We talk about sexism, racism, heterosexism (homophobia), ageism, cissexism, and other systems of oppression a lot around these parts. However, there is occasionally some confusion about what oppression is and how it works in the context of social justice. Oppression is a complex topic. This blog will serve as a basic overview, or a starting point, to related conversations.
Oppression typically operates as a system. This means that there are multiple forces taking away someone’s power based on a part of their identity (their sex, sexual orientation, skin color, etc). All of these forces work together to marginalize, subordinate, dehumanize, or otherwise devalue groups of people.
Major forces that make up a system of oppression are:
*Diminished legal rights/status of the oppressed group
*Negative attitudes and heightened violence toward the group
*Decreased social investment (money, resources) in the group
*Employment, educational, institutional discrimination/exclusion
*Oppressed group’s identity reduced to stereotypes
*Loss of power and freedom within the group
*Oppressed groups adopting destructive beliefs about their own group (internalized oppression)
*Perpetuation of the oppressor’s power
*Privileges afforded to the oppressor
Throughout most of the world, the most privileged groups are: light skin, male, heterosexual, cisgender, conventionally attractive, Christian/Gentile, healthy/able bodied, wealthy/financially comfortable. These various groups have historically been, and currently are, some of the major groups that contribute to oppression. But, that doesn’t mean they have to be! :)
Most people experience some form of oppression based on their identity. However, because our identities are complex, we all experience oppression differently. For instance, oppression based on skin color does not work the same way as oppression based on your gender, and oppression based on skin color AND gender does not operate the same way as oppression based on gender alone (this concept is also known as intersectionality). Oppressions should not be compared or put into a hierarchy; each system has different mechanisms and different realities.
Although most of us experience varying degrees of oppression, we simultaneously participate in oppression.
From their historical roots, a system of oppression continues as humans learn oppressive attitudes from a very young age. This happens through all of the major forces of oppression, and is reinforced through media, religious belief, comedy/humor, and every other form of social information that you consume. Oppressive attitudes, like a virus, are embedded in our cultural landscape and thus in our minds. Because of this fact, being non-racist, non-sexist, etc takes an active mind and intentional action. In order to truly be anti-oppressive, we must each take the time to unlearn oppressive attitudes/thoughts/ideas. This intentional action changes not only our personal social landscape, but paves the way for passing on egalitarian and humanistic information to future generations.
What Role Do You Play?
Oppression continues when there aren’t enough intentional forces to stop it. Oppressions have been stopped in the past, but some oppressions live on and on. If we are to end a system of oppression, it is vital that we all ask ourselves: what role do I play in supporting or confronting oppression?
Actively Participating In Oppression
Putting down target groups, perpetuating verbal/physical violence, discriminating against target groups, harassing target groups, working toward taking rights away from others, working to ensure privileges are only afforded to oppressors.
Enabling oppression by denying that it is happening. Denial is often an expression of a person’s privilege.
Recognizing, but not acting
Aware of oppression, but does not act to end the oppression. Often a place of confusion. May not have enough information to understand their own role, may be unsure of what to do, or too scared to act.
Aware of oppression, recognizes it within self and others, acts to end the oppression.
Taking action to learn more about target groups. May include increasing cultural awareness, learning about history, talking to members of the group about their experiences, attending workshops/seminars, watching documentaries, reading books, reading websites.
Moving educational action beyond the self and engaging others in dialogue, dispersing informational material, speaking out against oppression.
Supporting those who speak out, joining action and ally groups, joining coalitions, working toward change with others.
Initiating change, preventing regression
Working with people and organizations to become more inclusive of targeted groups. Raising awareness of anti-oppression goals in powerful spheres. Protesting. Taking social/political action. Kicking some oppressive ass.
Here, have some related .jpgs: