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The Mutual Exclusivity of Personal Autonomy and Diversity

An excellent example of a student research paper by Kerri Thorpe.

Absolute autonomy of the individual is a fanciful dream. At one point or another we all believe that we are sovereign beings, independent on our self governing islands of existence. A large majority of us also at one point believed that a large fat man would squeeze down our chimneys to give us candy and presents. As time went along, it was clear that the Santa Claus was our mother, but we wanted the presents so we decided to keep believing. Likewise we decide to believe in personal autonomy because it is so attractive. Our ego's have an appetite for control and have a thirst for recognition. Personal autonomy means that we cannot be controlled by outside forces, that our actions, decisions and results are governed solely by our individual self. We are in control of our life. The only thing that can bring us down is not taking responsibility for ourselves and looking for someone else to blame. Belief in the autonomy of the individual is a very popular thought mostly among people who belong to dominate groups. It is also an avenue dominate groups believe non-dominate groups should utilizes a means to break free from the subjugation of oppression. Ironically this focus on the individual and not the community significantly contributes to all forms of institutional oppression.

Institutional oppression grows out of the deep seated -though not always acknowledged- belief in superiority of one group over another. It is the abusive treatment of people based on their ascribed or achieved status that is supported by the social norms, behaviors and values of the privileged members of society. "Achieved status are those attained by virtue of independent effort...In conflict ascribed status are those occupied from the moment a person is born."(Anderson). The institutional forms of oppression like institutional racism occurs when the privileged white race abuses people of color. This is different then when a person of color is racist toward a white person, because the person of color does not have the social norms, behaviors and values of privileged society backing the racism up. Peggy McIntosh the associate director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women explains that privilege is when one group has something of value that is denied to others simply because of the group they belong to. Privilege is a complex issue because the people who have privilege don't have to think about it. Privilege applies to the dominant groups within society not the individual, so it exists for individuals whether or not they want it. Dominant groups in society are the groups which experience privilege or are considered the norm. According to Jeane La France in the United states dominant groups included White people, Christians, Males, the non-disabled, heterosexuals, and middle class.

Many people in dominant groups do not feel like they are privileged because they they do not see how they benefit from their status. Often privilege is not about what you get, rather it is about what you don't get. For example if you are male one way in which you are privileged is that your odds of being raped are quite low(McIntosh) and if you are white you do not get a reaction of surprise if you are successful. James Sneed and student educator at PCC's multicultural center gave a great example of racial privilege when speaking about his own experience growing up African American in a middle class neighborhood. He said that when he was in school if he did as well as the white kids he was over achieving and if he did not do as well he was under achieving. James explained that he never felt like he could just achieve something it was always over or under in comparison with the norm of his white peers. This exemplifies how white privilege is not having to think about how your race affects how others view your grades in school.

As a student at Portland Community College I have witnessed daily forms of white privilege and racism. In the classroom I repeatedly hear white students frustrated and annoyed by discussions of race, many white students believe that racism is not a problem anymore that it is a thing of the past. Working with children I see them unconsciously being socialized according to their ascribed status. For instance children of color are often given praise and told that they are doing a very good job at their task and white children are given praise, told that they are doing a good job at their task and then encouraged to take the next step to see if they can learn more or or do better. This is a subtle difference. Many students a PCC would not consider this racist because the instructors are not aware of what they are doing or that they are not really doing anything detrimental to the children. It is important to understand that racism does not always come in the form of radical neo nazis, often it is in the form of our own denial.

Racism can be right front of our face and we can deny it. In December 2006 six African American high school students, coined the Jena Six, were charged with attempted second degree murder utilizing a shoe as a deadly weapon. (Franklin)

In a small highly segregated Jena LA in a black student asked permission from school administrators to sit under the shade of a tree commonly reserved for the enjoyment of white students. School officials advised the black students to sit wherever they wanted and they did. The next day, three nooses, in the school colors, were hanging from the same tree.... The students responsible had a three day suspension... Racial tensions remained elevated throughout the fall. On Monday, December 4 2006, a white student who allegedly had been racially taunting black students in support of the students who hung the nooses got into a fight with black students. Allegedly, the white student was taken to the hospital treated, released, reportedly attended a social function later that evening. As a result of this incident, six black Jena students were arrested and charged with attempted second degree murder. (NAACP)

Jena LA is an example of how real racism is happening today and how blind people can be to it. Through my research I have found that many white people in Jena don't believe race is a problem in their community in spite of the incidence of the Jena 6 and in addition to the fact that in Jena there is a white only barber shop, it is difficult for African Americans to get a job (Mangold) and the most subtle but screamingly significant, white people deny their privilege.

