The trouble with allies

Allies against the Nazis

Apparently there’s this thing whereby people with privileged social positions—say, white people in a racist society, men in a sexist society, or straight people in a heterosexist society—choose to identify themselves as “allies” (i.e., of those who are disadvantaged or harmed by the social institution in question). Indeed, there are how-to guides for this sort of thing. And, hey, who could object to someone who wants to ally themselves with people who are subject to oppression? Well, there are a few reasons to at least be wary here. But first, I think it is important to make the following point:

If you have to tell someone that you are their ally, it is utterly unlikely that you are actually acting like their ally.

If (potential) allies read no further but take this to heart, I’ll be reasonably pleased.

A rhetorical question

Let’s begin with the “rhetoric” of allyhood. Alliances are, by and large, made intentionally, voluntarily,and pragmatically. Alliances usually have beginnings, and they frequently have endings. The obligations that arise within them arise because of the act of aligning. While we might think of the end of alliances as sometimes involving a kind of betrayal, it seems to me that there is also something about the nature of alliances that they are ephemeral. Consider the model of political alliances. During World War II, the Soviet Union allied with the US and UK to defeat Nazi Germany,1 and then that alliance ended, bringing about Cold War. The alliance was undertaken with a particular purpose in mind, and when that purpose came to fruition, the alliance gave way.

Suppose that is broadly how alliances work. Is this an apt analogy for how we—committed anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-heterosexist, anti-classist, etc. people—want people with privilege to understand their obligations? The rhetoric of allyhood seems to have built into it a model of obligation that comes about only in light of having aligned oneself with a political cause. But this seems just wrong. What we want is for people to understand that there is something fundamentally immoral about a certain kind of social order, and that, as a result, people with privilege have an obligation to bring about changes to that order. That is, men do not have obligations to undermine sexist institutions solely in virtue of having a commitment to feminism; if the feminist critique is correct, men have this obligation full stop. But, at best, the rhetoric of allyhood obscures this obligation—and, at worst, erases it. The categorization of oneself as an ally brings with it the idea that what one is doing can be undone at will.

Beyond rhetoric

Beyond the rhetorical dangers—and, really, miscategorization—of allyhood, we ought to worry about how understanding people’s role as allies can serve to reflect and reinforce their privileged position vis-a-vis those they ally with. A genuine risk that arises from the rhetorical concern is that allyhood can give rise to a kind of dilettantism: being an ally is something to do for now, but one can always leave when the project gets less interesting or when one feels slighted or criticized by the engagement style of the members of a movement. Identifying oneself as an ally brings with it identifying the struggle as belonging to someone else, and so something that one can leave. An ally who walks away from a political struggle is walking back into the full embrace of privilege, and so has little to lose and much to gain from doing so.

There is an important sense in which the struggle is not the ally’s, and I don’t want to downplay that point. In particular, it is important to mark the differences in what is at stake for whom in any struggle and to avoid appropriating the struggles of others as one’s own. Allies that try to take ownership of a struggle in this fashion end up reinforcing the structures that they seek to undermine by centering conversations on their needs and perspectives, attempting to take leadership, and generally not recognizing that what is mostly—or all—theory for allies is the lived experience of the people they wish to ally with. Nonetheless, the larger point I want to make is that there seems to me to be something in the self-identification as an ally that reinforces the deleterious sense in which the struggle is the ally’s only for as long as the ally wants—rather than the obligation that arises from being a moral agent. The challenge, then, is for allies to understand the moral obligation to fight against these institutions as their own while simultaneously understanding (pace everything their privilege indicates) that other people’s knowledge, skills, and experience come first.

Excuses, excuses

Another concern is that “allies” use their identity as “allies” to rationalize and excuse bad behavior. This takes a few forms, one of the most pernicious is the “I’m an ally, so I mean well” line of thought. That is, person X does something that reinforces the institutionalized oppression of the group that X is an “ally” for, and then replies with references to being an ally when called to the mat. While, in general, intentions don’t make actions right or wrong (though they make a difference to our evaluation of moral agents), what is particularly troubling about this response is that presumably people become “allies” because they recognize the institutional nature of the problem. In these cases, “allies” talk “institutions, not intentions, make oppression” out of one side of their mouth and “my intentions are good, so I’m good” out of the other. Alas, identifying as an “ally” isn’t a magical incantation that absolves one of the blameworthiness for complicity or participation in immoral institutions, and it does not undo harm.

