What Few Talk About: Marginalization

If you were to ask some number of people what the biggest social issues are, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, would all show up over and over. But what wouldn’t show up is marginalization. The very thing underlying all those things and a lot more. Indeed marginalization as a thing receives little attention even while people are referred to as marginalized pretty regularly. The idea that there’s something underlying all those -isms and -phobias isn’t addressed, which is a pretty big problem. Also it’s something of personal significance since as a lesbian and transwoman I’m part of two marginalized groups myself.

In the broadest sense we could say that marginalization is holding some group of people as being an other and thus not fully including its members in society. They’re pushed to or left out on the margins of society. This can be something entrenched in the law eg Jim Crow law or it can be just within society with no legal basis. It can also be in the absence of law, as it is with legal discrimination. In my own case there are 30 states where I could legally be denied an apartment to rent simply because of who I am. So within the law, at least in those 30 states, I’m marginalized. I don’t have equal legal protections.

Now with that, can look at what the consequences of marginalization are. And there are more than I could ever hope to write about. But among the biggest and certainly the most horrific is what can be done to marginalized groups when certain people are in power. When you have people who are other, it becomes very easy to do very bad things to them. Especially when you’ve managed to create some underlying reasoning as to their being other and what that means. It’s Native Americans being other that lead to tribes being forcibly relocated. They were other, they couldn’t make legal claims to their lands and their arguments in their own defense were ignored. Because they were other.

Another thing is that when people are marginalized they can be easily turned into scapegoats. Something wrong? Blame it on them or rather “them”. You can even extend marginalization in the process. It’s what the Nazis did. Declare Jews to be the cause of Germany’s problems, which enough people would go along with owing to the consequences of historical marginalization of Jews. Then force Jews into special neighborhoods, the Jewish ghettos. This turned the marginalization into something concrete. They had to stay in their own neighborhoods, they could only live there. And once it got that far, once Jews were that stripped of standing, murdering millions isn’t that much of a stretch. And along the way the scapegoating gets turned up to justify further actions.

Now all of that fits under the umbrella of various -isms and -phobias so it might be tempting to say isn’t that what marginalization is? Not exactly. Because while they may walk hand in hand marginalization can be more subtle and pervasive. Plus it can be broken down into various parts. Like social marginalization, economic marginalization, educational marginalization and so on. Each one a part of a larger thing yet how it exists and happens varies. Economic marginalization may be the product of broader racism over the years, but it’s consequences end up tying into other forms of marginalization. It’s persistence being based on both its own inertia and it’s part of a larger whole.

Also it can be very subtle and present in ways not often accounted for. While demonstrable racism is well documented, marginalization isn’t as much. Like social marginalization. No one thinks twice of seeing a black person walking through a predominantly white neighborhood. Yet how often does anyone think that the reverse is a still a rare thing? How often do we even think of the absence of white people going to black neighborhoods and just what that means? It would most apparently contribute to the continuing of general societal segregation by having movement go one way. They come here, we don’t go there. But it also contributes to economic marginalization, since as a whole white people have more money to spend, and spend more money. And as people move, so does their money.

Another example would be in education, where schools in minority areas are shuttered and the students transferred to schools in predominantly white or entirely white areas. It doesn’t go in reverse. Which leads to the message, well understood by the effected communities and students, that their neighborhoods are other and less than the white ones. Which it wouldn’t take long to show how that can have deleterious consequences for not just the neighborhoods but most significantly the students.

Then there’s perhaps the most persistent issue of it all, the one that is least discussed. Namely that the marginalized do not cause their marginalization, so they can’t end it. It is something done to people without their participation in it. Yet there is a persistent thread in history that in order to achieve equal standing certain populations have to first appeal to the approval of those marginalizing them. Whether by changes in speech, manner of dress or otherwise. Or simply acting to standards communicated as a way to “earn” equal standing. Which of course they never actually do. It becomes a case of whatever changes are undertaken, whatever is performed, it’s never good enough or just enough. Equal standing becomes a carrot on a stick to be chased after.

It’s in having equal standing become something performative that it can also further be used to justify marginalization. A population where some members act along whatever is communicated as being part of achieving equal standing while others don’t, can have itself painted as deserving of marginalization. Simply because of how various members act towards each other. And the things that can emerge within the communities, resentment towards those who play along and are thus treated different being a notable example, can be used to further justify and perpetuate marginalization. It becomes part of the cycle that keeps it all going.

There’s even something so pervasive that it’s just taken as a part of life without ever thinking of what’s really being said. It’s the old “you’ll have to work twice as hard…” attitude. That a person has to work twice as hard as someone else for the same pay, benefit or whatever. Stand back and think about it and what it comes down to is “you have to allow yourself to be exploited”. After all if someone is demanding twice the effort of you for the same outcome as someone else, they’re saying they want to give you less for what you do. So to get as much as someone else you have to do more. And it’s all part and parcel of “earning” equal status. The one demanding it, is declaring that unless you do what they say, twice as much, they will not regard you as equal to others. In other words, you have to perform your way into equal standing. You have to show you’re deserving, you’re good enough. The whole thing resting on an other proving they deserve equal standing.

Which gets back to how marginalization is not something the marginalized can end. The marginalized do not maintain their marginalization. You can not demand the marginalized do something to end their own marginalization. It was never their fault in the first place, it’s never been something they maintain. Telling someone to earn their equal standing does nothing to change things. Even if the individual does enough, the view of the group doesn’t change. Indeed you end up with some being seen as “good” while others are not. A group being judged by the efforts of a few individuals being another sign of marginalization.

I know I’ve so far avoided using terms like racism, sexism or whatever seemingly using marginalization as a stand in, but it’s not that. Those various terms become a way to try to avoid taking a bigger picture. They become something impersonal, something society does, that doesn’t come down to the individual. It becomes about attitudes only and not actions. When it is actions that matter. It’s in actions that marginalization goes away.

To get to some sort of conclusion on all this, there is the matter of just how marginalization can be ended. Part of it is inclusion in its various forms. Which is contingent on and a step above acceptance. There’s also in realizing how pervasive marginalization is and all the forms it takes. When you tell a marginalized group or person that to be heard they have to come to you, you’re just reinforcing their marginalization. You’re saying they aren’t worth the effort of going to, they aren’t worth going to. And that is something that happens a lot. As do many other things which even in the total absence of negative attitude still perpetuate marginalization. But to really do away with a myriad of social issues, it takes doing away with marginalization.

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