It goes like this: someone brings up a type of oppression, and a member of the oppressed group says “I don’t believe in opposing what you’re talking about. I’m a strong enough person that I don’t need xyz/I believe I’m a person of worth even if xyz doesn’t happen.”
I’ve come across two examples of it recently. First, a woman saying she’s strong enough that it doesn’t hurt her to read gender-exclusive language (that is, when authors say “he” to mean “he or she” and “man” to mean “people”). Second, a black woman (via a forwarded email, so take with a grain of salt) saying that she didn’t vote for Obama because she doesn’t need there to be a black president in order for her to know she’s a person of worth.
I’m not saying that either of these people, or the other people who use this “I think I’m ok, therefore I am” argument, don’t actually feel ok with themselves. If a woman can read a book full of sexist language and come out feeling like she is just as representative of human beings as men are, more power to her. If a black person can see a sea of white faces in government and feel like they can grow up to be whatever they want to be, more power to them. And since oppressions often work, like most things in the real world, on a probabilistic rather than absolute basis, I can’t guarantee that they won’t achieve just exactly what they want. But knowing you’re ok is only part of the issue.
Let’s break down the effects of oppression into two sides: the internal and the external. These people are talking about the internal; they’re claiming to be completely resistant to the psychological effects of oppression. They may not be familiar with the doll test and other studies in that vein, which tend to show that people DO internalize the negative messages they get about themselves. Or maybe they are familiar with those studies and they just find themselves to be out of the ordinary, unusually resilient and self-assured. Which is a great thing to be.
But that’s just the internal side. We still have the external to deal with. The external is that which you cannot control. Eleanor Roosevelt said that “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent”, but regardless of whether or not that’s true, there ARE other things people can do without your consent. Loving yourself won’t always stop someone else from hating you. And if that hateful person has power over you, they can hurt you, physically or financially or otherwise. So maybe YOUR mind doesn’t need changing, but you can bet that there are minds out there that believe that not all human beings are of equal worth, and among them, there are some who have the power to act on their prejudice. Admitting this is not “playing the victim”; it’s facing the reality of an unequal distribution of power.
If sexist language, and underrepresentation of black people in government, and so on and so forth, allow and help people to maintain their prejudices and foster new ones, then these things matter regardless of how strong you are. If making feminine pronouns and black voices more prominent and frequent helps people to accept women and black people as a normal part of the human race, then these things matter regardless of how happy you are with yourself. I personally believe that exposure does help to change those subconscious prejudices, probably because I believe that exposure to lopsided stimuli helped create the subconscious prejudices in the first place. So I do think these things and other similar issues matter, a lot – although I would not vote for a black man just because he’s black, which should be patently obvious given that I didn’t support a woman just because she was a woman. But still, now that the election is won and we DO have a black president, I’m glad that we will FINALLY see a black face in an unfamiliar position – the top – and start to get more and more used to the idea of white people answering to a black person – not because I’m a self-hating white liberal, but because we ARE used to seeing black people answer to white people and there’s no good reason why our experience and our sense of what’s normal and acceptable should be so uneven. And I’m getting increasingly impatient to see a woman, an atheist, an Asian person, and more in that position and other positions that they’re usually kept out of.
So, that’s one less argument I’ll be accepting in debates.