My -ism is (not) better than your -ism

3 minute read


My friend posted this great essay on her Facebook this morning, and I’d highly encourage everyone to read it. It’s titled ”Obscuring the importance of race: the implication of making comparisons between racism and sexism (or other -isms)”.

As a white woman in STEM who has mostly white friends who are also mostly in STEM, the majority of my conversations about inequality, oppression, etc tend to be anchored in the experience of being a woman in STEM. And while experiencing overt sexism and microaggressions does help us begin to understand other kinds of oppressions, this article makes a really strong point that it can also give us a pass by providing the illusion that we “get it”, even though racism and sexism are very very different.

For if we can convince ourselves that another’s experience is “just like” ours, we are then exempt from having fully to comprehend that experience.

Empathy is crucial in this work, which is why finding analogies can be so helpful and motivating. However, at the root of allyship is a commitment to listening to other people’s stories, wholly and selflessly.

This is another reason why conflict management training felt so impactful: at its core, everything we humans do that is beautiful and inspiring comes down to listening to and seeing each other as whole people.

We share a primal, and not unreasonable, fear that if we open ourselves enough to comprehend another’s pain, we will lose our right to feel our own, especially if ours cannot compete in the pain sweepstakes.

One of the most powerful concepts I took away from training was the power of “and”. You can love someone, and be really hurt by what they did. You can be a good person, and have made a hurtful mistake. You can be a compassionate person, and be really angry about a situation.

You can feel your pain, and recognize the depth of someone else’s.

This article also provided clarity on something I’ve been thinking about in the back of my mind for a while: becoming aware of the ways in which society is messed up really sucks. Recognizing my privilege and my role in these complex systems is such a downer, like all of the time. But that’s the whole point:

Talking about racism/white supremacy is painful for whites as well, but in a different way. Whites must confront their role as oppressors, or at least as beneficiaries of the racial oppression of others, in a race-based hierarchy. The pain of oppression must be communicated to the dominant group if there is to be any understanding of racism/white supremacy.

The pain of being oppressed can not be ignored or forgotten. When I recognize my own privilege and feel the pain that comes with that recognition, it’s not like I’m deviating from a normal status quo to something abnormal. Quite the opposite: I’m deviating from something abnormal, a life cushioned by my whiteness, to something normal, a life in which race matters in every single thing that I do and experience.