Over Thanksgiving break, I had an argument with a white woman — let’s call her “Susan.” She made an off-hand comment referring to Mexicans crossing the border: “We should blow them all up with bazookas.” If I had been wise, I would have retreated somewhere far, far away. But instead, I spent the next two hours trying to convince her that this viewpoint is destructive to humanity. She claimed that she wasn’t racist because she had a few close black friends, but that Mexicans are taking over with their dirty criminality.

In vain, I attempted to describe to Susan the process by which whites white men and their ideologies have dominated our world’s most prominent social spaces. The reality of those who have actually “taken over” throughout history is that that they have colonized, forced entire countries into poverty and corruption, enslaved millions, tortured civilians, women and children and committed war crimes. For example, President John F. Kennedy was notoriously decorated for supporting human rights, but authorized chemical warfare in Vietnam. I left Susan with one question: What if you were one the oppressed?

Over the past few months, I have addressed the linked modern oppression of blacks, gays, Mexicans and the disabled. That is not to say that racial struggles are really class struggles, or that gays’ issues should only be discussed in the context of feminism. Rather, it means we share a common ground in which the essence of what it means to be human is challenged by the framework of our physical, mental, sexual or social characteristics. I am reminded the refrain from a song titled “Dead Man’s Party:” “Welcome to a dead man’s party, who can ask for more, everybody’s coming, leave your body at the door.” None of these characteristics, none of these “bodies,” measure value as a human.

In his article, “Transgender Rhetorics,” teacher and self-identified queer feminist compositionist Jonathan Alexander reveals one of his techniques of teaching gender issues to his “traditionally” gendered students. He knows that while some people can relate to the moving stories of transgender and feminist literature, others’ sentiments are less tolerant. They ask insensitive questions like, “Who cares if a few freaks have trouble using public toilets?” That’s the same as asking who cares that a few disabled people need to search for a ramp or access for a few extra minutes, who cares if gays do not have access to the same rights as married straights and who cares if blacks and women don’t have equal opportunity of access to education.

Alexander designed a writing exercise in which students must write in the voice of one’s opposite sex within a plot designed by a partner. He wanted students to virtually reflect on the process of gender/sex switching to see what it might tell us about the construction of gender in our society. After it was over, the discussion that followed conspicuously revealed reliance on sexist stereotypes to understand the opposite sex. He was asking the same question I asked Susan, who also relied on racist stereotypes to understand Mexicans.

Similarly, we must begin to question our own stereotypical notions of other groups that shape our inaccurate and often offensive understandings. We must consider ourselves gay before we oppose equal right for gays; or women, before we decide when, where, why and how they birth a child. What would we want for ourselves, if we were in their place? When looking at vast social disparities that still exist, we must remember 500 years of slavery and a system that has segregated blacks into our poorest cities. Imagine you are an unemployed, poor black man in Detroit, where there are no jobs and your family is starving. The only option available for money was selling drugs. Wouldn’t you do it? Or would you let your family go hungry? For oppressed social minorities, gaining basic human rights is about a struggle to survive.

Rather than identify with some external characteristic with which our identities have been defined by society’s dominant forces, we can transform society by understanding what is means to be human. As bell hooks tells us in her book, “Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black,” we must be “challenging the politics of domination on all fronts.” By leaving our bodies at the door and identifying with minorities who our society as a whole does not understand, we can find the common ground that makes us all human and begin to oppose the dominant forces that corrupt the notion of a common humanity.

Matthew Hunter can be reached at majjam@umich.edu.

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