Systemic Oppression, Personal Bigotry, and Jerkiness

This is something I’ve been thinking about for awhile. Systemic oppression, personal bigotry, and jerkiness are not the same, and they’re all bad.

Systemic oppression involves historical, societal structures or norms that systematically deny or diminish rights to a group of people. In the United States, people of color, women, queer folk, and poor folk among others have faced systemic oppression. There are rich folk who have faced systemic oppression, but not for being rich: rich women have faced oppression for their gender, and rich Black people have faced oppression for their race. And there are White folk who have faced systemic oppression, but not for being white.

Acting in ways that strengthen systemic oppression is real bad, even when it doesn’t involve personal bigotry or jerkiness. For example, if I as a teacher rely heavily on standardized tests that have a history of bias against students of color, that’s an awful thing to do, even if I hold no personal bigotry. It’s always jerky, since it always involves mistreatment.

Personal Bigotry involves making value judgements about people based on irrelevant characteristics. These can be made about any group of people. I can be bigoted against White people based on their whiteness, or straight people based on their straightness, or men based on their gender. This is different from systemic oppression.

These beliefs are harmful to the holder’s psyche, but more importantly, when they’re acted on, they’re bad for the folks who are the targets of the bigotry. If I as a teacher express bigotry against boys in my class, that’s harmful. If I as a poster on a messageboard express bigoted opinions, that’s gross.

Personal bigotry can tie into systemic oppression, and they synergize. A trans person who’s bigoted against cis folks and who expresses that bigotry is not doing a great thing; but there’s no synergy there. A cis person who’s bigoted against trans folks and who expresses that bigotry is also strengthening systemic oppression; and the systemic oppression is likely to strengthen other folks’ transphobic bigotry.

Jerkiness involves mistreating anyone. Like bigotry, it can be against anyone, but unlike bigotry, it can be expressed at an individual, and it can be based on relevant characteristics. This last bit is tricky, because it’s a real value judgement when someone is being jerky vs. being justifiably angry or direct. If someone is expressing bigotry, and I come down on them like a ton of bricks, is that justified? What if, in coming down on them, I bring up parts of their personal life that cause them grief?

Expressions of personal bigotry are almost always a form of jerkiness. Because bigotry is based on irrelevant characteristics, and because it generally expresses negative value judgements (even in cases where it superficially doesn’t, such as praising the supposedly innate sports talent of a racial group), expressing these ideas around a target of the bigotry is going to be unpleasant and unjustified.
I’m laying this out because so often I see people confusing and conflating these ideas; or I see people condoning their own shitty behavior by explaining which category they don’t fall into.

For the first part, someone might confuse systemic oppression with personal bigotry, and make some sort of claim about how reverse racism is just as bad as racism. They’re really suggesting that all kinds of bigotry are equally bad–but by not distinguishing between systemic oppression and personal bigotry, they’re missing the story.

I also see folks who excuse their own behavior. Someone might rant about men in a fashion that clearly expresses personal bigotry. If they’re called on it, they’ll get super-defensive about how men aren’t targets of systemic oppression. That’s true, but that’s not the point: it’s still shitty behavior to express personal bigotry, and it’s still shitty behavior to mistreat folks in that fashion.

In terms of how bad they are, systemic oppression > personal bigotry > jerkiness. They’re all shitty and should all be avoided.

How do you square this with things like merit-based scholarship, merit-based admissions, merit-based hiring etc? Is it your belief that a lottery system is always a better option? How do you balance a lottery system with a public need for many positions to hire the best candidates? Or for a school–a desire to be able to structure more difficult coursework for more advanced students, which might be impossible if a lottery system produces students of such varying ability that the only realistic option is to teach to the lowest common denominator of the class? Is the concept of gifted classes and/or special high schools / middle schools for higher academic performing students (common in larger / wealthier urban school districts), just intrinsically a problem?

With respect, I’m 100% unwilling to go into specific arguments like this. That’d be a surefire way to hijack the thread. If you’d like to debate whether that specific example is an example of systemic oppression, I may join you in the thread you start.

Meanwhile, do you have thoughts about these overarching categories?

No–if you are only interested in saying systemic oppression is bad but are not interested in exploring the particulars of that conclusion I don’t see much to debate, and have no interest in the discussion. I too agree systemic oppression is bad, but I think that without considering how that intersects with specific issues and policies it is little more than platitude.

Perhaps reread the bolded parts of the OP. I bolded them so folks wouldn’t miss them.

I (beleive I) understand the OP’s formulation and agree it’s a useful taxonomy in the theory of humans treating each other badly. Both in the large and in the small.

But I’ll also take what I understand to be @Martin_Hyde’s meta-point.

A taxonomy is intellectually useful. But only when it can be used to derive specific actionable changes aimed at specific impressionable actors are we making progress. Before that it’s just armchair philosophizing about (lack of) Progress.

Reducing jerkiness is the work of the jerky individual and his/her jerky peer group. Eliminating bigotry is a societal task spread over centuries at the fastest. One generation can only do so much. Systemic oppression can be meaningfully reduced only after bigotry entire has been largely relegated to the dust heap of history.

You’ve set out a long road & so far I don’t see you calling out the engine to power your proposed trip to the promised land at the other end.

Are you expecting people here to dispute or disagree with this? To me, your OP looks sensible and well-written, but not particularly debatable.

