There is no hierarchy of oppressions

Audre Lorde:

I was born Black, and a woman. I am trying to become the strongest person I can become to live the life I have been given and to help effect change toward a liveable future for this earth and for my children. As a Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, poet, mother of two including one boy and a member of an interracial couple, I usually find myself part of some group in which the majority defines me as deviant, difficult, inferior or just plain “wrong.”

From my membership in all of these groups I have learned that oppression and the intolerance of difference come in all shapes and sexes and colors and sexualities; and that among those of us who share the goals of liberation and a workable future for our children, there can be no hierarchies of oppression. I have learned that sexism (a belief in the inherent superiority of one sex over all others and thereby its right to dominance) and heterosexism (a belief in the inherent superiority of one pattern of loving over all others and thereby its right to dominance) both arise from the same source as racism-a belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby its right to dominance.

“Oh,” says a voice from the Black community, “but being Black is NORMAL!” Well, I and many Black people of my age can remember grimly the days when it didn’t used to be!

I simply do not believe that one aspect of myself can possibly profit from the oppression of any other part of my identity. I know that my people cannot possibly profit from the oppression of any other group which seeks the right to peaceful existence. Rather, we diminish ourselves by denying to others what we have shed blood to obtain for our children. And those children need to learn that they do not have to become like each other in order to work together for a future they will all share.

31 thoughts on “There is no hierarchy of oppressions

  1. I don’t know – I see where she’s coming from, and she’s right that no people truly profits from oppressing another. But it’s not true that there aren’t hierarchies of oppression. For example, what the Irish suffered and what blacks suffered are not equal and can be placed along a hierarchy. Furthermore, belief that some practices are immoral isn’t a form of oppressing a group — nor is having an alternative lifestyle/orientation akin to being a minority race.

  2. I think the points to be remembered here, and those that Lord is making, are

    1) that we need to concentrate on the fact that oppression in ANY form is wrong (and not let ourselves be sidetracked by questions of whether a given experience of oppression is or is not greater than another)

    2) that by oppressing others, we ultimately fuel the belief that inherent superiority exists and that it has the right to dominate.

    The most important lesson any of us can learn, IMNSHO, is that “different” does not mean “bad”, it just means “not the same as me”.

    panracial, I am sorry, but “belief that some practices are immoral” IS a form of oppression, because our sense of right and wrong is a social construct. Thus, DEVIATING from the social norm encompasses not only what you term “having an ALTERNATIVE lifestyle/orientation” but also having a skin colour that is not what is currently considered to be white.

  3. I’d agree that a “belief” that some practices are immoral isn’t in itself a form of oppression, but when that belief leads to also believing that those groups whom one believes to be “immoral” should not have access to the same choices, freedoms or benefits that other groups have access to, leading to action to ensure those choices, freedoms and benefits are restricted … I believe that is indeed oppression.

  4. Just to rock the boat some (“devil’s advocate”):

    ” “belief that some practices are immoral” IS a form of oppression, because our sense of right and wrong is a social construct.”

    So we’ll start hearing –

    kleptomaniacs crying “oppression” for calling their ‘habit’ of taking things wrong
    robbers calling “oppression” for denying their practice for ‘making a living’
    pedophiles crying “oppression” for making their practice and desires illegal
    spouse abusers claiming “oppression” for not allowing their form of ‘discipline’

    And flip side, we can’t criticize China for human rights violations, various middle east cultures for the way they treat women, other cultures for ‘female circumcism’, caning, etc. because it’s OK in their “social construct”.

    Practice “A” can be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ depending on which country, culture, or ‘social construct’ it occurs in. (But perhaps practice “B” is always supposed to be wrong in any ‘social construct’? How is that determined?)


  5. Not comparable; you’re talking about situations in which one actor is infringing on another’s rights.

    By the way, sinoangle, sending you some public adoration.

  6. No, I’m pointing out that sinoangle’s statement is overly general, and can quickly degenerate into chaos. (in reference to “our sense of right and wrong is a social construct”; and “some practices” can quickly leave the focus of Lorde’s topic.)

    If I put enough thought into it, I probably could come up with a specific hypothetical situation that’s not infringing on another’s rights, at least, not directly, but could be right/wrong given a certain ‘social construct’.

    But I don’t have the extra time, nor do I really want to drag this thread that far off topic.

