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Kyriarchy – everything that we hate

in Columns/Opinions by

cw: rape culture

While this word is frequently at the forefront of my mind, rarely do I ever use this word in conversation with others. In short, the feminist theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza describes it as “a complex pyramidal system of intersecting multiplicative social structures of superordination and subordination, of ruling and oppression.”

The term initially arose (c.1990) as a modifier for patriarchy, recognizing that feminism had historically been a movement for economically-privileged white women and needed an intersectional rebranding (re: third wave feminism). Even if we restricted the scope of our discussion to ‘feminist’ topics, the vast importance of this intersectional approach cannot be understated. For example, it is important for us to identify and abolish rape culture, but we cannot ignore how rape culture largely privileges middle upper-class white men. There is a reason why vile creatures like Brock Turner, David Becker and John Enochs are on the streets today while Cory Batey and Brian Banks were given much harsher sentences and sent to jail (the latter of whom never even committed the crime and was acquitted after spending five years in jail).

We often hear allusions to this in Swarthmore classrooms: when the person of color reminds us in history class to remember the effects of colonialism on the country that is being discussed, when the LGBTQ+ activist points out how police brutality specifically affects transgender individuals, or when one of the rare female-identifying students in male-dominated philosophy classes puts us in our place for being patriarchal mental masturbators.

All of the above examples feature people from marginalized communities as instigators of intersectional discussions, and I believe this is problematic. The kyriarchy affects all of us, whether we like it or not, and we must create more discursive platforms to analyze and deconstruct it. This is not to say, however, that everyone or every issue should be a part of every single discussion out there. It would be a little weird for an able-bodied middle-class white man to talk about accessibility needs within low-income communities during a discussion about terrorism. What I am suggesting is that we need to consistently listen and engage with the world around us and to recognize that it is something that we can, and sometimes have a duty to, change. Anna Julia Cooper, a prominent African American scholar, puts it perhaps a little more beautifully when she says: “As individuals, we are constantly and inevitably, whether we are conscious of it or not, giving out our real selves into our several little worlds, inexorably adding our own true ray to the flood of starlight, quite independently of our professions and our masquerading.”

Humans are not single-identity people, and privilege or oppression is not a single-identity issue. After all, oppressive relationships are not created in the vacuum of singular identities that we can move through: they are socially constructed within interlocking webs of oppressive relationships that are hard to disentangle. Privilege and oppression are absolute in that oppressive systems are firmly rooted in society to favor some over others, but experiencing privilege and/or oppression can be flexible within certain situations. One can be privileged and oppressed at the same time and we must be cognizant of the multitude of our positionalities. For example, it is absolute bullshit that I am consistently asked, “Where are you really from?” and have my educational experience described as “exotic” by white people when I give tours on campus. Yet, my often sarcastic and pointed retort is permitted by my privileged educational background and the confidence granted to me as a man.

Again, some discussions are simply more relevant than others and must be focused on within certain topics (i.e. talking about racism alongside xenophobia and immigration policy). But within conversations in which we speak as the oppressed, we do not simply shake off all of our other identities that privilege us in other instances. Likewise, we do not simply become politically neutral when others are speaking of their oppression. Liberation is not simply about removing institutions that oppress us – it is the expulsion of all relationships defined by the oppression of another. Some voices deserve to be heard a little more than others in certain situations, but in the end we must engage with one another in a way that seeks to end all forms of oppression.

I speak with a utopian fervor, but remembering who you are as a multifaceted human being is not that hard. Perhaps then we may begin to see each other as human beings whose endless complexities all deserve to be acknowledged. Perhaps then we may begin to recognize our collective goal:

Fuck the kyriarchy.

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