If I had to find something to take issue with, it might be this:

I don’t know of any white folk who have faced systemic oppression, but neither do I know that this has never happened in the history of the world. I don’t see how you could deny that this hypothetically could happen, at least not without asserting either that white people are so inherently superior that they would always be on top in any human society, or that people of color are so inherently superior that they would never oppress white people.

As for

…maybe in the French Revolution, when the upper classes got guillotined?

Wait, is this a trans person who dislikes or is hostile to cis people because of either historic or personal experiences with cis transphobia? Because that’s not bigotry. Just like a Black person who dislikes White people because of Black oppression by White supremacy is not a bigot.

If not a bigot what are they? Prejudiced or racist?

If they hate cisgender people who are not transphobic or white people who aren’t racist, then yes. Hating someone for the way they are born is wrong.

Consider my grandpa. He hated Mexican people for a long time because the local Mexican people in Arizona would harass him all the time. It took a long time for him to get over his bigotry against them. But it was bigotry, as the people at the Mexican restaurant were not the same people as those who would harass him.

We consider people bigots if they think black people are criminals, even if they had some sort of traumatic experience with black people, too. The idea that your trauma makes it okay for you to hate an entire race or similar group is not tenable.

Hate the bigots. That’s fine. And there’s an allowance for being less clear: You do’nt have to always say “some men” or “some white people.” But if you are a misandrist, that’s still bigotry, regardless of your reasons. The same is true if you’re a black person who hates all white people or if you’re a trans person who hates all cisgender people.

Fortunately, I’ve never met the latter, and only encountered the former online. And the only men-hating women I’ve encountered are all TERFs, and so obviously bigoted.

You need to read those quotes in the context of the preceding sentence:

Au contraire:

I’ll absolutely categorize those as personal bigotry. Personal experiences with shitty behavior from members of a group does not, intellectually or morally, justify bigotry, however much it might make it understandable.

Many years ago I worked at a cafe with a White woman who one day remarked on how Mexicans were terrible tippers. I said that was racist, and she blew up at me, telling me how she had many years experience as a waitress and I didn’t know what I was talking about.

Her lived experience did not, intellectually or morally, justify her bigotry. Perhaps it makes it understandable, but it doesn’t make it right.

Her bigotry also reinforces systemic oppression, which makes it effectively worse than the bigotry of a trans person who thinks all cis people are scum. But bigotry is bad, even when it doesn’t reinforce oppression.

Okay, fair enough. But that leads me to wonder about this question: how big does a “system” have to be before it can be a source of systemic oppression? Can systemic oppression exist at the level of a single company or neighborhood or classroom? If so, I think I can stand by my statement that “I don’t know of any white folk who have faced systemic oppression, but neither do I know that this has never happened.”

I’d like to highlight that the social justice issues of the last several years have, ISTM, largely been driven by a shift from a focus on recognizing, finding, and reducing Personal Bigotry, to a focus on recognizing, finding, and reducing Systemic Oppression. And I think this at least partially explains the backlash best symbolized by Trump and Trumpism – systems and institutions (in America, at least) had long tolerated the fight against Personal Bigotry (very broadly speaking – there are many exceptions because of Personally Bigoted leadership), because this fight did little to actually threaten the structure and functioning of these systems and institutions. But this new fight against Systemic Oppression is a real threat to many of these systems and institutions, because oppression is very deeply ingrained in their structure and functioning, such that a true dismantling of Systemic Oppression would require the dismantling of big and powerful interests.

I agree with you that personal bigotry and jerkiness are different. The reason I think this is important is that it makes challenging personal bigotry more difficult now than it used to be. IMHO a big part of the reason is that in the past, back in the days of MLK and earlier, there used to be a large group of people who exhibited personal bigotry but not jerkiness. These were the people who were racist because they grew up hearing from their parents, teachers, pastors, neighbors, etc. that Black people were lesser. Many of those people were otherwise decent and kind folks, but none the less took those lessons to heart. Because they weren’t a jerk / asshole, it was a lot easier to get them to see that their racism was wrong.

In the present time, it’s a LOT more likely that people who demonstrate personal bigotry do so because they’re an asshole, not because they grew up in rural Mississippi where discriminating against Black people was just a part of ordinary life and the way things were done. That’s why we have started hearing about people who are raised by non-racist parents who become violent racists. Their racism is a manifestation of their being an asshole.

Definitely so, and I think this is a good shift overall. But like I said, I think that confusion between these terms leads to two main errors. First, old-school folks sometimes think, “I’m not a jerk, therefore I’m not being personally bigoted, therefore my actions are okay,” not distinguishing between personal bigotry and systemic oppression. Second, lefties sometimes think, “I’m not engaging in systemic oppression, therefore my actions are okay.”

The first error is much worse in its real-world effects. But the second error is also an error. It’s possible to be a total choad bigotrywise even if you’re not engaging in oppression.

It’s definitely possible that an asteroid shaped like a teapot is floating in the asteroid belt. But until it, or systemic oppression in the US vs. White people based on their Whiteness, is specifically discovered, I’m not going to concern myself with them.

Plenty of white people have faced Systemic Oppression, but not because they’re white – because they’re women, or LGBTQ+, or disabled, etc.

EDIT: Just noticed this was stated explicitly in the OP. Sorry I missed it!

I thought Affirmative Action was Systemic Oppression.

I don’t know why you’d think that. I don’t think that.

Well, the OP said that Systemic oppression involves historical, societal structures or norms that systematically deny or diminish rights to a group of people.” I thought that was correct, and that Affirmative Action involves systematically denying or diminishing the rights of people in this or that group as a matter of, y’know, societal structures and thus and such.