  7. Thanks for the public adoration, resistance! :-P

    Thanks for the comments, Ray. But just to clarify, I wasn’t being general, I was being specific. I specifically addressed panracial’s affirmation which specifically referred to Lorde’s text. Lorde referred to sexism, heterosexism and racism as forms of oppression. Oppression is defined as ‘being kept down by unjust use of authority’. What Lorde is referring to, I am sure, is the systemic nature of sexism, racism and heterosexism. As previously discussed, this shapes people’s points of view, i.e is a social construct.

    Panracial specifically referred to ‘immoral practices’, which s/he then qualified as being “alternative lifestyle/orientation”. This doesn’t sound to me like it could refer to either sexism or racism. Therefore panracial is obviously referring to believing that homosexuality is an immoral practice.

    I am arguing that this belief is a form of oppression, because it stems from systemic heterosexism. Sorry if I wasn’t clear enough. The upshot of this belief being widespread is, as more cowbell points out, that certain groups find their “choices, freedoms and benefits are restricted”. I would go so far as to say that their human rights were being violated (as defined by the Universal Declaration).

    Your examples, however, are violators of rights rather than those being violated.

  8. sorry resistance, you’re going to be eating a huge mound of popcorn.

    I most of my time online is when I’m at work, so I’m zooming through email and websites during spare moments or when I just need a break.

    I prefer to write concise, accurate posts, but the time it takes me to craft it to my own satisfaction (and then after I post I reflect and think of different words that would have been more accurate for what I wanted to say, etc.) – I don’t have the time to take away from work hours. So unless somehow I can figure out what I want to say, while doing my job responsibilities, it’s unfortunately rare for me to continue extended dialog (unless there’s a slow period at work); and also the thread usually has long gone into archives…

    @sinoangle Thank you. That clears it up greatly. Clarifying the focus and context is a big help to me. Because your statement that I quoted, taken in a most/biggest general context, was boggling my mind.

    I’ll have to ponder “violators of rights rather than those being violated” some more. Though, if given the conditional “if A then B”, and I talk about ‘A’, and you point out that I didn’t talk about ‘B’, it doesn’t invalidate the original conditional. But I’m tossing that off the top of my head (prior to pondering), so please don’t take it as a well thought out discussion point, just that I have some reservations to the statement.

    Got to get back to work.

  9. Ray, in your pondering, see if you can see which of the human rights in the Universal Declaration kleptomaniacs, robbers, pedophiles etc. violate. I did. It helps to get past the simple right/wrong thing.

    And one more thing, threads here never go into the archives, so feel free to comment on things that are way old if it helps you move ahead in your thinking. Many of the comments we receive also help us.

  10. Cowbell, I see what you’re saying, but I still disagree. Should people have the freedom to practice polygamy and bestiality as well?

    As for female circumcision see the research by Dr. Shweder, Dr. Ahmadu, etc. before you condemn it.

  11. By the way, I really respect everyone on this thread, and I’m not trying to cause problems — I’m just interested in whether or not y’all believe that all those choices (polygamy, polyandry, bestiality) should be legally validated.

  12. I tend to think that polygamy and bestiality are faulty slippery slope arguments. In addition, I just think they’re really weird arguments. Like saying that same-sex marriage threatens straight marriage. If same-sex marriage is legalized, I think I’ll want to go out and have sex with a dog. ;-P

    If you’re going to put forth a slippery slope argument, why not argue that same-sex marriage will then lead to marriage between adults and minors? Or adults and plants? Or men and golf?

    Note that we already have lots of laws about who can marry whom. In order to marry in the U.S. now, you have to be (1) two adults (or have consent of parents), (2) not related in specific ways and (3) opposite gender. There used to be a (4): of the same race. Interracial marriage didn’t seem to open the floodgates to polygamy or bestiality, although the argument was made then as well.

    So just because you have one specific requirement for marriage bite the dust, it does not necessarily invalidate all those other requirements. That is, Loving v. Virginia did not set aside the man-woman thing or the age thing or the non-related thing.

    The difference between bestiality and same-sex marriage: Dogs or other animals cannot consent.

    As for polygamy, I would argue that it would redefine marriage more than same-sex marriage would. I mean, who is married to each other? If a man is married to two women, are the marriages independent of each other? Or are all three people married?

    In the United States, marriage is perhaps most importantly a legal construct that involves two individuals. (This is the reason that “civil unions” are not the same as “marriage.”) Marital status is a determining factor for thousands upon thousands of laws governing everything from insurance to dying intestate. In a polygamous marriage, which wife gets to decide to pull the plug of a dying husband on life support?

