The Oppression Suit: Why Oppression Experiments Don’t Work!

Remember that post I did on cultural appropriation?  How I told y’all wearing someone’s culture as a trend is disrespectful? Well, there’s another layer of appropriation that I didn’t mention in that post. There isn’t a technical term for it so I made up one of my own.

I’ll call it “the oppression suit.”

The “oppression suit” is what happens when a privileged person dons a quality of a marginalized person to see what is like to be a marginalized person. This is typically seen on talk shows but nowadays we have people doing it to sell books, get blog hits and score brownie points with oppressed folks. The oppression suit has been popping up in the media a lot in the past few years. One of the latest culprits is Michelle Lapidos, the blogger behind Before and Afro. Apparently, Lapidos started sporting a huge obnoxious afro wig after wearing it at a Halloween party and claims the wig has changed her life.

From Before and Afro:

The afro is also a hairstyle that I’ve recently rendered part of my personal style repertoire. I originally got my fro for a Studio 54-themed costume party for AHAlife (where I handle the social media), and let’s just say the party has not ended. The afro changed my perspective; it made me think, walk, see and experience life differently. I wear it often. It’s not about feeling black… what I actually feel like is ME, understood more clearly. It’s not an alter ego. It’s an amplified ego.

The blogosphere caught on to what she was doing and it caused her to write a blog post in which she sort of acknowledged her privilege.

Due to my privileged white upbringing, I am unaware of a lot. I have not experienced how very prevalent issues of systematic inequality are today in 2012. I had no idea how achingly sensitive the issue of hair was to people of color. And as someone who hardly gets offended about anything, in a culture of South Park and Tosh.0, I was shocked at my own frightening capacity to offend people.

Initially, it seemed like she understood the outrage but I kept reading, it became painfully obvious that she didn’t see what the fuss was about.

Can the afro belong to any one group? As so many of you have pointed out, afros and kinky hair are part of nearly every culture. The fro was all the rage in the 70s. For perpetually straight-haired people who love the look of a beautiful bulbous coiffure framing their face, should they be ridiculed or denied because they’ve not experienced the struggles associated with the culture to which it is most strongly tied? And if someone wants to change their look with a wig on a whim – fro or bob, blonde, brunette or rainbow – should there be freedom to do so? And just because society says one way is better, is there no seeing outside of it?

In other words: Can’t we have Equal Hair Opportunity??

Lapidos isn’t the only oppression suit wearer to hit the media as of late.

Timothy Kurek, a straight Christian man,  was thrust into the spotlight a couple of weeks ago when he appeared on ABC News to discuss how he lived as a gay man for a year. Like Lapidos, Kurek said his experience was eye-opening. Kurek says he got the idea for the experiment after a friend of his described how coming out as a lesbian caused her to be disowned by her family.

Kurek recruited a fake boyfriend, hung out at spots frequented by LGBT folks, got a job at a “gay cafe” and even came out to friends and family. He even experienced what it was like to be alienated by his loved ones, saying 95 percent of his friends stopped talking to him and his mother admitted in a diary entry that she would rather have a terminal illness than a gay child. Kurek documented his experiences in a book called “The Cross in the Closet” and has been out promoting his book.

Although Kurek and Lapidos might have noble intentions, they aren’t doing much to make privileged people consider the positions of oppressed people. Kurek’s book comes from the perspective of a straight white male that pretended to be gay. After the charade was up, he was able to go back to his privileged position with relative ease. Actual gay men don’t have that luxury. Sure, he experienced a taste of being outcasted but there are something he will never have to experience. He will be able to marry and have kids with ease since his partner will likely be a woman. He doesn’t have to deal with the conflicting feelings that LGBT people experience when they try to convince themselves that is okay to love the same sex while the world around them is trying to tell them they are defective. He can take his suit off.

Same with Lapidos. Sure, she might get some stares and chuckles out from wearing that afro but she will never experience the implications that actually come with having a head full of kinky hair. She won’t have to worry about being passed up for a job because she decided to braid her hair or wear it as it. Her family probably wouldn’t care if she decided to take a curling iron or some rollers to make her hair curly. Hair texture isn’t used to divide white women and white women aren’t taught to hate their hair texture from toddlerhood. Lapidos can take her suit and that afro off.

If they really wanted to help, how about they try to help actual marginalized people have a voice. Oppressed people talk about their oppression all the time and no one is trying to hear it but when privileged folks talk about oppression, people want to throw a freakin’ parade for them. If they really want to help, back off and let oppressed people speak. As I perused Tumblr, I saw a post by a white teenager that decided to don a hijab for a day to see what Muslims experienced. After complaining about being called a terrorist, she urged people to treat folks with respect regardless of their religion. While that was a nice gesture, I would have loved to see her actually talk to a Muslim woman and post that conversation because like Lapidos and Kurek, she can take her oppression suit off.

Privileged people telling the world to be nice to the oppressed because of an experiment isn’t enough. The oppressed don’t need experiments, they need a platform.

What do you think of the “oppression suit” concept? Speak! 

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5 thoughts on “The Oppression Suit: Why Oppression Experiments Don’t Work!

  1. BlkFem says:

    Well, for some reason it is difficult for individuals in the oppressed group to listen to the oppressed. It is only when one of there own conduct one of these “experiments” that they’ll listen. Ever read Nickel and Dimed? It’s thesame thing.

  2. lwriterm says:

    The oppressed can NEVER take the experiences of the oppressed seriously. It is only when one of their own conducts one of these experiments that they’ll actually listen. Ever read Nickel and Dimed?

  3. Zakia says:

    I think you hit this one right on the nose, Ashleigh. There was a segment on ABC or CBS or some other family friendly television network where they had families of different races switch for a month or something. It was a social experiment to show how racism still existed. At the end, the two families revealed themselves and had a reunion of types to share their experiences. The white mother used the term “beautiful creature” and this totally offended all the black people, and nothing was resolved…I don’t think the white family learned anything besides, “wow, being black really does suck!” (and the black family learned “wow I can get away with ANYTHING now!”). Donning the attire and even the physio-type of a certain race will never do anything to promote social justice. It’ll just be something fun to do. The white mother didn’t exactly absorb any experience. It never became a part of her, and even thought it was happening to her, she was an active member of it, being black was still only something she could observe from a “safe” distance. When you can choose to wear a hat, you will. Come back to us when you have to wake up with the same damn hat every freaking day.

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