A professor of mine once told me to actively work inside the system. During this class, we were discussing the pervasive systems of American society – the institutions that infiltrate our everyday lives. Education, medicine, law, and government are constantly imprinting, nurturing and socializing us. We discussed how the inherent power of these systems enables the regulation of our lives. This same power is the site of the manifestation of oppression, discrimination, and inequality.
As my professor shared this with us, some questioned the validity of the statement while other offered blank stares, hands raised. But…. isn’t that obvious? I mean, where else could anyone possibly exist? It’s not as if we could escape these systems to an alternate reality where education, law, medicine, or government have no influence. Or a place where oppression, discrimination, and inequality don’t exist. Right?
She went on to give a detailed explanation of what she meant. Walking to the board, she grabbed a piece of chalk, and began to draw a large circle on the board. She explained that inside the circle represented the systems, and proceeded to ask where we believed we existed in relation to this. The answer to this question, for my class, ignited many questions and much debate.
Given what I know about these systems, it was particularly hard for me to visualize myself as an active individual, working alongside the production of discrimination, racism, misogyny, inequality, oppression… the list goes on.
I suppose the first assumption made is that everyone recognizes that these injustices exist, which is sadly not true. Regardless, there are ample opportunities to understand the realities I refer to here. Whether through personal experience or the experiences of others, they are very real. You don’t have to look hard. Sometimes you don’t even have to look, you just have to be.
This is the reality…
As a woman entering the workforce I will at best, make 82% of that earned by my male counterparts2. In my lifetime, I have a 1 in 6 chance of being a victim of sexual assault – though the notion of victim blaming is just as likely5. Meeting someone who supports marriage for all is sadly of equal chance as meeting someone who does not3. Almost half of hate crimes committed in the United States stem from racial bias, while a fifth stem from sexual orientation bias – that is, the ones that are reported1. Abortion is a common and safe practice, but many women bare the social stigma accompanying the right to choose, despite its legality.
In the United States Congress, 20 of the 100 Senators and 77 of 435 Representatives are female. Where female representation lacks, sexual minorities are merely nonexistent. And if you think the government is shocking, only about 3% of CEOs for Fortune 500 companies are women4.
Calling a woman a slut on syndicated talk radio is acceptable and applauded by many. “Legitimate rape” isn’t a question from an eighth grader in sex education class, but rather an argument from an (arguably) educated elected official. And these are only the sentiments that happen to be said publicly.
Sadly, the everyday experience does not lend concrete statistics. Despite this, experience tells us that sexual harassment is extensive, racial profiling does occur, and discriminatory slurs are still used today… regularly.
I do not claim that the statements above represent a universalized experience. Nor do I claim that the statements above examine all forms of discrimination and oppression that are pervasive in American society today. What I do claim, though, is that in just this small representation it is clear why some students, including myself, would struggle to claim associations to the systems that perpetuate discriminatory, oppressive ideologies.
So, here was this large circle on the board and a classroom full of students gazing in a contemplative stare. This class taught critical thinking and promoted further examination of the world. So she continued her explanation by saying that in acknowledging these realities, it seems as though we should refute the system in totality.
She began to draw small circles outside the larger one. Now, stick with the analogy here…
If we refuse to work within the large circle, we end up forming our own circles outside of this one. In our small circles, we may be surrounded by likeminded people and enjoy the company of those who have similar life experiences. We may even begin to be empathetic towards those of other smaller circles as well. But (and a very large one at that), how can we ever expect to change the shape of the larger circle if we never work with it.
As I said at the beginning of this endeavor, where could we possibly exist if not within the system? Our small circles are not exempt from oppression, discrimination, or inequality. In choosing to be outside the circle, we are choosing to ignore the larger one. That does not mean, though, that the power of the large circle does not infiltrate the lives of those in the smaller circles.
Being active within the system is how you change the shape of the large circle – that’s how you change the system.
I acknowledge that this is by no means a simple fix, or that this occurs with ease. This is infinitely more complicated than circles on a chalkboard. In this complex reality, something is brought to the circle that was not there before – you.
Taking chances in the workplace, advocating to stop victim blaming, supporting same-sex marriage, refuting discriminatory slurs, running for political office, or telling Todd Akin to take a sexual education class… here you are shaking up the circle in very real, proactive ways. The next thing you know you’re the new CEO, sexual assault occurs less frequently, same-sex marriage is legal, there are more women in political office, and Todd Akin is out of a job. The circle has changed its shape.
This is by far the most influential lesson I’ve learned in my collegiate years. This is so simple, somewhat obvious, but something that I will carry with me for a lifetime.
Tori Whitworth, NOW Intern
1. U.S. Department of Justice. Federal Bureau of Investigation. FBI Releases 2011 Hate Crime Statistics. Federal Bureau of Investigation. FBI National Press Office, 10 Dec. 2012. Web. 29 Mar. 2013. <http://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/fbi-releases-2011-hate-crime-statistics>.
2. United States. U.S. Department of Labor. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Highlights of Women's Earnings in 2011. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Oct. 2012. Web. 29 Mar. 2013. <http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpswom2011.pdf>.
3. Silver, Nate. "How Opinion on Same-Sex Marriage Is Changing, and What It Means." New York Times. The New York Times Company, 26 Mar. 2013. Web. 29 Mar. 2013. <http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/26/how-opinion-on-same-sex-marriage-is-changing-and-what-it-means/>.
4. Petrecca, Laura. "Number of Female 'Fortune' 500 CEOs at Record High." USA Today. Gannett Co., Inc., 26 Oct. 2011. Web. 29 Mar. 2013. <http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/companies/management/story/2011-10-26/women-ceos-fortune-500-companies/50933224/1>.
5. Tjaden, Patricia, and Nancy Thoennes. Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey. Rep. National Institute of Justice Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1998. Web. 29 Mar. 2013. <https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles/172837.pdf>.