There’s a sensibility in the USA that all interactions are individual, and between equals. “It’s okay to tell dirty jokes around her,” one hears. “She’s cool with it.” You might hear that someone’s “okay” with a racial slur, or insulting jokes. This concept has always bothered me – even though I’ve used it myself in regards to West Virginia jokes. Lynn May Rivas, in the essay “Invisible Labors” in the book _Global Woman_ has managed to distill the fundamental question underneath it all. She is discussing workers who are expected to be invisible servants; part of their work is to make it appear as if they did nothing.
“Are workers who articulate a desire to be invisible oppressed by being made so? *Must one feel oppressed to be oppressed?*”
This is it. Asking it in this way makes it clear that oppression – even with the full consent of the oppressed – is still oppression. We can only model the motivations that makes one feel so: to curry favor, to avoid punishment, to be included in a group, to keep their job, to keep someone else happy. But from an exterior viewpoint, it becomes obvious that it’s still oppression.
It is relatively common for long-term military personnel to return after leaving – even if they retired. It’s also common for long-term prisoners to attempt to get back into prison. Both have been in oppressive – but familiar – environments. The oppression is what they’re used to, what they’re comfortable with. It’s what they actively desire.
But it is still oppression.
I’ve made the West Virginia jokes with the excuse that I was making jokes about myself – but I know that I’m not. My hometown is very, very different than the majority of the state – a fact that I do not hesitate to tell people when they first discover where I’m from. A relationship with another person from West Virginia quickly blew up when she talked about her family slaughtering a hog in the backyard. I broke out laughing – the concept was so *alien* to me and to my experience growing up. I should have figured it out then – she even told me as much. “The West Virginia you know is a very different place than where I grew up.”
I am left with the uncomfortable realization that all the times I’ve made fun of “myself” as a West Virginian, I was really pointing at other people. At people like her family. That I was making fun of them, that I was trying to get everyone else to laugh *with* me. To laugh *at* them.
Too often, I hear politeness and respect undermined. “Well, my friend with characteristic X says that white people are being too sensitive.” “Aw, she’s a woman and doesn’t mind jokes like that.” “No, really, it’s okay. I just want to be one of the guys.”
These aren’t empowering things – they’re artifacts of oppression. They are the desires of individuals to escape that oppression, even if it means denying themselves in the process.