The Mechanics of Invisiblising your Neighbour

“The problem with becoming myself was that, no matter how nice I had learned to be, no matter how smart or accommodating, sitting with myself meant I was becoming more myself, more Black. As soon as I started getting good” at being human I was increasingly perceived as a threat.”

When oppressed people begin to loosen the rigidity of the smile we’ve been taught to hold, when we begin to become ourselves, we become a threat. We become a threat to the oppressor and those who represent our oppression, not because we have become a violence, but because to be ourselves is to live in the truth of the pain and the wrongs inflicted upon us, and to live in that truth is to make visible the power structures upheld by those who represent our oppression, and to do that is to threaten the maintenance of that structure.

From the perspective of the person representing that oppression the experience is rationalised with a different narrative, powered by fear and confusion. Fear because in a society which attempts to maintain an illusion of justice, when oppression is exposed and not refuted, there follows an opening in possibility where the future of the power structure in question becomes less certain, de-stabilising the status of the oppressor. They experience confusion because their participation in that society and it’s illusion of justice relies on them believing themselves to be just, and yet they are experiencing fear at the concept of recognising someone else’s oppression and dismantling it, which indicates that their position is somehow feeding injustice. The illusion has been exposed as an illusion. When an illusion is exposed it no longer illudes. We see the trick in stead of the magic and we cannot go back unless we somehow put reality aside by suspending disbelief. The same is true here. The illusion must either be dismantled in search of a real justice, or the exposure must be hidden for the illusion to live on.

Often the second route is taken. This fear and confusion is rationalised as anger which the oppressor imagines themselves to be rightly directing towards the oppressed for wrongly accusing them of perpetuating an oppression. But no accusation actually needs to be made for this defensive response, which compounds their confusion: if I have done nothing wrong why and how do I feel accused of deep wrongs simply by the implications made by someone’s existence? This is where their rationalisation is quickly shown to be flawed because it eschews the fact that if there were no oppression to speak of, nobody would inherently feel threatened by another person responding with truth to the experience of being themselves. The welfare of the oppressor does not depend on this rationale, because the welfare of none of us depends upon the oppression of others. Only the welfare of the status quo. Yet they may feel that they depend on this rationale because they live within societal narratives which proclaim that a good and worthy life is at the ‘top’. But a ‘top’ can only exist if there is a bottom.

And so in order to maintain their position and protect a very flimsy rationale on which they feel they depend, the oppressing party must stop the process of discussion. Conversations are shut down. Subjects changed. Relationships ended. Oppressed peoples excluded. And often the oppression doubles down.

That’s not where it ends. With support, resilience, and grace, oppressions can be dismantled. But this is the experience of so many people locked into silence and performance by the oppressive supremacist cultures we live in. This is the dance of one of the many ways in which the oppressed are silenced. This is the uncomfortability some people experience when feminist issues are brought up. This is why most white people are uncomfortable talking about race. This dance plays out with every form of oppression.

When Jasmin Syedullah speaks of becoming more black, this doesn’t mean acquiring tastes and mannerisms which are somehow innate to African Americans. This means living and acting from the position of true lived experience, which as an African American, means an experience of oppression.

I was a queer English person, assigned female at birth, with immediate mixed heritage, and a non-neurotypical mind; growing up in a remote village in South Wales, surrounded by deep anti-English sentiment, stubborn homophobia, no concept of queerness, archaic gender performance ideas and expectations; in schools where my native tongue-English- was banned in the corridors, with a cookie-cutter education model, and where there were no other people of colour; in a household where I had become the object of a troubled and isolated single parent’s referred trauma and pain, with a religious single-mindedness which I would later recognise in reportage on Christian cults, very few visitors, no family nearby, very little culture which I could access, and limited freedoms to leave the house. I felt no need to add amplified ostracisation by white hetero-normative culture to the list of battles, and so I didn’t.

I adopted a Welsh accent, did well in my exams, never mentioned race, parked my queerness. Like Jasmin Syedullah describes I didn’t begin to openly get good at being human until many years later, because doing so would mean additionally carrying the weight of being perceived as a threat. Instead I developed my own meditative practices of caring for and being myself but kept them behind the closed door of my bedroom. I did this to maintain some space for peace in my life throughout difficult years, to protect a small place where I was not erased. I was outnumbered and so invented ways to survive the swallowing of my oppression in relative silence.

Because I had swallowed so much, however, I refused to accept anything further either from peers or teachers. If a line was crossed I pushed back. It didn’t happen often, but in primary school when a kid picked on my little brother, I made an example in front of the entire school of what would happen to any repeaters. In secondary school when a rugby player tried to humiliate me in front of half our year group, I punched him. And when everyone turned a blind eye to a physically abusive teacher I wrote a petition which got the local authorities involved. It would take me a long time to understand my own behaviour, having gained a reputation both as someone who didn’t make trouble, was friends with everyone, and got good grades, and as someone who was not to be messed with. But to be that first person I had to swallow enough silencing to be continuously at a limit, and could swallow no more.

Living in this way for so many years did not come without cost. At about sixteen I begun the process of giving myself permission to exist. That process Jasmin Syedullah speaks of, of ‘getting good at being human’. Now in my mid twenties, having made ten years of good progress, I‘m still really only at the start of that process. By speaking about these experiences we begin to disarm the oppressive tools of silencing, invisiblising, and ostracising which uphold normative, supremacist, patriarchal structures. We begin to carve more and more space for people to become their visible selves. By deconstructing the mechanics of our oppression and revealing the trick behind the magic- the illusion of justice, we gracefully point out a portal through which those participating in oppressive structures, which is all of us in some way or other, to dismantle the illusion in search of justice.



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