When May I, When Must I, How Must I, Resist Oppression?

When May I, When Must I, How Must I, Resist Oppression?
Tanya Magaisa

Racism can be explicit, overt and obvious. A man will spit in your face because of the colour of your skin. He will judge the content of your character by the coil in your hair. Assess your intellectual worth by the lilt in your diction. This is an easily identifiable racism. The kind that ‘good’ people can separate themselves from. This kind is loudly condemned. This is because racism, at an individual level, does not provide the social, psychological and economic benefits and privileges that institutional racism confers.

At our university, the argument goes: institutional racism, at its base, is the social and political structural practices which subtly oppress and ‘other’ those who are not white, more so those who are not white, male, heterosexual and able-bodied. This institution upholds the dominant cultural rules to which the ‘other’ is expected to yield. The hair, the clothes, the voice, the beating heart and the very course to which the blood must flow. If you do not adopt and succumb to the alien practises of this dominant culture, there will be erasure.

The Ethics student will distinguish for you, between actions which are permissible: the required, the supererogatory and morally neutral, from those which are impermissible: the prohibited. Actions which are immoral, which are bad and sometimes, although not necessarily, illegal. This kind of distinction has been fundamental to the criticism of fallists the world over. Some of the methods of the fallists fall within the realm of the impermissible.

When paintings burn, it is the one who is quick to condemn individual racism but silent when confronted with institutional racism, who will be more concerned with ‘order’ than ‘justice.’ The one who will condemn the methods of your direct action and not condemn the condition of your suffering. The one who provides time frames and urges that you wait for a more ‘convenient time’ to air your grievances. As if there is any time convenient for one to fight for freedom from oppression.

When busses burn and buildings crumble, the bad action becomes who we are. They are concerned with the exhibitions of your pain but not with the purpose of your actions. They are concerned with the disruption of their privilege and not with the demand for your right to equality. They prefer ‘negative peace’: they would rather the absence of tension. Instead of ‘positive peace’: the presence of what is just, what is fair and what is equitable.

In our daily lives we wonder to what extent does what we do become who we are. When reconciling the two, is it logical to argue? I do bad things but I am not a bad person. Make your judgements.

But notice: it is when the match is lit that the institution yields. It is when windows break that the dominant culture begins to negotiate. It is when those privileges are threatened that there is any effort made for dialogue.

When may I, when must I and how must I resist oppression?
I am conflicted. There is an internal struggle between what is right that I do, what is just that I must achieve and what is moral that is permissible. I am responsible for my voluntary actions, regardless of what and who they are responding to. The fallists must not and cannot deny their autonomy.

*Inspired by, and taken from notes and lecture slides from Philosophy 202: Introduction to Philosophy 2011 University of Michigan and PHI1010S: Ethics 2015 University of Cape Town.

‘fight for freedom from oppression’
‘the presence of what is just’
‘political institutional practices which subtly oppresses’