At the beginning of each new session of the Oak Park Village Board, the board members vote to re-adopt the village’s 50-year-old Diversity Statement. In the past year, a citizen commission had updated this statement, turning it into an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Statement. Rather than adopting this new statement at the first meeting of this session in May, several board members wanted to consider their own edits to the document. At the most recent board meeting, the revised statement returned to the agenda.
At this meeting, one white male board member expressed disagreement with the phrase “break down systems of oppression” that appeared in the statement, saying that village police officers might think their department is being called a system of oppression, and that some people believe that this language means wealth redistribution. Another white male board member proposed adding language to the statement defining the phrase “systems of oppression”. The discussion became heated, with a white female board member raising her voice to tell the other two board members that they should not have an opinion about this, and that they should shut up. In the end, the board approved the statement, adding in some clarification that systems of oppression include “racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia, and all other forms of bias and hate”.
There has been a lot of online condemnation for the female trustee who expressed anger towards the other two board members. But I think we need to reframe our discussion — it should not be about whether she should have raised her voice or used the words she used. Anger can be justly expressed in the service of a righteous cause, and calm words can be used to advocate continued oppression. In fact, usually the defense of the status quo happens dispassionately. When you have the power, you don’t need to raise your voice in anger. Our real conversation needs to be about power, and about how it is wielded in a supposedly dispassionate way in a liberal place like Oak Park. And that conversation about power is what this board member was raising.
I think that the reluctance to use the words “systems of oppression” indicates a common fear among white people in Oak Park, and more broadly across our nation. We try to define these words to mean that we and other “good white people” are not at fault. We want to believe that open bigots somewhere else are the root of the problem. Don’t get me wrong, there are some open bigots in Oak Park, as there are everywhere, but our challenge is that we “good white people” go about our days without considering how our everyday actions and inactions perpetuate systems of oppression. The Oak Park Police Department is part of a system of oppression! So are the Oak Park Schools, and the Oak Park Village Board.
They are part of a system of oppression because they are American institutions, located in an American village, in a nation set up to privilege white, male people. Breaking down systems of oppression means standing up against bigots. But it also means questioning why young people of color in Oak Park feel that they are targeted by police. It means questioning why some white parents are so uncomfortable with detracking classes at Oak Park River Forest High School. It means wondering why the village has devoted so much time and capital recently trying to attract new luxury developers rather than making the village accessible to people of all income levels.
We white people in Oak Park and across our nation must admit that we have created this problem, these systems of oppression, and that we continue to benefit. We must recognize these systems and how we play a part in them, name these systems where we see them, and work to deconstruct these systems. It is important to remember that, although we perpetuate and benefit from these systems, we are not the system. When we dismantle the system and step away from our advantages, we are not dismantling ourselves. In fact, we are freeing ourselves to have more authentic relationships with other white people and people across racial difference. We are becoming more fully human.
So, white people in Oak Park and throughout America, I call on all of us to recognize systems of oppression, acknowledge how we play a part and benefit, and work to tear them down. What do we have to gain? Only our own humanity.
After completing this essay, I witnessed an arrest in Oak Park and wrote another essay with reflections on that event.
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