It’s Not About You: Individuals versus Institutions

I was having a talk with my pal Hilary recently which came around to tourism, as it so often does, and she said (paraphrasing), that one of the things which frustrated her the most about some people who are antitourism is that they are incapable of distinguishing between individuals and institutions. Rather than attacking the institution of tourism and the harms it creates, these folks instead are just rude to tourists.

It’s a point which happens to apply to a lot of things, and one I wholeheartedly agree with; many people have difficulty differentiating between people and the systems in which they are trapped. And not just critics of systems, but people trapped within systems who are responding to criticism. This results in a lot of tears and recriminations which could be handily avoided. And it seems like any structural discussion inevitably breaks down into people claiming that they are being attacked by the discussion of a harmful social structure, so it’s worth taking a moment to examine this.

The fact is that there are a lot of really harmful systems and institutions in this world of ours. And some people benefit from those systems, whether they like it or not. For example, as a white person, I am in a position to benefit from the racial structures in my society. I do not choose this benefit, I do not like it, but it is there whether or not I feel comfortable about it. As someone in a position of privilege within a structure, I feel like part of my responsibility is to tear that structure down, and part of that responsibility includes recognising that when people criticise race, they aren’t criticising me.

When someone talks about ‘white people,’ that person isn’t talking about me, personally. That person is talking about white folks in general and about the institutions which surround us. When someone expresses distrust for white people, that person isn’t saying ‘you, s.e., you are personally not someone I can trust,’ but is talking, in general, about the trust issues which exist between people of power and people in marginalised groups. I’m not saying ‘oh, I ignore conversations where people say that white folks aren’t trustworthy’ here, I should note. I’m saying ‘I acknowledge that people have good reason not to trust me and that I have absolutely no reason to expect, demand, or deserve trust from nonwhite folks, but that it’s not about me, it’s about the system.’ I can separate myself from an institution while still acknowledging my role in that institution, although I, like everyone else, am not always perfect at this.

It’s worth stressing. When people are talking about racism, ableism, sexism, transphobia, classism, and the numerous other -isms which seem to make the world turn, they aren’t saying that people who experience benefits within these structures are bad people. Or that it’s their fault for being made the way they are. It’s not a coded message which really means ‘gosh, nondisabled people are just so awful, aren’t they?’ It’s really, honestly, truly, not about you. It’s about systems and structures and social attitudes and the role they play in our lives. Including the role they play in shaping who you are, but it’s still not about you.

The exception to this rule, of course, is people who not only benefit from those structures, but who work to preserve them. The homophobe who tries to pass antigay legislation? The white person who thinks that all Native folks are alcoholic criminals? The nondisabled person who believes that people with disabilities should be sterilised? Yeah, the conversation is about them, because they have not only internalised the structure, they are externalising it and building it up. But, if you’re reading this website, I rather doubt that you are one of those people, so I feel fairly confident saying that when I talk about harmful social structures, I’m not talking about you.

Discussions about these structures, discussions which take place on a structural level, are so often taken as personal attacks. It’s interesting to see this in action because the way in which people react directly reinforces these structures, even when people claim to have an interest in deconstructing them. Every time a nondisabled person dismisses a person with disabilities, that person is benefiting from ableism and is contributing to the perpetuation of disability discrimination. Every time a trans* person is shouted down and silenced by cis folks, it reinforces the cis gender binary. And the story continues. These people have made the fundamental error of confusing themselves with institutions and the result is, almost inevitably, an expression of privilege.

It’s important to distinguish between people and institutions. My primary area of interest is institutions, which I want to tear down with teeth, nails, and everything else. I’m not as interested in attacking people for belonging and inadvertently benefiting from institutions, although I sure as heck will go after people who prop up harmful structures. I want people to recognise these institutions, to see the roles they play in them, and to consider joining me in dismantling these systems. But when I talk about, for example, my hatred of tourism, that doesn’t mean that I hate tourists. If anything, I feel bad for them, because they are trapped in something larger than themselves which they cannot understand. Hating tourists is just not the solution; getting tourists to understand how and why tourism is harmful, on the other hand, is.

Learning to differentiate between people and institutions is critical, for people on all sides and at all levels of an institution. Whether you are on the outside looking in or on the inside looking out, perspective is vital. And it can be hard to get that perspective when you are ensnared in the structure of an institution. How can you step back when your back is against the wall?

Yet, somehow, we need to figure out a way to do that. We need to be able to have structural discussions about our society which do not devolve into people complaining about personal attacks and lashing out, or people attacking people simply for being who they are. And a big part of that, quite honestly, is for everyone to get a little bit less self centred in these discussions, to recognise that, well, not everything is about them. Even if it seems like it is. Even if it feels like a personal attack to hear that you have privilege.

People who can’t get over this hump, who are still stuck in the line of thinking that says that they themselves are the structures they inhabit, are going to have real problems feeling comfortable in structural discussions. And, likewise, people who cannot separate out the beneficiaries of structures from those structures, they too are going to have problems, because it’s going to make it hard for them to talk about dismantling social attitudes which perpetuate those structures. Everyone is harmed by stratified social structures. Everyone has a role in propagating them. And everyone can have a role in taking them apart, too.