The existential threat of allies

This brings me to my final, one point that allies frequently miss about themselves: they represent—and perhaps are—an existential threat to the people they seek to ally with. To see what I mean here, consider what I’ve said so far. No matter how well-meaning they might be, allies are people who:

  1. benefit from institutionalized system of oppression;
  2. are likely unaware of the extent of that privilege, the nature of harms that privilege creates, and the frequency and manner that the harms occur;
  3. have incentives for perpetuating this system;
  4. are used to being seen as authoritative and powerful;
  5. and may think of their “ally” status as putting them beyond reproach to some degree or other.

Given these characteristics, an ally is someone who is liable, at any time, to become . . . well, an enemy. That is, whether we characterize what happens as “a slip up” or “unmasking a fraud,” the conditions I describe above make it likely that allies are going to do things that harm the people they want to help.2

What now?

Where does this leave people who want to be “allies”? Well, it seems to me that we—and I’m pretty privileged—need to begin with the recognition that:

  • the very institutions that provide meaning and structure for our lives are shot through with immoral distributions of burdens and benefits;
  • the intentions of the individuals aren’t the source of harms in oppression; rather it is their institutional nature that is fundamental;
  • privilege blinds individuals to the full extent of their benefits from the injustices of this system;
  • these are problems not merely of what one believes or says, but of deeply-ingrained habits, subconscious responses, and modes of behavior.

What should the reaction to this be, if not to be an “ally”? I’d suggest that one ought to be a decent human being: recognize that the game is rigged for your benefit, and do what you can to take down that system. None of us can opt out of these systems, but we can (strive to) be conscious of how they work, call out their operations, refuse and resist when possible, and the like. To think otherwise—to think in terms of being an “ally”—smacks of thinking in terms of being charitable, of doing a favor, rather than doing what is morally obligated. If you are a person of conscience who recognizes the existence of the sorts of facts I highlighted, we aren’t talking about supererogation here; we’re talking about the basic obligations of being a moral agent.


  1. The same Nazi Germany that the Soviet Union previously had a non-aggression pact with. 
  2. For recent cases of public ally meltdowns, consider the cases of Hugo Schwyzer, Charles Clymer, and Tim Wise
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How can I be a racist if I volunteer on Martin Luther King, Jr. day?

left-handed-products

Ned is just a helpful heuristic here, not an example of racist oppression.

In my previous post, I offered an annotated bibliography to help people interested in institutionalized forms of oppression and domination get started in understanding how those things work. In this post, I offer some framing and introductory material: what does it mean to accuse someone of being, say, racist or sexist? What is the force of that kind of accusation?

It is not about your intentions

The categories of “sexism,” “racism,” “heterosexism,” “classism,” “cissexism,” and the like are not best thought of as categories that pick out the intentions of the agents in question. That is: they are not best thought of as identifying attitudes or feelings of individuals. Rather, they identify patterns of behavior, frameworks that determine meaning, and systematic consequences of an individual’s actions. The accusation of (to just choose a single, over-simplified example) racism isn’t an accusation that you intend harm or harbor ill will toward people of another race.1 Instead, it is the accusation that what you’ve done or said perpetuates, reinforces, or endorses a system that unjustly distributes burdens and benefits (here, by race).

To understand what is at stake in distinction between institutional structures and individual attitudes, it will be helpful to consider a few examples.

  • Case 1 In the stereotypical account of racism, we have someone like Tom Metzger, who has long advocated for a particularly violent form of white racism. This is a case where the individual attitudes match the institutional structures.
  • Case 2 In addition, there are cases in which there are hostile attitudes toward groups of individuals based on false and morally irrelevant features that are nonetheless not forms of structural violence. Suppose, say, that I believed that people with webbed toes are likely to be untrustworthy. As a result, I don’t befriend people I know have webbed toes, I don’t hire them, and I don’t vote for them when they run for public office. Clearly, I’m a bad person for holding these views and behaving in this way—I should not behave in this way. This is not, however, an instance of structural violence because there is no social institution that creates asymmetrical rewards and burdens based on morally arbitrary categories. To put it a bit bluntly: in this case, I’m a jerk, but I’m a jerk on my own. In contrast, someone like Tom Metzger is a jerk, but he is empowered by institutions that extend far beyond him.
  • Case 3 As a final case: consider the plight of left handed people. A large portion of our artifacts are designed to be used by people who primarily use their right hand: the desks in a college lecture hall, the trackball sitting next to my computer, and more. There are patterns of behavior—institutionalized practices—that impose burdens on left handed people. I don’t think, though, that right handed people have ill-will toward or actively dislike lefties (at least, in virtue of their left-handedness). Nonetheless, the history and practices do have an effect.

Given these cases, we can begin to see how the differences between structural violence and individual attitudes come apart—and how, if we only understand, e.g., racism in terms of the kind of explicitly endorsed ill-will of Metzger or Stormfront, we will fail to grasp how truly insidious and pervasive the phenomena are.2

Before moving on, I do want add the following: none of this is to deny the reality that there are oppressors and that oppression is a fundamental problem. To take our basic case: racism is a deep problem, and it is not one that can be overcome by occasionally recognizing that non-White people exist, are deserving of respect, are persons, and the like. However, the phenomena I’m interested in lie in the vast domain that is bounded by Cases 1 & 2. That is, I gather we all agree that people of the sort who appear in Case 1 are really problematic, and I think we’d agree that the sort of people who appear in Case 2 are likely quirky and harmless. (If not, I’ve chosen a bad example.)

There is clearly more to racism than just Case 1 types who actively endorse and seek out enforcement of racist institutions. Sometimes the accusation of racism is one that targets endorsers, and sometimes it targets people who merely benefit from or reinforce these institutions. Sometimes this takes the form of the casual racism (e.g., alluding to people of other races by slurs when among friends of the same race); sometimes it takes more sophisticated forms (e.g., the endless attempts by white guys to provide “scientific evidence” of their superiority); and sometimes it takes the form of high minded ideals like “urban renewal” and “reducing crime.” These are all instances of racism.

Wait, is there no difference between well-meaning white folks and Stormfront?

Of course, there is some difference between the person who intends harm to others and the person who incidentally causes it. However, this isn’t a difference in the moral quality of the act, as the act still has the consequences that it has regardless of the intention of the agent. Whether you meant well or ill is probably of little consequence to someone who is left to deal with the real consequences of your action.

The difference that intentions might make here is in how we ought to regard the agent who brought about the act: are they deserving of moral reproach and sanction or a more sympathetic correction? The person who meant the harm he brought about is deserving of moral reproach and sanction, but someone who unintentionally did so might be deserving of more education than condemnation.

As a result, accusations of racism (et. al.) need not be construed as “characterological,” as indicating a defective “soul” or a cruel attitude. These accusations instead highlight the role a person is playing in a system of domination and oppression. The criticism is about the harms one perpetrates and the unjust benefits one receives from participating in such a system.

Again, none of the foregoing should be construed as lessening the sting of accusations of racism or absolving those who have behaved in ways that are racist from blame. Indeed, at best it suggests that “inadvertent racists” might be due something other than condemnation; it does not require that they are. The point of this analysis is that it reconfigures the obligations of people who are anti-racist. People who want to fight racism don’t only (or even primarily, perhaps) need to change themselves—they need to change the institutions all around them. It likely is impossible for us to escape racism at the moment, but it isn’t impossible for us to critique those institutions, be aware of our complicity in them, and change them so that they match our aspirations toward justice.

Why there is no such thing as “reverse” racism

People who make claims suggesting that there is a phenomenon of “reverse” racism are making a basic mistake: they are conflating intentions with institutions. To take our overly-simplistic racism example: it isn’t possible for African Americans to be racist against whites in the US, as the institutions that give order and meaning to our lives don’t disadvantage whites.3 However, it is possible for African Americans to be racist against other African Americans as well as other NBPoC, and it surely is possible for African Americans to harbor hostility and intolerance toward white people.

Clearly we need get clear on some distinctions in order to better account for the phenomena. If racism is possible only within an institution and is not as such marker of intentional hostility, we do need to be able to mark off people who are hostile. To that end, we might use terms like “bigotry” (i.e., obstinately holding intolerant beliefs) and “prejudice” (i.e., an unreasoned hostility or antagonism). Oppressed people surely can have intolerant and unreasoned antagonism about people who benefit from systems of oppression, even if they cannot oppress those people. As a result, “reverse racism” isn’t a thing so much as it is a category mistake.


  1. The example is over-simplified because it implicitly understands “race” in terms of the “Black/White” continuum. There are many other races, and framing debates about racism solely in terms of the Black/White continuum distorts our analysis of racism and further erases these other races from our discourse (and thus reinforces a kind of racism against NBPoC). In addition, I should add that I’m considering racism an example of the broader phenomenon of structural violence, and so we could write a quite similar article about “sexism,” “heterosexism,” “classism,” “cissexism,” and the like. 
  2. Figuring out just how deep the problems go is the project of my “Moral Dimensions” course. There, we explore how these institutions become deeply ingrained habits that have profound effects on our psychology and embodiment. 
  3. At least, insofar as they are white. As I noted in the earlier post on institutional critiques, our political identities are “intersectional,” and so one’s being a woman, gay, trans, or poor might put them in a disadvantaged position. 

Getting started in critiques of institutional power structures

But I went to your institutional learning facilities!

But I went to your institutional learning facilities.

There’s a fairly common chain of events that repeats itself in discussions involving social justice issues: a person from a privileged group is called out for something he said or did by someone who is subject to the structural violence created by (and that creates) that privilege. The conversation ends up highlighting the morally problematic nature of what was said or done, and the privileged person realizes—at least, a bit—that a faux pas was made. In order to right the wrong, the person then asks about how to learn more about the institution in question.

While learning more about one’s privilege and how it impacts other people is a good thing, there is something worrisome about this sort of exchange.1 In essence, this kind of response puts the disadvantaged in a position of having to educate the advantaged (usually for free, no less). At best, this response reenacts the exploitation of the very institutional structures in question; at its worst, it is the dehumanizing impulse to treat someone as a “fact kiosk” rather than, say, a person whose time is valuable and their own to do with as they wish.2

Of course, without learning how this stuff works, there simply isn’t going to be any progress in terms of undermining these morally problematic structures. What is a person who knows that there’s something going on here (but don’t know what it is) to do? How do you even begin to find answers? I mean, if only someone would invent a method for discovering resources online or some sort of decent online encyclopedia. Until such time, it would seem that we’re in a dilly of a pickle.

To rectify this situation, I’m creating a resource to allow people to get started in understanding how an institutional analysis of power works. So, if you’re confronted by your privilege on a particular subject and want to know more, you can start by apologizing to whomever had to point out what you did, reading these texts, and then undermining morally problematic institutions.3

What follows in this post isn’t the definitive guide to getting an understanding of how institutional analyses of power work. It is, instead, a guide—one that is modeled on my own (quite idiosyncratic) intellectual history. There are other ways into the material here, but this one is mine. As a result, this list reflects my interests both in terms of method (i.e., tending toward philosophical analysis), content (i.e., tending toward gender and race), and focus (i.e., the American experience). In future posts, I will go through and explain more simply and thoroughly some of the concepts and arguments discussed in these works. In the interim, you might want to also look at my syllabus for my power course, which covers some of this ground as well as related topics (e.g., disabilities and fat studies).

Some optional background reading

Every text is situated in a broader discourse, so I can’t give you the definitive stepping off point for this material—there is no “In the Beginning” to be had here. Nonetheless, there are two major figures lurking in the background of the materials that follow, and so it might be useful, over time, to have an understanding of them. The first is Friedrich Nietzsche, whose work, especially in On the Genealogy of Morals, informs Foucault’s work in terms of both method and content. The second is Karl Marx, whose work informs the critiques made by Foucault, Du Bois, Fanon, Davis, and hooks.

Where I start

Given my scholarly interests in these issues, I tend to think that a great theoretical place to start is with Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. D&P is a genealogy4 of the prison, which Foucault dates to the 19th Century and attributes to a confluence of factors: (i) the political riskiness to the sovereign of violent and public punishment; (ii) the origins of contractarian views of society; (iii) the rise of the human sciences; and (iv) the development of successful training methods that were shared across institutions (e.g., schools, militaries, factories, and prisons). What explains the success of the last two elements is that they are mutually reinforcing and they share a conception of humanity that treats persons as raw materials for any sort of position within an institution. This analysis is immensely powerful for thinking about other, less formal institutions.

Thinking about gender (a first go)

I find it helpful to begin understanding the institutional analysis of power by looking at gender. In particular, the picture of embodiment—that is, how the body is shaped by norms—that has been developed by gender theorists provides us with a nice bridge between the Foucauldian theoretical picture and concrete experience. If you’d prefer to start with race, that’s fine too.

Femininity

In my classes, I tend to use two authors to highlight the specifically institutional nature of gender:

  • Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality, chapters 1 (“Oppression”) and 2 (“Sexism”)
  • Sandra Lee Bartky, Femininity and Domination, chapter 5 (“Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization Power of Patriarchal Power”)
Masculinity

Naturally, men are gendered as well. I tend to use two texts to highlight the ways in which men are gendered:

  • William Pollack, Real Boys, Chapter 2 (“Stories of shame and the haunting trauma of separation: how we can connect with boys and change the ‘boy code’ “)
  • Califia, “Manliness”

Thinking about gender in a more complicated fashion

The way of thinking about gender embodied in these texts has significant limitations. The primary limitation is that these texts still treat people of privileged race, class, sexuality, etc. status as a “universal subject”—the “human.” To put the point another way: the accounts of masculinity and femininity aren’t accounts of the norms full stop, but rather an account of gender norms given a particular socio-cultural context. Of course, nobody merely has a gender—each of us has a gender presentation that is also raced, classed, sex-identified, and the like. In the next section, I’ll take up the issue of race and intersectionality; here, I’d like to highlight the trouble with heterosexism.

Queer critiques of feminism

There are many texts that problematize the development of feminism in 20th century America. As we’ll see in the next section, second wave feminism reproduced racist (and classist) institutions; here, we’ll examine how second wave feminism reproduced heterosexism. These critiques arise from the conception of “woman” that is the subject of feminism.

The critique of second wave feminism’s heterosexism arises from the question of whether lesbians are women (to put the point a bit too bluntly). If, after all, feminism is supposed to advance the interests of “women,” then the failure of feminism to account for lesbian experience seems to exclude lesbians from womanhood. Adrienne Rich critiques the suppression and erasure of lesbianism from second wave feminism’s account of womanhood, and Judith Butler expands on this insight to undercut the theoretical framework that understands (or presupposes) a natural relation between sex, gender, and desire: that one’s sex is biologically determined, which in turn determines one gender, and, thereby, one’s desires. Be forewarned that Rich’s work is, in my students’ words, “really, really passionate,” and Butler’s work is notoriously difficult to parse.

  • Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience”
  • Butler, Gender Trouble
  • Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Epistemology of the Closet”

On Race

Another form of embodiment that is heavily normative and the site of structural violence is race. And, while gender and sexuality are complicated things, race is even more complex to sort out. I’ve separated out some issues, below, in order to highlight the different ways into the subject matter.

NB: I tend to be interested in African American experiences, but it is a mistake to treat the “Black/White continuum” conception of race that informs so much of American racial discourse as exhaustive or paradigmatic of all racial issues. Not only are there intersectionality issues (see more, below) within that continuum, but the experiences of Latin@\Chican@, indigenous people of the Americas, Asian Americans, and native Hawaiians and Alaskans are all due attention and understanding—and not merely in relation to whiteness.

Race and feminism

One way into the discussion on race is via a discussion that parallels the queer critique of second wave feminism. Here, there are people who note that various forms of feminism have construed the subject of feminism—women—as being primarily white (and perhaps middle class) women.

Race outside of African American experiences

Although this begins to take me beyond the domain of my scholarly expertise, there are three authors that I will mention by way of expanding the discussion beyond the “Black/White Continuum”; each of these authors is also interested in questions of gender.

