Dynamics of Oppression & Discrimination
On the first day of this class I did what I believe is typical for new graduate students–I immediately turned to the syllabus to see how I would be graded, and on what assignments - Dynamics of Oppression & Discrimination introduction. I have to be honest with you, when I read the first Journal Assignment, I laughed. What was my story of my ethnic group given to me and by whom and what context? That’s simple, I thought, I have none and was given none. What ethnic group do I belong to and who gave me this information? Again, that’s simple. I am a white, American woman.
Who told me? Well that was a little more complicated because a whole host of sources relayed this information to me: my family, educators, neighbors, institutions and friends along with the mass media, and the mirror. I also scoffed at the notion that my story would include ways in which my “group” was in any way ethnically dominant. This would be an easy assignment, I thought to myself. My only concern was how I was going to be able fill three to four pages with information that really didn’t apply to me! Today, sitting down to write this assignment I have a whole new perspective–this assignment is in no way simple!
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Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines ethnic as “…2a : of or relating to large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background <ethnic minorities> <ethnic enclaves>; b : being a member of a specified ethnic group <an ethnic German>” (Ethnic, 2012). I have been staring at this definition for over an hour. I have reread the material we have covered in class to date, and yet, I am stymied. My initial instinct is to write about my racial makeup. The readings, however, shed more light on ethnicity.
Harlon Dalton said it succinctly in his article, Failing to See: …[d]espite surface similarities, race and ethnicity are very different creatures. Ethnicity is the bearer of culture. It describes that aspect of our heritage that provides us with a mother tongue and shapes our values, our worldview, our family structure, our rituals, the foods we eat, our mating behavior – in short, much of our daily lives…In contrast race exists only in relation to one another…. [sic] race would be meaningless if it were not a fault line along which power, prestige, and respect are distributed….
Whiteness is meaningless in the absence of Blackness…White ethnicity determines culture, race determines social position. (as cited in Ferber, Jimenez, O’Reilly Herrera, & Samuels, 2009, p. 59). It is clear then that to get to any true self-identity, a broader and more than superficial investigation of self-reflection and of micro- and macro-societal influences are required (Jimenez, 2010). Who am I? I have no real ethnic history. My mother was adopted and we have no information pertaining to her biological background.
Furthermore, my fraternal grandmother was adopted and my fraternal grandfather abandoned my father when he was very young. There are no records to trace their bloodlines. Both my father’s and my mother’s parents had very similar ideologies. Both were children of first generation immigrants, my mother’s from Norway and father’s from Germany. They believed that the locus of control was on the individual which meant a protestant work ethic and puritanistic beliefs in saving, thrift and fundamentalist Christian ideas about a woman’s purity and place and “clean thoughts” as Grandma B used to say.
Both were hard working Iowa farmers who believed in the individualistic perspective of hard work, no play, religious clarity and upward mobility for those who followed the rules. They would rather die than take a handout and believed people who were poor were no-good drunkards or lazy sinners. They fed into the idea in the late 50’s and 60’s that higher moral valued people such as themselves should feel sorry for those people because they were truly in the devil’s hands, and if only they found God they would be able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and make it in this world. . if it was God’s will, of course.
Although these ideologies never seemed to affect my father, they were instrumental in influencing my mother and subsequently me. My mother’s strict guilt-embodied upbringing, in at least one way, did not serve her well. Understandably, she rebelled and did what too many rebellious teenagers do–she fell in love with a “bad” boy and became pregnant with me. My biological sperm bank (my father) attempted to abandon my mother, however, his Catholic family forced him to marry my mom. So who am I?
I am a white, Anglo-Saxon female with an olive-skinned complexion that hints at some European or ethnic dissent of which none can be traced. I have what people frequently inform me is a Latino or Italian surname, Maria. My last name, however, is decidedly German: Schreier. I grew up poor. My biological father was an abusive alcoholic. I remember my time with him dimly as a lot of moving around, profanity, screaming, beatings, and bloodshed. When I was five my mother tried to kill herself after another particularly brutal beating and this was the onus that compelled her to flee with my siblings and me to Wisconsin.
Those first years in Wisconsin were hard. Mom worked full time and did the best she could without the aid of child-support or any social assistance programs. We were the only white family in the neighborhood and were frequently harassed and threatened. Despite the racial tension, Mom taught us that all people were equal; that all people were good inside; that we mustn’t judge others; and that whatever we do, we shouldn’t show people we were weak or scared. She would say, “If you want to honey, you can do and be anything you want to do or be.
You just have to want it bad enough and work harder than anyone else. ” I believed her back then. Growing up in the 70’s in the liberal climate of Madison, Wisconsin opened up many avenues of opportunity and thought for Mom and as a young, impressionable girl, for me. I never thought of African-American’s or any other racial or ethnic group as any different then myself. I believed women were, in many ways, superior to men. It never occurred to me that because I was white and female that there would be people who believe white is the superior race and that females are the weaker sex.
It fascinates me that throughout my forty-six years of existence, the idea that I, or anyone in my extended family, have ever been in a role of domination never occurred to me. It is true that as a white, heterosexual, educated, articulate female I have had numerous privileges that I’ve taken for granted. I have never felt people staring at me with suspicion when I walk into a room. Whereas, when I’ve walked into a room with an African-American friend, I have noticed white people looking with unease and distrust out of the corner of their eyes; I’ve heard the sneer, “nigger lover.
I have never had to hide my sexuality or fear that someone might be violent towards me due to any sexual orientation. On the other hand, my homosexual friends have described their fears and I have witnessed the hatred and judgmental behavior directed at them. As this Journal Assignment demonstrates, no one person is solely defined by his or her ethniciy. Each person’s identity is “multiple, based on his or her gender, ethnicity, age, and family roles (Jimenez, 2010). ”
As Patricia Hill Collins commented in her article Toward a New Vision, we, myself included, easily identify our own victimization within major systems of oppression, “whether it be by race, social class, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age or gender…” (as cited in Ferber, et al. , 2009, p. 98). Time and time again, however, “I [sic] fail to see how my thoughts and actions uphold someone else’s subordination” (Id. ). I have failed to acknowledge my White privilege within the numerous rewards I receive merely because I am heterosexual, white and in the many other ways I take my class privilege for granted.
I have, like so many others, fallen into our society’s vision of what is “normal,” a vision that is perpetuated through numerous mediums. This relationship throughout history is reflected in the fact that the dominant groups “determine who gets the best jobs, whose history will be taught in school and the greatest influence in determining the structure of the society. ” (Miller, 1976). The dominant group assigns roles to the subordinate group that reflect the subordinate groups’ devalued status. I agree that ethnicity is a social construction created by dominant groups to reduce the threat of diversity (Jimenez, 2010).
Why else would the dominant group claim that African Americans and Latinos are stupid and lazy or that women are less emotionally stable than men (Miller, 1976)? Who am I? I am a white, heterosexual, disabled, veteran and a female who is a survivor of oppression and conversely has enjoyed the numerous benefits of white privilege and at times thoughtlessly, been the oppressor. Writing about ones identity requires a complex amalgamation of all past and present ideals with intersecting roles of race, class, gender, religion, sexuality, and historical conditions that develop over time and take on new meanings and shift throughout our life.
I note that Journal Assignment #2 asks that we write about our experiences of race, class, gender and other features of difference and inequality in our lives and how it has varied depending on our environment. I look forward to further discourse and readings in order to expand and continue to self-assess the importance of approaching my social work career with an open-minded, empathetic and multidimensional view of the clients I wish to engage and empower.