How would you feel if you were told, by someone who knew very little about you or your upbringing, that because of one of your immutable physical characteristics you must have been the victim of oppression?
For Jane Bradbury — who identifies herself as “Latino”, though she doesn’t actually know her ethnicity as she was brought up by white adoptive parents — being told, by a white colleague, words to the effect that she must have been subjected to oppression simply because of the colour of her skin left her feeling “very upset” and “distressed”. An employment tribunal recently awarded the former Sky Television engineer £14,000 in compensation on the grounds that this assumption was “a form of stereotyping” and amounted to racial discrimination.
Bradbury told her manager after the conversation that “I have never felt oppressed in my life”. And she didn’t appreciate her colleague — who, like her, was a designated “inclusion advocate” — assuming she had, “without even knowing anything of my background ethnicity or upbringing”.
In a world preoccupied with victimhood in which we are encouraged to be active “allies” to those who don’t share the privilege that we have — though the advantages conferred by class are often ignored — we appear to be removing what was once considered a transgression, being patronising (treating someone in “a way that is apparently kind or helpful but that betrays a feeling of superiority”, as the Oxford Dictionary has it), from the moral sin bin.
You can see this shift in the number of times the word “patronising” is used in newspapers. According to Factiva’s database — an archive of more than 2bn articles from the 1940s to the present day — its use, spelt in both the British way and the American “patronizing”, peaked in 2015, and has fallen quite markedly since. Google’s handy “Ngram viewer”, which charts the frequency with which words or phrases are used in digitalised books between 1800 and 2019, shows a similar pattern.
Meanwhile, the use of “allyship” — the practice of advocating and “actively working” for groups considered marginalised — has soared, and was Dictionary.com’s “word of the year” for 2021. Is this new virtue compatible with an outlook in which patronising is regarded as a vice, or are the two ideas mutually exclusive? After all, one of the core tenets of being an ally, repeated widely, is to “amplify voices of the oppressed before your own”. Who gets to decide who is and isn’t oppressed?
Furthermore, is automatically amplifying the voices of those deemed “oppressed” a good idea, even if someone sees themself that way? Glenn Loury, an African-American economist at Brown University and a prominent public intellectual, doesn’t think so. He has been vocal in his criticism of “the soft bigotry of low expectations”, particularly in education, arguing that changing admission standards in order to improve racial diversity is not only counter-productive, but also “reeks of racism”.
Loury distinguishes between what he calls “titular equality”, which he says is simply “a formal kind of bean-counting equality”, and “substantive equality”, which he describes as an “equality of respect, an equality of standing and dignity”. We spend too much time focusing on the former, and not enough on the latter.
As Loury says, treating those who are marginalised — whether that be because of their skin colour, gender, sexuality or disability — as victims takes away their agency, and obscures individual differences within those groups. “Being the subject of such deference as the minority is [means] all the moral agency in that situation goes to the powerful . . . observer, who either can or cannot elect to be an ally.”
While I have not experienced being “othered” or patronised on the basis of my skin colour, I have felt quite disempowered when well-meaning men have jumped in to accuse other men criticising me on public forums (usually in the theatre of Twitter) of sexism. I’ve also felt quite disheartened in the past when recruiters — who I thought had approached me for a role on the basis of my own merits — have told me they specifically wanted to hire a woman.
I don’t want to suggest that being more sensitive to those who are subjected to discrimination is not a good thing — it certainly is — and there are some specific circumstances when allowances should be made. But to assume others feel oppressed and need special treatment, without finding out how they feel first, is, well, patronising. Far from giving them power, that takes it away.
Source: Financial Times