Back in 2009, Liz H pointed to an essay that I liked: “Oppression,” by Marilyn Frye, from Frye's 1983 book The Politics of Reality. I gather that the essay is fairly widely known, but I hadn't encountered it before Liz pointed to it. I wrote this entry at the time, but held off on posting it and then never came back to it 'til now. (The copy that Liz pointed to is no longer there, so I'm linking to a different copy.)
Some aspects of the piece seem a little dated to me, but much of it is, sadly, still very relevant. Below are the two paragraphs that I found most helpful to me. They say stuff that's probably obvious to many of you, but they provided me with useful tools for thinking about this stuff.
One of the things that I think many of us white Americans have the hardest time understanding about racism is how systemic it is, how deeply woven into the fabric of our society. Similarly with other areas in which people-with-privilege are looking at institutionalized prejudice without seeing that it's institutionalized and widespread, not just isolated instances. For example, it's easy to look at one instance of a gay character in fiction dying and say there's nothing wrong with it; it's only when you become aware of the trend, when you see just how widespread Dead Lesbian Syndrome is, that you can start to understand why it's problematic.
Frye provides an excellent metaphor for all this:
Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would have trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.
I think this is related to another problem that often comes up in discussions of (for example) racism: well-intentioned white folks who haven't had much exposure to the issues often start down a path of asking questions and making arguments that seem perfectly reasonable to them, not realizing that the person of color who they're talking to has had this exact same conversation dozens of times. Recognizing the existence of the cage, of the pattern, can make it easier for me to see that the person I'm talking with has probably discussed other wires in the past, not just the one that I'm seeing.
My other favorite bit of the Frye piece is on a different subtopic. The essay starts out by touching on the (still very common in discussions of oppression) notion that privileged people are hurt by systemic oppression too; for example, that men aren't allowed to cry. True enough, but, as Frye notes:
Barriers have different meanings to those on opposite sides of them, even though they are barriers to both. The physical walls of a prison no more dissolve to let an outsider in than to let an insider out, but for the insider they are confining and limiting while to the outsider they may mean protection from what s/he takes to be threats posed by insiders—freedom from harm or anxiety. A set of social and economic barriers and forces separating two groups may be felt, even painfully, by members of both groups and yet may mean confinement to one and liberty and enlargement of opportunity to the other.
She specifically covers the men-can't-cry thing in more detail later (and if you're inclined to focus on that, I urge you to read her discussion of it before responding to my excerpts), but I'm not quoting that here because I'm most interested in the general point. The prison-walls analogy is imperfect, but I like it anyway, because it vividly illustrates the “Barriers have different meanings” point.
(There are all sorts of other things I ought to add to this entry, including more nuanced discussion of privileged people being hurt by oppression than I've managed above; but if I try for that, then this entry will get much longer and I'll never get around to posting it. So consider this just one piece of the larger conversation on these topics, rather than an attempt at a comprehensive statement.)