    These are laws that are based upon an assumption of a two-person relationship.

  13. I don’t mean my argument that way — for example, I don’t think single sex marriage threatens hetero marriage — I just think its wrong. Furthermore, I don’t think polygamy or bestiality or any weirder than gay marriage — although in fact, I think that polygamy/polyandry is much less wrong. So I don’t use adults and minors as an example b/c that’s not consenting ADULTS like with gay or hetero marriage. I’m using examples of consenting adult practices. I think that interracial marriage didn’t lead to a slippery slope because it is neither immoral nor analagous to gay marraige. As I’m sure you know race doesn’t even exist while sex/genitals are biological realities. Furthermore, I’m not making a slippery slope argument. I’m not asking if you think gay marriage will lead to polygyny I’m asking why a gay person can claim that they are being denied a right by not being able to marry how they please yet a polgamous person cannot. In other words, I find your view kind of contradictory. You’re willing to redefine marriage for gays but not for polygamous peoples – so you draw a line in the sand as well but seem to find other lines inappropriate. BTW polygynous marriages are configured in different ways depending on the culture. Why, in a polgynous marriage couldn’t the group decide beforehand who gets to choose whether to pull the plug or if the choice should be made my consensus? In other words, you see the 2 ppl thing as hard and fast while I see the 2 gender thing as hard and fast — why is my way of thinking less valid?

  14. So why isn’t interracial marriage wrong? Why should that not have been a “hard and fast” rule? And how does same-sex marriage “redefine” marriage in a way that polygamous marriage does not? How, for that matter, did interracial marriage “redefine” marriage?

  15. Race doesn’t exist — so there’s no such thing as an interracial marriage to beging with. I didn’t say that same-sex marriage redifined marriage in a way different from polygamy — you did. I quote “As for polygamy, I would argue that it would redefine marriage more than same-sex marriage would.” I merely asked why you could say that one redefinition was okay and one wasn’t yet I couldn’t.

  16. Panracial, you don’t believe that interracial marriage is immoral, but many people did. Similarly you believe (I think) that same-sex marriage is immoral, but many people don’t.

    And you can’t argue that “race doesn’t exist”–because maybe that is true biologically, but it certainly isn’t true socially. And in any event I’d be careful about using that argument for anything, since it’s often used by the “colorblind” set.

    I don’t believe that same-sex marriage really “redefines” marriage. But there are considerations in polygamous marriage that would necessarily cause a redefinition of marriage.

  17. Believe me, I know that the social construct of race has social implications — but I also know that biological determinism is a tool of racists. Whether or not people believe that race exists, the fact that it scientifically doesn’t means that interracial marriage doesn’t exist and explains why interracial marriage didn’t put us on any sort of a slippery slope.

    Ok, we can agree to disagree. I don’t want to change your mind, I just want to see how it works. You don’t belief same-sex marriage redfines marriage that much but that’ s just your opinion. (I think it does — polygamous people can have anatomically natural sex, they can reproduce, they can raise children with male and female strengths, I think it’s MUCH more smiliar to traditional marriage — that’s why heretro mongamy and polygamy have traditionally co-existed in many societies where homosexual relations are forbidden) The consensus in most polygamous societies worldwide is that polygamy doesn’t nearly redefine marriage like homosexuality. Your opposition to polygamous marriage is no different than mine to same sex marriage. You oppose changes to traditional marriage when you think traditional marriage is being redefined too much, but because you draw your line at a different place you call my belief oppression and not yours. You aren’t concerned with consenting polygamous adults who don’t have the rights or freedoms to marry how they choose. Your opposition to polygamy is no more or less oppresive than my opposition to gay marriage. Ppl’s belief that same sex marraige redefines marriage too much is JUST AS VALID as your belief that polygamy redefines marriage too much.

  18. But what if people believe that interracial marriage is immoral? How is immorality less important because of “biological determinism”? What about women being denied the right to vote? You could argue that they are biologically different from men. ;-P

    I’m just pointing out that U.S. systems and structures would have to be greatly overhauled for polygamous marriage. This is not the case for same-sex marriage.

    I also don’t think there’s really such a thing as “anatomically natural sex,” nor do I think reproduction has a whole lot to do with marriage. Otherwise hetero perverts and the infertile should be restricted from marrying. You know who you are out there! Come clean! Also, I don’t believe in “male and female strengths.”

