When surviving an oppressive system makes you a part of it
by hari ziyad
Every marginalized person has experienced the dissonance of having to play by the rules of a system that is designed to limit her simple existence. Cutting one’s natural hair to look more “civilized” during the job interview. Wearing uncomfortable heels because it is what is expected of “professional” women. Speaking the King’s English whenever white folks are anywhere in the vicinity so as to gain their trust and foster their comfort.
Many times, these are simple acts of survival. If you don’t get that job, you’ll go broke. If you detract from the professional appearance of your company, you’ll get fired. If you don’t gain the trust of white folks, they may view you as a threat -- and threats to white folks, even 17 year old threats with bags of skittles and ice tea, do not live very long.
Necessarily, as a Person of Color, there is a certain amount one must compromise to live within a white supremacist society. But when does compromising go too far? How do we live within a system and play by its rules without endorsing it as legitimate? What are the limits of subversion and what are the costs? And are the costs worth it?
Without asking these intimidating questions of ourselves, the irony is that in our need to simply live another day, we may unwittingly support the ongoing dehumanization of our communities caused by White supremacy.
On October 7, 2014, feminist scholar bell hooks and transgender activist and actress Laverne Cox had a conversation as part of hooks’ residency at The New School. They discussed a variety of issues regarding feminism, Blackness and queerness. During a part of their discussion about women not only submitting but willingly participating within the patriarchal gaze, hooks critiqued Cox’ physical presentation by stating that “one of the issues I think that many people have with trans* women is the sense of a traditional femininity… that many feminists feel like we’re trying to get away from.” Cox responded by saying, “I’ve constructed myself in a way that I don’t want to disappear. I think so often there is an erasure of certain bodies and identities and I have never been interested in being invisible.”
To Cox, presenting herself in a “traditionally feminine way” (which Cox describes as wearing “high heels,” “makeup” or a “blonde wig”) assists her in finding visibility — not only as a public figure, but as a living being — because not meeting the social expectations of womanhood can lead to refusal to acknowledge the identities and lives of trans women.
This moment exemplified profoundly the contrast between surviving under and holding up an oppressive system — a fine line that all marginalized people must constantly fight to keep from stumbling across.
As a cisgender Black man, I don’t know the struggle of being a transgender Black woman, but I do know the constant terror of the threat of disappearing or becoming invisible. This is a physical threat, as the countless unarmed Black men and women killed by the police in just the last year proves, but it is also the emotional threat of simply feeling invisible, unwanted and unloved.
The emotional survival of People of Color is equally as important as their physical survival, as much of the compromising we do under oppressive systems isn’t just to be alive, but to feel it also.
When you’re sensitive to the ways in which the white supremacy is perpetuated, it is easy to overlook the need to feel human in favor of the need to delegitimizing the system by refusing to participating in it. However, both of these are real needs and finding a balance is a delicate task, How do we know that by “taming” Black hair to gain acceptance in the workplace we aren’t endorsing the idea that “taming” Black hair is necessary to gain acceptance? How do we know that urging our children to be extra respectful of all police out of fear that they may be hurt by a cop isn’t an endorsement of the idea that our children should respect officers who do not reciprocate respect? How do we really know that meeting the standards of white respectability in our public life doesn’t translate into an approval of respectability politics?
Too often we overlook the importance of this give-and-take, and sacrifice mental or physical safety for the sake of fighting the system, or vice-versa.
In 2012, Sid Credle, the dean of the business school at Hampton University (an HBCU), banned cornrows and dreadlocks in the classroom. Credle claimed his main concern was that these hairstyles, which are generally associated with Black hair, would prevent his students from being regarded as professional, telling ABC News, "all we're trying to do is make sure our students get into the job." Many were outraged at what was perceived as forcing students to shed some of their Black identity to meet white standards.
It is true that that which is associated with Blackness is often not accepted by those in the white professional world. We have seen evidence of this in how names, skin tone, and even how one chooses to denote their race affects hiring practices.
But without giving an analysis of how sacrificing Blackness is ultimately and unnecessarily destructive even if it sometimes leads to an immediate advantage, Credle essentially gave an endorsement of a system that demands such a sacrifice. Even MLK was murdered in his three-piece suit while preaching non-violence.
Furthermore, it can’t be assumed that everyone wants or needs to work in the white professional world, and it certainly can’t be assumed that all of these students would find happiness in an environment that strips them of this choice. Indeed, it isn’t a stretch of the imagination to assume that many of these students decided to attend a historically Black university in order to build a safe spaces where they can find some semblance of security in their Blackness, taking advantage of the very purpose HBCUs were established.
Compromise is never enough, and although a necessary reality at the moment, it does not always have to be. In working towards the destruction of White supremacy, compromise should have the result, or at least the goal, of gaining more power to change the system, whether through job security, gaining more clout, or simply providing the insurance of physical and mental safety.
Once that power is gained, it is then up to us, as deans, bosses, leaders, or merely people who are given the opportunity to live another day, not to hold others to the same standards that caused us to compromise so much of ourselves unnecessarily.
It is up to the woman who achieved promotions by meticulously avoiding any action that could cause her to be seen as an “angry Black woman” to allow the employees she now manages to show a full range of human emotions.
It is up to the Black man who was able to survive an interaction with the police by knowing how to avoid furtive movements not to blame a child for being shot when asked for an ID and then mistakenly reaching into his pocket.
And it is up to the student who submitted to white standards of physical presentation and became the dean of a school to demonstrate that how Black one’s hair is has no legitimate link to their intelligence or capabilities.
Sometimes, the discomfort of compromising even a small part of oneself after already having compromised over 400 years of slavery, lynchings, and legalized racism is much worse than the discomfort of refusing to do so at all. Taking the time to analyze which things can’t be compromised without a loss of identity is necessary for determining where to draw the line with an oppressive system. These sacrifices will be different for everyone, and mandating that we all tread the same line is impractical.
It’s easy to forget while fighting for justice that as People of Color, we too deserve to be able to live and feel alive at the same time.
It is equally as easy to overlook the fact that no Person of Color can be completely alive under a white supremacist system.
In the long run, there is no solution except the destruction of the system, and we can’t afford to lose sight of that—but sometimes we just have to live another day in order to do so.
Hari Ziyad is a graduate of Tisch's Film and Television program at NYU and is a writer, content creator, and blogger with a passion for gender/queer/race issues. His work has appeared on BlackGirlDangerous.org and DoingMoor.com, and he runs the blog RaceBaitR.com. He also works at a talent management company in New York City.
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