A More Possible Meeting: Initial Reflections on Engaging (as) the Oppressor

By Soekoe, Nicola | Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal, Annual 2019 | Go to article overview

A More Possible Meeting: Initial Reflections on Engaging (as) the Oppressor


Soekoe, Nicola, Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal


   We have chosen each other    and the edge of each other's battles    the war is the same    if we lose    someday women's blood will congeal    upon a dead planet    if we win there is no telling    we seek beyond history    for a new and more possible meeting.    Audre Lorde, excerpt of "Outlines" (1) 

In the poem included above, civil rights poet, activist, and revolutionary Audre Lorde reminds us of the agency we have in deciding whether to embark on the paradigm-shifting project of seeing and choosing each other across difference and creating the conditions for a "more possible meeting." Lorde is speaking to a profound shift that needs to take place within the consciousness of every person in order for contact across difference to even hold the potentiality of genuine (and therefore revolutionary) connection. In "Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference," the essay from which I drew the poem, Lorde sets out as a prerequisite to this exchange the task of dismantling "that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressors' tactics, the oppressors' relationships." (2) Decolonial theorist Anibal Quijano conveys a similar argument: "[Ejpistemic decolonization is necessary to make possible and move toward a truly intercultural communication; to an exchange of experiences and significations as the foundation of an-other rationality." (3)

In this essay I want to think about what is variously described by the thinkers I will draw on as a "crossing," an "exchange," or a "meeting"--a type of contact between groups situated differently along the axes of oppression that holds the potential for deep coalition-building and revolutionary love. More specifically, I want to think about the shift that must take place in the oppressor group's consciousness for that meeting to be rendered "more possible."

As a popular educator who embodies multiple overlapping oppressor identities, I will not attempt to answer whether such a meeting is actually possible. (4) It may not be. I will not attempt to predict what the results of such meetings would be if they occurred, or whether it is politically prudent for those engaged in liberation struggles to work towards such a meeting. I have chosen to engage with the oppressor--my community, my own self--in response to repeated calls to do so from activists past and present. My commitment to creating the conditions for a meeting across difference is a result of that engagement, of bearing witness to barriers within myself and others that render contact between groups politically futile. This essay is not an answer. It is instead a personal reflection on how popular educators working with oppressor groups might develop a pedagogical praxis that will best position members of oppressor groups to engage in the project of building genuine and generative connections with those different from ourselves. The ideas presented here are tentative, questioning, and open.

I will be speaking about my engagement as a white South African with other white South Africans--a group that, while heterogeneous, can still be defined as the dominant oppressor group in South Africa today. (5)

Barriers To Engaging Across Difference

Engaging with a dominant group of which I am a part has been my most difficult work. Despite our privilege, my community and I lack the shared vocabulary, the social awareness, and the political literacy to engage deeply in discussions about power, identity, and oppression. Most fundamentally, as a collective, we have shown that we lack the necessary commitment to the revolutionary project of decolonising our ways of knowing, being, and relating to others and the world.

When I have engaged with/as an oppressor group I have noted three important constructs held up by the oppressor that stifle meaningful interactions. As a group, we uphold an immutable conception of what social organisation is normal (white supremacy), what social organisation is desirable (white supremacy), and what alternative social organisation is realistically achievable (none). …

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