Back when he was on Saturday Night Live, Chris Rock had this bit:
“Let’s face it. White people can’t box. Black people box better. Puerto Ricans, even better. It seems the lower you go on the social ladder, the better the boxer. If there’s a Puerto Rican who is a good boxer, there’s a Native American waiting to kick his ass.”
If there’s something immediately satisfying about this joke, it’s a sense of fairness. Within the joke’s reality, boxing—something like trial by combat according to the Westerosi legal system—will always produce a righteous result. The outcome is set to balance the scales of past injustice. The problem here, though, is that professional boxing is also a kind of gladiatorial entertainment in which two (usually) people of color beat each other up for the amusement of wider society. Much like, again, the Westerosi system, in which rich people on trial can enlist others to fight and die for them. The joke exemplifies a core principle of interfactionality: Attention is drawn to conflict between oppressed groups in a way that both satisfies the observer and camouflages how that conflict is orchestrated by the oppressor.
Chris Rock’s joke also demonstrates a specific technique of interfactional oppression, exemplified in his ordering of black –> Puerto Rican –> Native American. What I want to talk about in this post is how the imposition of a hierarchy of oppression can, in itself, function as a mechanism of oppression. Not just divide and conquer; but divide, rank, and conquer.
The first form of this technique is social stratification. Here, groups are oppressed at different levels of intensity but according to the same set of principles, or in a common generally recognized hierarchy. The South African Apartheid system (with its ordering of white –> colored –> black), the caste system in India, the European feudal estate system, and the capitalist class system that emerged from it are all examples. The hierarchy is often encoded legally, with strict boundaries between the groups regulated by sanctions against violators. It usually reinforces itself by having a middle group’s position in the pecking order be contingent on their maintaining oppression of a lower group.
The vulnerability in this system is that it can’t exploit interfactionality to full effect. Typically, a lower group will not participate in oppression of a middle group, which means the system can’t guarantee mutually reinforcing animosities between those strata. In some cases, they might still join together to overthrow the upper group. This is what happened, for example, in the Haitian revolution, when blacks and creoles joined forces to expel their white colonizers.
The second form of this technique is a version of what Patricia Hill Collins calls the “matrix of domination.” In a matrix of domination, each group is oppressed according to a different set of principles. One effect is that no clear hierarchy can be determined, which sets the stage for an interminable Oppression Olympics. Any given group will be able to claim that their own oppression is the most significant based on their own evaluative criteria. People might prioritize gender, as the original oppression; class, as the mediator of all other oppressions; sexuality, as that most fundamentally marginalizing; race, as that most violently enforced; anti-blackness, as the model for all other racisms. Each of these arguments may be valid on its own terms. A matrix of domination, unlike social stratification, doesn’t have a generally recognized or legally sanctioned pecking order. This greater complexity is key to the matrix of domination’s resilience. By oppressing different groups according to distinct principles, it allows all such groups to participate in mutual oppression. The system can be fully interfactional, with all oppressed groups pitted against all others. Oppressions interlock and, in the ensuing struggle, intensify as they become increasingly entangled.
The specific version of this technique I’m considering here exploits the principle of divide, rank, and conquer to make it particularly sticky. Here, people are oppressed not only in different ways, but also at distinct levels of intensity. This reinforces the Oppression Olympics effect by making it easier for a matrix of domination to masquerade as social stratification. The variability in types of oppression ensures that everyone can participate in everyone else’s subordination, while the distinct intensities of oppression fool people into imagining a non-existent pecking order. This way, a more intensely oppressed group that participates in the oppression of a less intensely oppressed group can become oblivious to the damage they’re doing, and resentful of any accusation of wrongdoing.
Chris Rock’s joke is one illustration of the matrix of domination masquerading as social stratification.
Keanu Reeves and Audre Lorde
In The Matrix, machines get humans to submit to oppression by fabricating a reality for them. To be effective this reality has to be dystopian, full of internal conflict. (We learn that humans rejected an earlier utopian version of the Matrix like a bad transplant.) As long as people accept the Matrix as truth, they are afforded no way out of oppression. Keanu has to unlearn this reality before he can liberate himself and the world, gaining the power to alter reality by realizing its fictiveness. For his first lesson, he bends a spoon with his mind upon learning this new truth: “there is no spoon.”
A matrix of domination fabricates its own reality to similar effect. As long as the oppressed are pitted against each other, the oppressors can remain relatively invisible and out of reach. The power of the system lies in the way a few simple lines of code (oppress different groups in distinct and differently severe ways) can weave a self-perpetuating and increasingly intransigent web of mutually sustaining conflicts over time. Audre Lorde, accordingly, proposes this maxim for liberation from this system: “There Is No Hierarchy of Oppressions.”
Of course, those few lines of code are exactly about imposing a hierarchy of oppressions on the world. Lorde’s maxim should therefore not be taken as a simple statement of objective fact, any more than “there is no spoon” should be. Rather, both are mantras of the oppressed deployed to assert their own subjective reality over that of the system that oppresses them.
If there’s a vulnerability in the matrix of domination relative to simple social hierarchy, it’s that the former can’t rely on clear separations between groups. Where social stratification can alienate whole classes of people from one another by minimizing contact between them, the criss-crossing of identity-based oppressions that characterizes a matrix of domination does not allow that kind of sharply defined segregation. Too many people belong to multiple subordinated groups for those boundaries to be maintained. And so, black and Latina women activists in particular have argued that a centering of their lived experiences as whole people in spite of and in the face of multiple oppressions is key to fighting their matrix of domination. The blinders that the system puts on differently oppressed groups to pit them against one another are not as effective against the multiply oppressed, who necessarily perceive their subordination from multiple angles.
A successful challenge to a matrix of domination would demand three qualities: that awareness beyond interfactional parochialism, a motivation to act against multiple vectors of oppression simultaneously, and the power to make structural change. The system affords the first two of these qualities to the multiply oppressed, and so to maintain itself must do whatever it can to deny the third. The multiplicative effects of multiple oppression serve this disempowering function. The movement to make women of color leaders of broad progressive coalitions is a countertechnique, an important attempt to link their awareness and motivation to the power of the privileged.
Other posts in this series: