The ballad of Rachel Dolezal has been sung amongst the aether for several days now. Her story the perfect fodder for every political persuasion. For conservatives she is a one woman confirmation about every paranoid fear they have about political correctness and their beliefs of minority entitlement. For liberals she is an embarrassment that needs to be ostracized as she represents the ultimate example of cultural appropriations. I personally don’t know enough about her to support or condemn her, as there are parts of her history that raises red flags about issues of sincerity, while at the same time, I am well aware of the psychological pressures that may have fed into this desire and belief of hers. So instead I would like to address the concept of “Oppression Cosplay” as a whole, and point out how all sides of the political spectrum equally play this very insulting game.
Oppression cosplay is a concept recently and artfully coined by Jessica Williams of the Daily Show
Since the term is not yet fully fleshed out, I would propose that, for the purposes of this article, that oppression cosplay refers to attempts by someone to take on the identity of am oppressed group for the purposes of that they perceive as benefits given to that group status.
Some may contest the notion that there are any benefits to being part of an oppressed group. The truth is that there are both benefits and consequences to being on any rung of the ladder of social hierarchy, its just with oppressed groups, the consequences are a magnitude worse than any benefit, and these supposed benefits are more often corrective measures meant to offset the consequences to try to reintroduce a sense of justice into our society. Yes there is a “Black History Month” and no “White History Month,” but that supposed benefit is due to the consequence of African Americans having their contributions to history consistently marginalized. If there were truly equal representation, then there would be no need to set aside the month.
An Oppression Cosplayer is one who tries to emulate the oppressed group for the purpose of getting these perceived benefits, but does not fully live the life that would force them to face the down side that members of that group have had to face in their lives. This is to be distinguished from people who are bicultural, repatriated, or have actively coexisted with multiple groups, because these are people people who were either born into a dualistic cultural life, or lived, for a substantial period, within another culture, and these groups did not enter into the cultures in order to appropriate the percieved benefits. Instead, the oppression cosplay wants all the good stuff, but none of the bad, all of the perks, but none of the costs. And when we accept this, we can begin to see how oppression cosplay has been running rampant in our culture for decades.
The most visible form of this oppression cosplay has come from rampant issues of cultural appropriation. Native American culture, for instance, has been a regular target for this form of cosplay. In both the liberal and conservative communities, there are individuals that work very hard to grant themselves a special status by trying to prove Native American lineage. Did they have to suffer the abuses of the reservation schools? Did they get pulled away from their families, or watch kids get pulled away from their Native families? Were they ever forced to live in the reservation conditions that force them into poverty while friends and family fell into alcoholism? Did they ever have to take up the often harsh training regimens? Typically, the answer is “no” to all of these questions. But if you ask them, they will talk about their proud heritage and their automatic connections to the spiritual world. On top of that are the more offensive forms of appropriation, taking sacred dress, and using it in fashion shows, sports teams, etc, removing them from their very cultural context and history and using them to assume a sense of power or exoticism. This is not just limited to Native Americans. Asian cultures, Celtic Cultures, and Afro-Carribean cultures have all seen this appropriation on one level or another. In addition, politicians will start to apply racial credentials to garner votes of certain racial groups, even if those credentials are purely genetic and they have no actual cultural investment.
Another highly visible form of oppression cosplay that is common but overlooked is is that of “Stolen Valor” where people fake or embellish a military history for perceived benefits. We, as a society, give a lot of automatic respect to our military because it is assumed that they volunteered to go through hell, watched brethren get injured or die, and may have been wounded themselves. We have a lot of programs set up to help veterans because, despite the praise we get from them in word, society actually regularly screws them over in deed. Veterans health services are overworked and underfunded, GI Bill benefits can get creatively hidden, companies adopt policies against hiring veterans, and a huge percentage of veterans are dependent on social welfare programs that are regularly getting cut. To offset this, we have veteran charities, we have legal incentives to hire veterans, and there are regular attempts to promote awareness, creating a veteran aid industry. But what has grown out of this industry are people who try to get all of those nice perks without having to actually do the work. Some are people who never had any military experience, while others were in the military, did not see combat or support combatants in any way, and yet see themselves on par with the soldiers did earn their honor.
The final and most hypocritical form of oppression cosplay comes the groups who attempt to assume the roles of the oppressed without taking on any characteristics of an actual oppressed group. These are groups that see attempts to establish a more just and equitable society as an act of oppression because they are losing what have been their unfair advantages. Get sanctioned or fired for using a known racial slur in the media? Got in trouble for telling a rape joke? Got shot down for continuously reinserting a factually inaccurate argument that just happens to minimize or insult members of specific groups? That’s not a natural consequence of living an a just society, that’s censorship! People want you to do your job equally towards all customers/patients regardless of how you view their lives? That’s oppression! Have there been laws passed to correct an obvious tendency to provide jobs or services only to your race? That law is racist! Demand that people listen to female rape victims? That’s a feminist conspiracy to overthrow men! This may seem like hyperbole, but when you look at the stances of MRA groups, Red Pill groups, and many political pundits, these are the arguments they are making. They try to make attacking the concept of social justice an issue of social justice, because they know that victims get sympathetic support.. They are not really oppressed, these groups still maintain unfair advantages over most other groups when it comes to social status, job access, college access, etc, but they are playing the role of the oppressed because they know that doing so works.
Now not all oppression cosplayers do so maliciously. Many started struggling with a diffuse identity and latched onto the other identity as a proxy self to end the struggle. Others may have adopted the identity as a form of fugue from a sense of cultural shame over racial crimes committed in their culture’s past. Still others may take up the the life of the oppressed group to avoid a more personal trauma, because often fighting the trauma of another is far less threatening than fighting your own. But even these less malicious motivations still end up robbing society, because, as Jessica Williams pointed out above, oppressed groups need allies, not imitators, and rather than leaving your culture to idealize another, you can better serve both by being a cultural ambassador between the two in order to actually end, instead of emulate, the oppression that exists.