemic homophobia are when a couple that has been together for 50 years still has to tell their family that they are “roommates” for fear of being shunned by their family, how it’s much harder for a same sex couple to adopt than a straight couple because a straight couple is assumed to be more stable or more of a suitable family, and that when a same sex couple travels they have to pretend they are siblings to avoid having problems and harassment.
Examples of systemic transphobia are that trans people can be fired from their jobs, evicted from their apartments, denied life-saving medical treatments, and other services simply because they are transgender and it’s legal to do so in many states in this country. In Wisconsin, we have an anti-discrimination law that prevents that happening based on sexual orientation, but not on gender identity. The transgender community is often left out of the advancements for the rest of the LGB community.
LGBTQ+ youth are five times more likely to attempt suicide and 40 percent of transgender folx have attempted suicide. Trans women of color experience the most amount of violence and are more likely to be murdered than any other diverse group, which is the concept of intersectionality. The term was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a lawyer, civil rights advocate, scholar, and philosopher.
Intersectionality is how a person’s social and political identities might combine to create unique layers of discrimination and overlapping systems of disadvantage. So a woman may experience certain levels of discrimination and a Black man others, but a Black woman may experience a multiplied effect because of the intersection of those two identities. So a Black trans woman finds herself at the bottom of the privilege pyramid and then, unfortunately, receives an even larger multiplied effect of discrimination.
I have just scratched the surface of systemic oppression. Understanding and being mindful of systemic oppression and the impact of intersectionality can help us to catch our own biases and, in turn, change our own behaviors. As we continue our series, we will discuss even more things we need to realize and talk about—things we can do every day to change our own behavior and behaviors of those around us. Stay tuned and keep this tremendously important work going; it’s crucial if we want our systems and society to change for the better.
Sandy Eichel is a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Speaker and Consultant.