Defining Oppression Down

Are you oppressed? Join the club. I had never considered myself oppressed—I have a decent job, a degree from a fairly prestigious and heavily subsidized university, plenty of free time, etc.—but during a recent trip through NC State University’s second annual “Tunnel of Oppression,” I received news that I am a victim of oppression, much to my own surprise. I was also told that some mainstream political opinions are, in fact, forms of oppression.

The tunnel, operated by NC State’s Multicultural Student Affairs office, the Office for Institutional Equity and Diversity, and a number of student volunteers from various student groups, ran for several days last month in a large, darkened room at NC State’s Carmichael Recreation center.

Tunnels of Oppression have been popping up on college campuses across the country since 1994, when the first one sprang up in the residence halls of Western Illinois University. They have come to North Carolina only in the last few years.

NC State’s latest iteration of the Tunnel consisted of six rooms separated by tall black curtains. When I walked into each new room, one of the “tour guides” would turn on a lamp and someone—either a tour guide or actors already in the room—would begin reading a script. Disappointingly—but perhaps not unexpectedly—none of the script readers showed enough enthusiasm to muster more than a monotone reading. As one already skeptical of the urgency of the fight against some supposed forms of oppression, the odd combination of shrill rhetoric and rock-bottom enthusiasm did not do much to alleviate my skepticism.

After a brief monotone introductory speech, the tour group (a female NC State employee and myself) was led into the first exhibit. Two female students were sitting together talking, one of whom was portrayed as having been physically assaulted by her boyfriend. The other student demonstrated the proper way to respond, encouraging the abused woman and giving her advice.

The second exhibit involved some script reading from the tour director on the problems associated with popular culture’s emphasis on “body image,” anorexia, and the like. The walls of the room were covered with pictures of models from magazines. The third exhibit involved a conference between two actors, one a professor and the other a student. The student attributed his poor grades to obsessive-compulsive disorder, but the professor didn’t buy it, demonstrating the oppression that learning-disabled students suffer.

These were all fine and worthy subjects to “raise awareness” about, but the fourth and fifth rooms in the “Tunnel” had my eyes rolling with skepticism.

Room four consisted of some script reading with pictures and a brief video about an incident that occurred at NC State in October. The school’s LGBT office was spray-painted with a couple purple anti-gay slogans about a month after North Carolina’s General Assembly approved a ballot measure to restrict gay marriage.

My Pope Center colleague Jay Schalin noted on the Phi Beta Cons blog the coincidental timing and the similarity between this incident and numerous apparently anti-gay hoaxes across the country (such as the Quinn Matney case at UNC-Chapel Hill last year). These factors suggested that the NC State case might have been a hoax, too.

Whether or not the event was a hoax, the video in the Tunnel of Oppression contributed to the notion (in my mind at least) that it was faked. In the film, several LGBT students were interviewed about the incident and, although they described lasting “pain” from the incident, it appeared as though they could barely keep from smiling.

The fifth room featured a slideshow of ostensible anti-ethnic group oppression. There were many pictures of segregation-era violence, some frat boys in blackface, and racist slogans in NC State’s Free Expression Tunnel. But one slide in particular stood out to me: a picture of College Republicans hosting an affirmative action bake sale. (Personally, I happen to oppose affirmative action, believing racial preferences perpetuate racial animosity.)

To the uninitiated, affirmative action bake sales are political protests in which college students opposed to racial preferences sell baked goods at different prices based on each customer’s race. In an attempt to represent the special treatment provided by race-based college admissions, different ethnic groups pay different prices for cookies, cakes, brownies, etc. Such bake sales have caused controversy on a number of campuses, which is what they are intended to do—dramatically highlight the unfairness of racial preferences.

But for the organizers of the Tunnel of Oppression, this seemingly innocuous bake sale (whose message reflects the views of a majority of Americans, by the way) is oppressive, in the same category as segregation-era nooses and Jim Crow discrimination. A rather mild anti-affirmative action protest is cast as a form of racism.

Nor was that the only instance where a mainstream opinion was labeled “oppression” in the tunnel. A handout distributed at the end of the tunnel listed “13 Types of Oppression,” including “Heterosexism.” If you are an advocate of a “restriction of partnership rights”—i.e. if you oppose gay marriage, as President Obama claims to do—you are an oppressor.

The final section of the tour was intended to be a group discussion, but by the time I reached it, the group had dwindled to just me.  A young man named Jeremy from NC State’s Counseling Center gamely tried to get our discussion going with a few questions about my experience in the Tunnel.

Jeremy asked which section of the Tunnel I identified with most closely. I said the room on body image, since I had experienced something like that in my own life. I related how I had not been a particularly fashion-conscious undergraduate. One day I was walking around campus when I realized, to my astonishment, that I was the only one out of thousands of students in view wearing jean shorts.

Jeremy, straight-faced, expressed his support. Yes, he said, “pressure to change an expression of you” counts as oppression, and I didn’t have to take it.

Despite the invitation to inflame my sentiments of victimhood, though, I think I’ll just deal with that form of oppression and let Jeremy keep the jean shorts.

Organizers of the Tunnel, meanwhile, have different plans. They hope to expand the Tunnel in coming years to cover even more forms of oppression. Abraham Dones, interim director of NC State’s office of Multicultural Student Affairs, said in an interview that he envisions expanding the tunnel in future years to include such topics as “ageism,” “classism,” and religious-based oppression. “I think [that] would be a great opportunity,” he said.

This year’s Tunnel had relatively low turnout, according to Dones. He blamed the low participation on the different time of day the Tunnel was open—during the day, when more students are busy with class. Maybe so. But maybe, like the friends of the boy who cried wolf, students just aren’t buying it anymore. Telling people that mainstream opinions are a form of oppression must take a toll on credibility at some point. It’s a far cry from fighting overt oppression, such as turning fire hoses and police dogs on peaceful protesters, to trying to prevent all of life’s little unpleasantries, including the stigma against jean shorts.