In the second season of HBO’s Insecure, Issa and her skittishly try-hard white progressive coworker Frieda are tasked with offering extracurricular aid at a mostly black and Latinx Los Angeles high school. Meeting indifference from the student body, they seek an ally in Vice Principal Charles Gaines, whose enthusiastic collaboration comes with a catch. He jokes about building a wall to exclude the Latinx students and making them pay for it. He chastises a student for speaking Spanish in the hallway. Shocked, Frieda suggests to Issa that they need to report these incidents to their boss.
Also! They work at a nonprofit for underserved youth called “We Got Y’all,” at which Issa is the only black employee.
Issa responds by minimizing the problem and argues against reporting the incidents. Frieda struggles to counter: “I know that the oppressed cannot be the oppressor, obviously, obviously, but would it still be okay if he said those things if he was, you know… white?”
I want to take this scenario as a jumping-off point for thinking about how mutual oppression works, and why it’s been so difficult to theorize. I’ll begin with Patricia Bidol’s maxim, now a standard Social Justice 101 premise that racism = prejudice + power. For anyone who’s not already there, I’d just like to point out that anti-racists accept the validity of this maxim not because it reflects some essential definitional truth—
—but because oppressions faced by people of color as people of color are qualitatively different from difficulties experienced by white people as white people, and we need our vocabulary to reflect that distinction.
So what about Frieda’s corresponding notion, that the oppressed can’t be the oppressor?
Ever since Michel Foucault published Discipline and Punish in 1975, most scholars have accepted his premise that social power isn’t inherent to individuals, but an effect of networked relationships. What might appear to be an army general’s individual power is actually his position in a command pyramid—detach the people below him from the network and he loses his greatly multiplied ability to affect the world. This is why white people can’t be the victims of racism under global white supremacy. Not because of any shared inherent characteristics, but because the networked social structure doesn’t direct constant racist power against them, any more than an army’s chain of command permits a private to regularly order their sergeant around.
(Are there situations in which whiteness may be a disadvantage? Sure. But those situations don’t accumulate to add weight to an ever-present racist social structure, and therein lies the difference.)
In my previous post I discussed the problem of trying to conceptualize all oppressions as a single grand hierarchy. Instead, we need to be aware of multiple intersecting power structures in what Patricia Hill Collins calls a matrix of domination. When Vice Principal Gaines jokes about building a wall to keep the Hispanics out and chastises them for speaking Spanish, he is oppressing them according to a racist logic that marks Latinx people as essentially foreign to the United States. This logic positions African Americans above Latinx people (while still below white people) in a specific racial hierarchy based on national belonging. A hypothetical Latinx vice principal the next office over could make a parallel set of jokes about shiftless black kids, deploying a different racist logic that positions Latinx people (stereotyped as having a better work ethic than black people, if not as solid as white people’s) above them. These moments manifest what Andrea Smith would call distinct “pillars” of white supremacy, wherein whiteness sits at the top of several differently ordered racial hierarchies whose coexistence encourages and enables all people of color to jockey for position by adding weight to somebody else’s oppression. Accordingly, while the premise that white people can’t be the victims of racism holds, Frieda’s premise that people of color can’t be its perpetrators doesn’t. Racism is prejudice plus power, power is a function of social networks, and people of color are networked into that system in ways that are mutually oppressive.
Here, then, is another key premise of interfactionality: Nobody, no matter how intense or intersectional their own oppression, is immune from being a vector of somebody else’s.
(My previous post outlines how someone who is more oppressed can still participate in the oppression of someone who is less oppressed if their forms oppression differ.)
To get a sense of how mutual oppressions operate, I’d like to go back to that scenario in Insecure and consider why Issa resists the idea of reporting Vice Principal Gaines’ racist language to her boss. I would imagine she’s already quite uncomfortable with Frieda witnessing this unflattering caricature of black bigotry, and that letting the rest of the office see it is not going to be plan A. She doesn’t need this fueling whatever superiority complexes they already have about the black people they assume as a class are in need of saving. Or, she doesn’t want to give up any of the tenuous leverage she might have over their white liberal sensibilities by revealing to them that blackness doesn’t guarantee righteousness. It’s also possible she doesn’t trust them with any kind of a-black-guy-said-it-so-I’m-not-racist-for-repeating-it ammunition they might casually deploy against the Latinx kids who are already being screwed over by Vice Principal Gaines. Or maybe she just doesn’t want to take sides with her white saviorist nonprofit against a fellow black person.
Equally relevant is the question of why Frieda defers to Issa’s judgment in this situation. Frieda is probably at a loss here because the white progressive ally handbook offers no guidance on black-on-brown racism. The closest things she can find are (a) distrust any negative thoughts you might be having about people of color, and (b) when in doubt let your one black friend take the wheel.
These are all in addition to Vice Principal Gaines’ own motivations, which may stem from a general lack of the kinds of resources that might allow his full student population to succeed (as opposed to forcing him to prioritize one group over another and find rationales for doing so).
All of these motivations in combination manifest from structural features of a matrix of domination operating to ensure that the disenfranchisement of the school’s Latinx population can continue unabated. The interfactional entanglements at play afford nobody a “correct” answer. Issa and Frieda can report, potentially reinforcing numerous racist narratives already at play at their nonprofit, or they can decide not to, leaving discriminatory practices unchallenged. Vice Principal Gaines can do his best for the black students he sees as his special charge, or he can distribute inadequate resources evenly and run the risk of seeing nobody get the full extent of what they need.
Another key feature of interfactionality at play here is that the work of oppression is delegated to the oppressed, giving the oppressor class an appearance of clean hands. The society in which Vice Principal Gaines lives delivers him a xenophobic narrative he can use to enfranchise his own disenfranchised group at the expense of another, and a public school funding scheme that incentivizes him to buy into and perpetuate that narrative. If We Got Y’All had reacted to his racism by divesting from his school (a likely scenario but for Issa’s presence) they would be both reinforcing the black and Latinx students’ disenfranchisement and a narrative of their own white moral superiority.
Following that principle of apparently clean hands, it’s not incidental that one of the things that makes me comfortable discussing these issues is my own whiteness. Scholars of color might be leery of airing this sort of dirty laundry before a predominantly white academe, just as Issa is loath to have this discussion with her predominantly white nonprofit. Nor, perhaps, is it coincidental that some of the most incisive critiques of what I am calling interfactionality have come from the aforementioned Andrea Smith, another white scholar whose discomfort with being the Frieda of this scenario might contribute to her unfortunate insistence on claiming a Cherokee identity that isn’t hers.
The most important way I can compensate for the dangers of this line of inquiry is to insist on viewing interfactionality as always on some level a structural issue. It’s always going to try to trick us into thinking otherwise—that the problem can be boiled down to the bigoted black male administrator, or the clueless white female activist. These scapegoats are compelling because they offer the image of a much more solvable, individualizable problem—and because they allow pre-existing racist and sexist narratives to vent themselves in socially acceptable terms. The point is that that trick (which includes the fact of these individual actors’ agency, and the fact that we should be compelling them to do better) is in itself a structural feature of interfactionality.
Other posts in this series: