Engaging the Oppressor Within

By Ben-Youssef, Nadia | Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal, Annual 2019 | Go to article overview

Engaging the Oppressor Within


Ben-Youssef, Nadia, Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal


We are at the essence. Here, the core of community, the very root of politics, and the edge of imagination. In dismantling oppression, how are we positioned and aligned? In settler-colonies, whether Israel or the United States, on whose side do we stand? What do we resist, and for whom do we envision the future? Having inherited a diasporic legacy--I am the daughter of refugees and immigrants--with my ancestors' propensity towards art and revolution, I am disturbed by the task to describe something so essential as this. As an organizer and an advocate for a world we have not yet known, I am offended by a debate that reduces principle to strategy, and that distorts the history of struggle in order to pacify present fears of the powerful.

And yet, I make my life on stolen land and have been seduced by power. I have been miseducated and must daily reject the false comfort of inequality. I must daily choose a decolonized future of collective liberation, and denounce any number of myths that grant me material and psychological power over others. I have had to learn why the tactics deployed to dismantle external manifestations of oppression must be second in priority to self-examination and personal accountability. Believing that my commitment to social transformation must be measured by my willingness to confront my own complicity, I am convinced that engaging the oppressor within is the only engagement that is necessary for revolution.

Changing ourselves is what makes possible the transformation of the conditions of the world. Our own freedom is dependent on our capacity to rid ourselves of the imposed and internalized fear of the freedom of those we have criminalized, subjugated, dehumanized, and othered. This is the groundwork of social change, a constant undoing of our attachment to any manufactured elevation where we believe we come out on top. Only when we build upon this foundation can we rupture the systematized lie of human hierarchy, and ensure that our visions of liberation are not mere replicas of oppression.

I must imagine a transformed, universally flourishing world with specificity so that it remains irresistible to me and to communities desperate to bring that world into existence. I do not vision for the benefit of those opposed to that world. Beyond presenting the decolonial future of equality and historical justice, I have neither the obligation nor the time to create special room for those fearful of the future. If a settler cannot imagine herself in a decolonized land, it is because she refuses to relinquish her power over the Native. If a world repaired--where what was stolen is returned and what was harmed is healed--is not perceived as emancipation, than an individual's commitment to oppression is thriving. No oppressor can be reassured that when resources, power, and consequence are equitably allocated, they will not face profound loss and accountability. Because they must experience both. On the other side is healing and liberation, but if this truth is not enough to set you free, the fundamental work remains.

That the individual journey of dismantling internalized supremacy is fundamental and lifelong, however, can in no way be used to justify delay in justice or social transformation. Were we to wait for the critical reckoning by every member of every dominant group, the deadly, institutionalized status quo would persist into perpetuity. On the path towards justice, material conditions must be urgently altered, and harm must be immediately reduced. And so we engage oppression strategically. Not for the benefit of the oppressor, though of course the ultimate benefit is life giving and profound, but for the protection of the oppressed.

Working together with those resisting ongoing settler colonization both in Palestine and Turtle Island (1) (by Israel and the United States, respectively), has offered critical lessons in the opportunities and limitations of engaging the oppressor. …

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