“There is No Hierarchy of Oppression”: Excerpts from an Interview about Understanding Social Justice

Posted August 5th, 2009 at 12:54 pm.

by Vanessa Christman and Chris MacDonald-Dennis

Editors’ Note

Bryn Mawr College held its own Community StoryCorps session on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2008. Students, faculty, and staff had the opportunity to interview each other in front of a small audience of community members about any aspect of their lives that they wished. Though not coordinated through the national StoryCorps project, organizers of the Bryn Mawr event had similar goals of honoring individuals’ experiences and building community through the sharing of personal stories.

Vanessa Christman, coordinator of Intercultural Affairs, interviewed Chris MacDonald-Dennis, assistant dean and director of Intercultural Affairs. Below is an excerpt from that interview.

Vanessa: [W]here have your ideas about social justice come from?

Chris: I actually would like to talk about a specific experience that really put me on my path to what I believe today. Audre Lorde, who is a black poet who died twenty years ago, came out with this piece in which she said, “There is no hierarchy of oppression.” It’s one of those adages that in the world of social justice we say a lot, but I don’t know that a lot of us always think that and live that in a way that is very true.

For me, something that happened eleven years ago really showed to me what that meant. I lived in New Hampshire, [and] I worked at a small rural college outside of Concord, New Hampshire. Twelve years ago I was also diagnosed with HIV. At that time I was kind of figuring out, “What does this mean for me? As a person with a disability, a person with HIV, how does that change my life?” and … HIV wasn’t as big then so there weren’t the same type of resources. So the doctor that I went to [was] at the clinic in Manchester, New Hampshire, and there was a support group every Tuesday—I’ll never forget it. And I remember saying, “Oh, I should go, I should go,” and I said, “Well finally, I’m going to go and just talk about it, like, ‘What does this mean?’”

I remember walking in and being struck by how diverse it was. There was—I’ll never forget—there was a white man who was very wealthy who was a lawyer and had just been infected, [and] there was a black woman whose husband had just gotten out of jail, and he had gotten HIV. There was a Latina who had been a sex worker; there was another woman who was an IV [intravenous] drug user, and … she was poor. You know, it really sounded kind of like what you picture the face of diversity. I remember sitting there thinking and looking at all those people, and although I believed, you know, that there was no hierarchy of oppression, thinking, “I have nothing in common with these people.” There were a couple of us who were gay, a couple of us who were straight, but I was like, “We have nothing in common.”

But as we talked, [I thought about] that whole idea that there is no hierarchy of oppression, and more importantly that when injustice anywhere happens, it’s a threat to justice everywhere. Then I saw how linked we were, because what I realized with all of our stories is that we were all people who the society told that we didn’t [matter]. I heard over and over and over again the stories about people feeling shamed and not loving themselves, over our own race, over our sexual orientation, over our own class, always being the throwaways. And I just remember thinking, “We have a lot more in common than I ever thought.”

Yeah, I especially remember the white man who was a lawyer. He had gone to Dartmouth and he had been from money, and I was like … “Yeah, we may be both gay, but that means we have nothing in common.” But when we both got into deep stuff like how we live and the shame that we felt, it was like, “Yup, I know that, I hear that,” and I just remember that that experience really made me believe that we had to fight all forms of oppression. And that doesn’t mean that they … all impact us equally … but oppression minimizes us as human beings and does not allow us to fly. It was that moment sitting there that this disease brought me closer to my common humanity.

Vanessa Christman is coordinator of Intercultural Affairs and the Leadership Empowerment and Advancement Program (LEAP). She learns a lot from other people’s stories.

Chris MacDonald-Dennis is assistant dean and director of Intercultural Affairs. He describes himself as a realistic radical and believes that we are always moving toward a more just world.

Filed under: Issue 3 by Julie Zaebst

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