In more social revolutions – the moves away from racism, sexism, heteroism – the fight against the Archie Bunkers of the world is the primary and initially most difficult fight. This initial level – the one that tends to be dramatized in history classes – has starkly opposed sides. It is usually easy – especially with the benefit of historical hindsight – to determine the faultlines. Problems are stated and resolved in terms of individual ideology: Individuals are racist, therefore you educate and change individuals. This works, because individuals even though individuals are *prejudiced*, not *racist*, lots of individual prejudice creates the racist systems that are being fought against.
The secondary struggle tends to look at intersections of oppression – where those struggling against one form of oppression (and keenly aware of it) are ignorant of the other avenues that they, too might oppress. Patricia Hill Collins makes this point exquisitely clear in her analysis of how the Black civil rights movement often forgot women’s equality in the meantime. This shares many of the aspects of the primary struggle, except that one’s heroes may suddenly become flawed “opponents”. Regardless, it too is frequently stated in terms of individuality and individual prejudice.
Neither of these are the most difficult stage of the struggle. This third stage – the one I suspect we are in the midst of now – is one where the Archie Bunkers are on the way out. They are not the dominant group anymore, and their prejudices are impolite at best. There is a danger they may regain power or popularity, as the neo-nazi movements did after Geraldo put them on television, but they are largely insignificant. Yet, despite the widespread eradication or suppression of open prejudice, systems of oppression remain. And that is why this stage is the most difficult – and crucial – of all.
The remaining systems of oppression are still very real, but now are especially insiduous. While it’s possible that there are some prejudiced types still trying to be sneaky, it is far more likely that earlier prejudice is ossified into the social systems that surround us. That is, the available options are not obvious, nor intended as prejudiced – but the effects are the same. It is the resonating echoes of earlier prejudice – but unlike sound, these echoes will not disappear on their own. Erasing these echoes of prejudice, these ossified systems of oppression, requires extra vigilance on our part. Because these systems are subtle, it may seem insignificant at first. Things may not match our “common sense” because it too is impacted by these echoes. We’re so used to hearing the echo that it has become part of the background noise, unnoticed until it is finally gone.
Oh, but that’s not the difficult part. Yes, being extra vigilant is difficult. Pointing out systems of oppression which have no prejudicial intent is frequently thankless work. But it is more difficult than that.
The first two stages of struggle were productive. They, at least in part, worked. This means that not only did the Archie Bunkers go away (or at least into hiding), but there are new, transitional people. These are the people who have never thought of Aunt Jemima as a “mammy” image – because they’ve never seen a “mammy” before. These are the people who find 9 to 5 quaint, but cartoonish, and have a hard time believing that sexual harassment was ever that bad, because it’s simply horrifying. These are the transcendent ones. They are the ones we have strived to produce. With any degree of luck and effort on our part, they will hear the echoes of prejudice and be annoyed by the whine.
But they may also become our unwitting targets. While “throw like a girl” still carries all its sexist connotations, what about “half-assed”, which meant exactly the same thing a century ago? Does an image of Black people eating watermelong *always* have to have a hidden racial message? At one point can one say that a woman is “sometimes moody” and mean *only* that rather than some hidden message about menstruation?
Whenever there is an illness in your body, there is a balancing act performed. Your white blood cells must be aggressive enough to destroy the invader. Being not quite aggressive enough results in just the toughest bugs remaining – and those superbugs wreaking havoc in your body. Being too aggressive results in autoimmune disorders, where your body effectively tears itself apart.
Our society is now at that place, that balancing act, with many of the structures of oppression. While we must be aggressive in silencing the echoes of prejudice, we must also make sure to not gag our allies.