Have you ever caught yourself in the act of oppression? I have several times in the past week.
One of the less mundane aspects of my job at Wal-Mart involves completing purchase orders for companies, charities, and the government. Today, at work, there were many purchase orders that I had to write up. One of the more recent ones involved two young women, one a mother, both First Nations. They were purchasing school supplies, with money from the Ministry of Social Services.
The first of the women had some money left over, so she ran off to collect some pens and use as much money as possible to fill out her purchase order. This took her about 10 minutes. And my line grew very quickly in this ten minutes to be approximately 10 people deep. My computer was hung up, waiting for her to come and complete the transaction.
And so I began sharing my frustration with my co-workers - "how long does it take to get pens when they are only twenty feet away?" Some of the customers heard me, including the second of the young First Nations women. She approached me, with her child, and said, "Don't talk about my friend like that."
Now, I'm a prideful prick. And when I am in a situation where I have the power, my prideful prickness pops up at an extreme.
So I said to my co-worker. "I think this woman is threatening me. I can't imagine why. Does she actually expect me to redeem her purchase order when she does that?"
In that instant, this woman was reminded of what it is like to be Indian in a world where white people have the money and power, and where men are not to be questioned by women. This woman was reminded that she was powerless. She was reminded that she was poor, and that she was accepting charity from somebody else (the government) in order to purchase something as simple and everyday as school supplies. This young woman, with child in hand, was reminded of her everyday existence, in the midst of a moment of excitement - the purchasing of school supplies.
And this was because of me.
The events that took place afterwards were of no. I was able to fulfill my duty, and feel charitable in doing it. She was able to fulfill her duty, and feel ashamed for being dependent. She was reminded, because of my body language, because of my privilege to have a job, and because of my willingness to "help" her, of how much more power I have than her.
Not that she needed reminding. Or that I needed reminding. We both know it, we just call this existence, "reality", and make it acceptable because it is "the way things are."
I have felt the scar of oppression - it is because of this scar that I am still in the closet and protecting myself from more direct attacks upon my identity. I rage about oppression - it discusses me when I can dissect interactions and recognize it. But I am an agent of it; I have been contracted out to oppress the poor, the women, the racialized, and the "other". I don't know it, but I am complicit in it.
My behaviour must change.
And everytime that I write about and discuss the oppression that I experience, I must be reminded that I am an oppressor. If my sympathies are limited to superficial ideals that don't affect my behaviour, or to the protection of homosexuals from social harassment, then I am not worthy of any protection or kindness myself.
Desmond Tutu says this: "A person is a person because he recognizes others as persons."