How Oppression Works

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.

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A rant about treating the youth like sh*t.

Rant tiem.

My entire life, I’ve constantly run into and dealt with older folks treat young people as if they are stupid, incapable, trouble makers, or a downright nuisance to have around. For these people, they see treating someone with respect as optional if they look too young. As a young person, I couldn’t fit the number of times I’ve been treated poorly by older folks -on no basis other than my age- on all my fingers and toes. As I’ve gotten older and gained more respect from people I work with, I still seem to deal with the same bs from strangers in various contexts. It comes up time and time again, and I do believe it’s because I am young (and, to make matters worse, I look even younger than I am). My partner and a few friends, who also look young for their age, have had similar experiences.

On a work trip I took a few weeks ago, I was at a higher end hotel that is patronized mostly by older professionals. I stayed there a few days and took particular notice of how cordial the front desk staff was. Smiles, stupid jokes, holding the door open, the whole shabang. On the day of my departure, I approached the desk and requested a shuttle to the airport. I was shocked to be met with a scolding and condescending lecture about how the shuttle was not available because I had not notified them in advance (regardless of the fact that when I was being picked up from the airport, they did not require a shuttle reservation). With a finger wag and a frown, the staff told me that I would have to make another arrangement. As I walked to the other side of the lobby to call a cab, I faintly overheard one clerk make a comment about irresponsible kids.

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Is this “Hate Speech”?

I’ve written on offensive speech before, but last weekend, one of my friends (who teaches sex education) gave me a classroom handout with this chart on it. The chart lists all the forms of hate speech for various targeted groups. I thought the chart was interesting.


Hate speech is a term for speech intended to degrade, intimidate, or incite violence or prejudicial action against a person or group based on race, gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, language ability, ideology, social class, occupation, appearance (height, weight, hair color, etc.), mental capacity, and any other distinction that might be considered by some as a liability.

Men Women Bitch
White People of Color Nigga/er
Wealthy Poor Ghetto
Trailer Trash
Straight Lesbian
Able-Bodied Disabled Cripple
“Adults” “Youth” Childish
“Middle-Aged” “Youth/elders” Geriatric
“Average Size” Sizes above &
below average
“Conventional looks” “Unconventional looks” Ugly

While some of these definitely are hate speech, others have me scratching my head (for example, “immature”….lolwat?). As such, I’m left wondering: is there such a thing as being TOO politically correct? I think there might be, but at the same time, I worry that people who actually are racists/sexists/etc will pull something like, “Oh you’re being TOO politically correct, faggot isn’t hate speech.” When I think along those lines, maybe it’s justified to be a little extreme. How and where do we draw a line?

Do you think that these terms are all hate speech? Which ones are/are not? As always, I’m reading. :)

cunt, fag, nigger, etc.

Language is powerful. So powerful, that I’d be willing to guess that even the title of this post makes you feel *something*. Language has the ability not only to indicate basic ideas, but to also to convey our emotional response to ideas. Taken out of context, some words can mean entirely different things:


Hmmm. Let’s talk about some words that seem to rely on context these days:

1. Cunt
2. Fag/Queer
3. Nigger

Funny that today’s attack words all pertain to women, gays, and black americans (minority groups…), but let’s not go there right now. What I’m wondering is: is it really possible to “reclaim” words? Or should we leave oppressive language behind and replace it with new language?

In Favor of Reclaiming Language

South Park made a statement about the fluidity of offensive language in the episode “The F Word” which commented on the new usage of “fag”. The female sexuality program I facilitate at the university has a reclamation of “cunt” and “queer” written right into the curriculum. And as for “nigger”, these days it’s hard to come across hip hop music that doesn’t spew the word vehemently. These movements suggest that it isn’t the history of the word that dictates the emotion behind it, but the emotion that we choose to invest; that reclaiming a word can rob it of its history. Reclaiming words can be empowering.

In Favor of Leaving Language Behind

Language can carry a lot of baggage. Let’s look at race here. To a new generation, using “nigger” may not have as much pain attached to it as a generation where the word was used to dehumanize them. In this context, words become a soul force that have the power to destroy, whether or not we like it. It’s basic conditioning.

This is why I myself do not use the words “nigger” or “fag”. In fact, just typing it brings me a little bit of discomfort. Going with the n-word example, I am white, and I don’t feel like “nigger” is mine to reclaim. However, I know people who reclaim words that have nothing to do with their identity (i.e. a white man who uses “nigger”). But what’s the difference between reclaiming the word and being a racist? An old partner of mine used the n-word and he argued that it depends on context. The problem is, when I visit websites like 4chan (warning: NSFW), I realize that “context” is what you make it, so things that are actually racist can still pose as being race neutral.

So, here are some thinking points: Can oppressive language be reclaimed? If so, who can reclaim it? Anyone, or only the person the word refers to (i.e. cunt can only be reclaimed by people with a vagina)? Or, conversely, should oppressive language be abandoned and left to rot from its painful roots?

Have a tit-ilating Tuesday ;D