When Well-Intended Mistrust Masks Oppression

Item 1. I went to my 40th high school reunion this weekend. We took a tour of the old gymnasium and the (new) pool. The women in the group were visibly touched. “Remember those stupid blue bloomers we had to wear?” “Look at all those trophies—we never got to play those sports.” “Thank god for Title IX, my daughters had these opportunities.”

Item 2. Some of you will know the name Kathrine Switzer. She was the first woman to officially enter the Boston Marathon; Jock Semple, who organized the event, tried to eject her, but some male friends body-checked him and she finished. She went on to run 35 more marathons, ranking as high as 3rd in the world.

Item 3. A black woman I know, now in her 50s, remembers the first paper she wrote for an advanced English class in her freshman year at college. She was talented, and worked hard on it. But the paper was graded an F. Upset, she went to the teacher to find out how she could have misjudged herself so badly.

“You obviously plagiarized,” the prof said. “No way you could have written this.” Dumbfounded, she was speechless, finally finding the words to deny it. “Don’t lie to me,” he said. “Affirmative action doesn’t mean you can plagiarize.” It took her days to convince him she had written it herself. (It shouldn’t be relevant, but she was not an affirmative action admission either). She became a successful IT consultant and telecoms exec later in life.

What these vignettes have in common is that they’re examples of excuses given to not trust people.

Most people—not all, but most—now believe that young women benefit from organized athletics as much as do young men. But that’s recent. The excuse given back then was that women were too delicate, and had to be protected. By the majority, of course—in this case, men.

Which meant my female classmates appeared in the yearbook in the Future Homemakers Club and the Home Economics Club; not in athletics. And my black woman friend could never avoid being reminded—usually in more polite, subtle ways—that she couldn’t be trusted to achieve at a level to which the majority (in this case, white) people were held.

We know to condemn sexism and racism. But when they’re served up as good intentions, we can get confused. Poor Xs; we can’t expect as much of Xs as we can of Ys. In fact, to even allow them the chance is just setting them up for failure and hurt; we can’t trust them to know their own limitations. We’ll just have to manage that for them.

Years ago Herbert Marcuse wrote about “repressive tolerance,” the idea that majority tolerance of a minority was an effective form of repression. This is something akin. To distrust a minority—using the language of altruism—is a form of repression.

Girls’ athletic programs have made progress (though are constantly threatened by demands for lower taxes). Progress against racism has been made (though the majority culture is always in a big hurry to over-state just how much).

But what are the new frontiers of repressive mistrust? Here are a few starters. What do you think?

  • Doctors and corporate lawyers who mistrust paraprofessionals “for the sake of” the paraprofessionals and the customers.
  • Ditto for teachers and teachers’ aides, and for those involved in real estate closings.
  • Consumer protection laws that substitute reams of language for common sense.
  • National trade laws that decry “shoddy foreign goods” as a cover for protectionism.
  • Politicians and media who rationalize least-common-denominator sound-bites by appeal to market demand rather than taking responsibility for talking up, not down.

What do you think? From the standpoint of 40 years from now, what will appear in the rear view mirror to have been aother case of repressive mistrust?

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