  • Linda Martín Alcoff, Visible Identities: Race, Gender and the Self
  • Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza
  • Cherríe Moraga, A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness: Writings, 2000-2010
Understanding race and racism

Another way to start thinking about racism is more free-standing from questions about feminism and representation. The texts, below, highlight important distinctions: Fanon offers an analysis of the impact of colonization on the colonized; Shelby shows that what is at stake in racism (and, by extension, institutional oppression more generally) is not the attitudes of individuals so much as institutions that give meaning to our actions; Sally Haslanger analyzes the differences between gender and race as categories for social organization; and Kelly and Roedder highlight how deeply institutionalized racism can infect our psychologies.

Racism and America

Given my interests in American philosophy and African American culture, I think that some of the most engaging work covers questions about what America represents and how it represents itself. Although the rhetoric around the founding of the United States was one of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the reality experienced by people from outside a relatively narrow group of wealthy white men is quite different indeed. This is not merely a historical artifact of chattel slavery (or the genocidal policies inflicted on Native Americans), but rather an ongoing phenomenon that implicitly codes “American” as “white.” Du Bois is helpful in framing this issue (and Allen and Schaefer are helpful in explaining and expanding on Du Bois’s account of “double consciousness”), and the Lorde/Baldwin conversation offers a re-assessment of the issue at mid-century. Angela Davis’s work on prison abolition examines the gap between America’s conception of its criminal justice system and its realities, with the former so idealized that it masks the continuities between forms of criminalizing African Americans.


  1. I have in mind here encounters between strangers or acquaintances (especially online) rather than those between friends. 
  2. I’ve lifted the vocabulary of “fact kiosk” from Trudy at Gradient Lair. If you visit her site, please be well-mannered and remember that just reading about racism and sexism doesn’t make you a good person. 
  3. Obviously, no one blog post is going to cover everything, so what is here is just the start—to get you up and running, as it were. 
  4. Foucault, like Nietzsche, offers a genealogy of various social institutions. In contrast to what we might call a “history,” which aims at offering a retrospective, coherent account of how things came to be, a genealogy aims at reminding us that (many of) the institutions that we have today arose in a rather different socio-historical context, and so when we look at how these institutions came about, we should attend to the accidents that gave rise to those institutions—rather than the current significance of the institutions—in understanding how the institutions came to be. 

Queer Theory: an annotated syllabus

homerinsteelmill

Consider three familiar categories that structure so much of life: sex, gender, and desire. Standardly, we assume that sex is the biological fact that determines our gender, and our gender, in turn, determines our sexual desires. In this course, we critically examine this “sex/gender/desire” conception of the self, with a special focus on the elaborate efforts societies make in creating and reinforcing conditions that are supposed by those societies to be “natural.” Is the “sex/gender/desire” conception of the self correct, and, if not, what does it mean for sex, gender, and desire—and for practices, institutions, and societies built upon the logic of that conception?

Overview of the course

This course began as an outgrowth of my scholarly interest in gender (especially masculinity) and as a response to the heterosexism I was noticing both on and off campus. Since that first class, I’ve taught various versions of the course, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, at several universities. This syllabus reflects a refinement of the material I have used over the years.

The arc of the course can be understood as a (mis)reading of the history of feminism; in particular, we look at how queer theory is a part of the reaction to the perceived centering of second-wave feminism on the experiences of white, middle-class, straight women.1 To that end, we posit a basic distinction between sex and gender, and we examine “gender norms.” We then examine how these gender norms assume either (implicitly or explicitly) that their objects are heterosexual. From there, we highlight how raising that particular criticism threatens to undermine undermine both feminism (for a lack of a single subject that is “woman”) and the sex/gender distinction itself. We then look to the consequences of this “queer theory” critique for various social institutions.

In all, the course proceeds through five major sections:

  1. Framing: examining Foucault’s account of institutions, the internalization of norms, and the production of a self.
  2. A first go at the sex/gender distinction: developing the basic move in our theoretical repertoire, the distinction between sex (a function of biology) and gender (a function of social norms).
  3. Feminism’s gender trouble: critiquing the picture of gender as envisioning a “universal” woman when there is not—with a focus on sexuality and feminism.
  4. Biopolitics and sex/gender/desire: rethinking various institutions that are built up around a logic of “sex/gender/desire,” including scientific inquiry into human biology and the medicalization of trans persons.
  5. Heterosexism and cissexism: understanding how the foregoing leads to systems of oppression and privilege.

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