  19. Once more, there is no such thing as interracial marriage so such a belief that it is immoral is ficticious and not validity can be granted to ficticious beliefs. This has nothing to do with voting rights. My point is that I think about same sex marriage the same thing you think about polygamous marriage but you consider your belief valid and mine oppresive. The mumerous countries that permit both poly and mono marriage show you don’t need some huge overhaul of law. You may not think there’s a such thing as anatomically natural sex but there is only one way to reproduce and one way bodies were made to fit together — a cursory glance at anatomy shows that. Furthermore, reproduction/family/society building has traditionally been one of the purposes of marriage and while some hetero couples can’t/don’t reproduce normally they can which is never true of same sex couples. You try to take what is an anamoly in hetero couples (infertility) and make it analagous to what is always true of same sex couples — who then have to adopt of in vitro or whatever to mimic the family they can’t naturally produce. Btw, there are such things as male and female brains — for example, that’s why women are better at multitasking and language.

  20. Interesting discussion that could go on forever. :-D I’ve been thinking about panracial’s question all weekend: “I’m just interested in whether or not y’all believe that all those choices (polygamy, polyandry, bestiality) should be legally validated”, and here are my thoughts on it and on the discussion with resistance:

    I believe in “marriage” as a legal commitment to a stable relationship between consenting adults. It signifies to me that the contractors contribute and share, resulting in a kind of synergy – the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

    It doesn’t involve procreation, and it should be able to stand without it. In actual fact, it doesn’t even involve sex, so let’s not go there or we’ll have to start discussing what sexual practices should or shouldn’t be allowed within marriage.

    In my definition, polygamy could fit as well as same-sex marriage. In fact, I have been rethinking what I believe about polygamy from recent viewing of ‘Big Love’ on TV.

    However, my definition includes “legal commitment”, and “consenting adults”, which are two very important concepts. (Do I need to say that bestiality doesn’t fit?).

    As resistance adroitly points out, enabling a legal commitment between one man and several women or one woman and several men would involve a complete redefinition of the legal implications and consequences of marriage as it is defined today. Legalising same-sex unions between two people only, does not. But that doesn’t answer the question of whether polygamy should be legally validated. It only raises another question of whether it could be.

    Concerning consent between adults, as I see it, if each spouse believes that it is something they want to do and are able to do, then there is no problem. Many might argue that the problem is that contractors believe more that it is something they SHOULD do, but I would argue that that is probably the case for many monogamists aswell.

    In short, therefore, I do not see why polygamy shouldn’t be validated legally. It isn’t something I would want to do myself because I don’t think I could give equally of myself to two spouses (or more) or share my spouse with another person, but if others can, then why not?

  21. Immorality is largely self-defined. It doesn’t have a whole lot of anything to do with fact, reason, logic or anything of the sort. It isn’t provable by science and tradition is not a good measure of morality.

    I tend to view morals and ethics in terms of fair and just treatment and lack of harm to others.

  22. Ok, but the fact is what you consider fair treatment for polygamous ppl and gays are two wildly different things. Yet b/c I treat gay marriage the way you treat polygamy I’m supposedly oppresive.

  23. I quote ” I am sorry, but “belief that some practices are immoral” IS a form of oppression” So maybe you’re saying my belief is oppressive and not actually me — I misunderstood.

  24. panracial said: “I quote ” I am sorry, but “belief that some practices are immoral” IS a form of oppression” So maybe you’re saying my belief is oppressive and not actually me — I misunderstood.”

    I fully claim that quote. I clarified shortly after: “I am arguing that this belief is a form of oppression, because it stems from systemic heterosexism.”, and I stand by that.

  25. Since this thread touched a little on poly marriage, I wanted to clarify a few things:

    1) “Polygamy” only describes one type of a “polyamorous” marriage. It’s not interchangeable with polyamory, mostly due to the fact that it wouldn’t accurately describe a marriage where a wife has more than one husband, partners who marry who are all the same sex, or poly marriages involving multiple genders (like quads for instance).

    2) How to practically work out a poly marriage is a difficult task, but one that the poly community is willing to tackle head-on. One solution that has been proposed is to form a “corporation” when marrying their partners, which legally is more flexible than a marriage. But, we’re still talking.

    3) I wish people wouldn’t tie poly marriage with bestiality. It’s insulting. It’s not even morally equivalent. We didn’t like the fundamentalist Mormons doing it because they were “marrying” children with adults, which is obviously wrong because children cannot consent to sex or marriage. This is not the practice of modern poly marriages all involving adults.

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