There is a paradox to privilege. The stratification of privilege happens in so many different social status groups that most people will be on multiple sides of the privilege coin throughout the majority of their lives. The question may be asked how can an African American, lower class , woman be privileged? The answer is if she is heterosexual she experiences privilege because she can get married if she chooses. Just as a middle class, heterosexual African American male can experience oppression because of his increased chance of being arrested. In Jena I believe the white community is experiencing a class/privilege conflict. According to the income statistics from the US census, most people in Jena are working/lower class. The people of Jena experience class oppression and race privilege at the same time. This can be confusing and frustrating, because their social mobility is limited by their class but not by their race. For the lower class the daily struggle for money can make it hard to see how they could possibly be privileged in any way and makes it easier for them to believe in individual autonomy a hard work as a means for success.

Individual autonomy is the idea that people are solely responsible for themselves, their decisions, morality and future. This concept is understandably attractive to non-dominant groups such as Women, People of Color, the Lower and the Working class. The concept of Individual autonomy gives them the illusion that that they can take back control and dissolve the affects of institutional oppression. It also gives dominant groups the privilege of denying the existence of oppression. This fuels oppression by focusing on the individual rather than the institution.

Institution Oppression affects the individual but it is not created by the individual. A white individual can say that they are not racist the just as a person of color may say they choose to not be affected by racism. That does not mean racism does not exist. The fact is a white person is still less likely to be arrested then a person of color, regardless of how they 'decide' racism will affect them. Racism is encouraged by denial because it allows the dominant groups to retain and ignore their privilege.

In Jena LA. we can see a crystal clear vision of the problems stimulated by the denial of racism. Let us look at the community and not at the legal issues concerning the Jena six. Even though there is a white only barber shop and students allegedly "joke around" about the white only tree, members of the white community including officials at the local high school claim that race is not an issue in Jena, but members of the Black community say race is an issue. This is an example of privilege. White people can choose to not see race. By claiming that race is not an issue in Jena the white community is dismissing the opinion of the black community. A white person can say issues surrounding the history of violence and racism are a thing of the past, but for a black person it is a part of their personal and their families past. This is an example of a form of racism that is alive today.

In interracial communication people of color are often spoken over and not actively listened to. Similar to the way you might passively listen to somebody younger than yourself, when you are assuming that you already know what they are going to say. As an individual you may deny that this happens, or say that you personally do not do this, but that doesn't negate the fact that the majority white people have sometime in their life done it whether or not they were consciously aware of their actions. This is the difference between racism and institutional racism. When a person of color dismiss a white person they do not have the backing of society, meaning the white person has not been dismissed and spoken over throughout their life by teachers, authority figures, sales clerks because of their race. In this we can see how all non-dominate groups can not always have complete personal autonomy over their decisions because often their opinions are suppressed, therefore their options for growth and opportunity are limited.

Autonomy of the individual is akin to the libertarian philosophical theory of Self Ownership. Self Ownership basically means that you own and control all aspects yourself, - morality, character, judgments, decisions- and your objects -property, possessions. This is a very en vogue theory we see in our personal and political lives. Wander down the self help section in your local book store, a large majority of the books will be on the topic of taking control of your life and indecently most of those books are not marketed toward marketed towards the privileged sex they are marketed towards women. In our political lives many U.S. citizens are currently unsatisfied with our two party political system and are looking toward alternative third parties. In Oregon popular third party's include the Green Party -which is to liberal for many¬ the Constitution Party (which is to conservative for most people) ¬and then there is the libertarian party which is just right. The illusions of the Libertarian Party attract liberals and conservatives alike because on the surface personal responsibility and free liberty sound good! Plus the party is a veritable super mega mall of politics. There is something for everyone. They are pro drug legalization, pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and anti-gun control. The grand gravitation toward this the Libertarian party due to the desire for instant gratification in our culture. People are emotionally driven to the power the party gives them. Let's face it, we all want control and the Libertarian party says that we can have it! It takes the control out of the hands of the government and puts it in to the hands people. If we look beyond this surface level thought process a question arises. Which people? Think for a second about who would have the control. What type of people in our society could have total control over their lives and opportunities?

My first argument against Libertarianism is that we do not live in an egalitarian society therefore; the people with the most privilege would get the most control. Every individual with in society does not have the same opportunities or resources nor do they play an equal role in social hierarchy. Self Ownership in theory could only apply to people who belong to all of the dominant groups. So all the white, Protestant, middle class, attractive, able bodied, heterosexual, sane, Men between the ages of 25 and 55 would have the control thus discouraging diversity and encouraging oppression.

My second argument is that the greatest and most fundamental flaw in the Libertarian philosophy is that it completely evades the lifelong process of socialization. Socialization is the process from which we learn, what our culture is, our role and status within that culture and what is expected of us. Socialization is learned behavior, one is not born with the knowledge of work ethic, prejudice, or manners we learn this behavior though social institutions, such as family, religion, government, schools, and economics. These systems establish rules, goals and define the normative behavior that meets the needs of society. Absolute autonomy of choice can not exist for persons living within a society, when the basis of society is social interaction and all actions taken by a person are reciprocal results of a preceding effect. We make decisions based on all of past experience and interactions with people.

The community ecology of childhood socializes us and greatly effects what type of adult we grow into. In Jena LA, the white community is damaging all the children of Jena by dehumanizing the black community and trivializing the history of violence against them. Calling a noose hanging from an historically all white tree a prank and defending the students who hung the nooses by saying that they had no knowledge of what a noose represents in the deep south is abhorrent. 'To us those nooses meant the KKK , they meant, "Niggers, we're going to kill you, we're going to hang you till you die,"' says Caseptla Bailey a mother of one of the Jena 6. Still the white community of Jena says that race is not a problem while they disregard and passively listen to the black community, speaking over them to explain that the Jena Six are playing the race card and should take personal responsibility for their actions. Once again this denial fuels racism and resentment.

There is an ideology of inequality in Jena LA. that presents a near perfect portrayal of why the concepts of personal autonomy and self ownership discourage diversity and encourage racism. Sure we all want to believe that we can control our lives and if we work hard achieve success, but the amount of hard work and amount of social opposition we face varies greatly with your race, class, sex, religion, sexual orientation and age. Everyone at one point is a member of a privileged social group. Whether or not you see yourself as privileged is irrelevant because privilege is about the group not the individual, it exists regardless if you choose to embrace it.

Racism exists. We all have different advantages and disadvantages instead of trying to isolate ourselves in the control of autonomy we should embrace diversity and recognize the problems we face as a society. We can not move forward if we are solely focused on ourselves and are in denial about troubles in our community. Oppression does not solely harm the oppressed it damages our entire society. At some point in our lives we are all oppressed. We should not choose which oppression to be aware of because it is the system of superiority that will eventually make it to us as individuals.

". . . within the lesbian community I am Black, and within the Black community I am a lesbian. Any attack against Black people is a lesbian and gay issue, because thousands of other Black women are part of the lesbian community. .Any attack against lesbians and gay men is a Black issue because thousands of lesbians and gay men are Black. There is no hierarchy of oppression.....I know I cannot afford the luxury of fighting one form of oppression only. I cannot afford to believe that, freedom from intolerance is the right of only one particular group. And I cannot afford to choose between the fronts upon which I must battle these forces of discrimination, wherever they appear to destroy me, it will not be long before they appear to destroy you. . . ." Lorde)

For us to succeed in a global society we need to move away from the ideal that all we have to do is work hard as individuals to succeed and move toward looking success as success of the community but before we can really work as a community we need to break down socially constructed ideas about difference.

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