In the last fortnight, at two separate house parties, I have been told by two different young white men that equality will never happen.
The first time, the conversation was with my new friend Swooney and was about cultural appropriation. Swooney*, who is a cute, talented historian, was arguing that cultural appropriation is something that all groups are guilty of, and that it ultimately enriches a national culture. I was counter arguing that his view on the issue was devoid of a nuanced understanding of the power dynamics at play between the multiple cultures of a given nation.
I spoke of the difference between the assimilation that minority cultures must do in the West to survive and the blasé, hypocritical cultural appropriation that Western hegemonic cultures inflict on minority cultures, as well as the inherent double standard of cultural appropriation that sees white people glorified for the same thing that black people, or indigenous people are penalised for…you know, standard millennial party conversation. Things got interesting when Swooney stated matter-of-factly that at every stage of history there has always been a dominant culture and this trend will continue ad infinitum into the future because dominance is inevitable, concluding that equality will never happen.
Now, I am not an optimistic person. At all. And before that conversation even I would have agreed that such an assertion was true. But there was something about being told it by a white man that left me feeling some type of way. It just felt so defeatist and unhelpful coming out of his mouth. My initial response was to tell him that he was being pessimistic and that even though that may be true, it does not mean we should not at least strive to get as close to achieving equality as possible. But he remained steadfast in his view. Fortunately we were summoned to play a game with the other party guest before the conversation could turn caustic (as they often do).
In the days since the party I was able to pinpoint the source of my horror at Swooney’s statement. When he said equality will never happen, he was saying it from a position of racial, gender, religious and sexual privilege. Whether he realises it or not, society as it functions today was made for white, straight, male and able bodies like his to thrive at the expense of black/brown, queer, female and disabled bodies. He is not the victim of present day societal inequality, so he could say “equality will never happen” objectively without bearing the brunt of the real life, hyphenate implications of that claim for people like me.
When I say equality will never happen (in my lifetime at least), it is in moments when I am at my psychological and spiritual nadir, when I feel most powerless against the weight of history and cannot fathom how the human race will extricate itself from the global matrix of oppression. These are moments of peak hopelessness and despair about the violence of humankind. When I say it, it is with the knowledge that if I have children they will not escape feeling some of the indignities I have experienced during my lifetime because of things I cannot control, such as my skin colour and gender.
Spot the difference? Context. His personal context benefits from equality never actualising. Mine decidedly does not; two people worlds apart.
The day equality happens will arguably be the day that the world becomes a utopia. Regardless of the likelihood of this day ever coming, I think that we, the human race, ought to try and reach for it with every bloody thing we have got, because with every second we don’t, real lives are in the balance. Doing nothing to dismantle the present systems, or worse yet saying things like “there will always be a dominant group” or “equality will never happen” from the comfort of oppressive privilege is a smack in the face to millions of people from oppressed groups alive today, and millions to come in the future. Such attitudes, coming from a person who is a member of several historically dominant groups, ultimately justify inaction against disrupting the status quo. They are lazy because dominance is not inevitable; this notion absolves oppressors of the calculated origins of their oppressiveness by implying that it was the work of some higher power such as Fate, or (Human) Nature. In Americanah Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes “racism should never have happened…” but it did because of human machinations. This can certainly be applied to all other systems of oppression.
A man called George also told me that equality will never happen (a white South African whom I had only just met). The lead up to the claim was in a discussion on racial inequality in South Africa. Like Swooney, I challenged him on this view. Thankfully George had a more measured view of the matter. He conceded that though equality will most likely never happen, it is still worth a try. He also acknowledged that if capitalism was dismantled all the other systems would be weakened as well – now that is a guy with potential.
*Fake names were used throughout. Also both white guys were drunk. I was only drunk in the second conversation