Oppression and Privilege
Clifford and Burke (2008) define oppression as “the exploitative exercise of power by individuals and groups over others” and “the structuring of marginalization and inequality into everyday routines and rules, through the continuing acquisition and maintenance of economic, political and cultural capital by dominant social groups over long periods of time, reflecting the existence of major social differences” (p. 16). Oppression entails a great deal of “baggage.” Individuals who face it often experience exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and outright violence (Young, 1990, pp. 48-63). Mullaly (1997) also pulls oppression out of the individual experience, describing it as domination of subordinate groups by a group or groups more powerful in the realms of politics, economics and culture (pp. 104, 145-146). To understand how oppression works, we have to recognize how groups interact with each other (Frye, 1983, pp. 8-10).
Groups that hold more money, political clout and sway over mainstream culture tend to become more powerful. By virtue of their power, the world they live in suits their needs, ideas and interests, undoubtedly undermining the needs, ideas and interests of groups with less power (Young, 1990, pp. 56-58; Chater, 1994, p. 102). Quite simply, “power is the ability to act” and “the more access to resources one has, the more options one has.” Power is unequally distributed and impacts how people interact as individuals and groups (Adair & Howell, 1993). Clifford and Burke (2008) note that unequal distribution of power leads to the experience of everyday oppressions against groups with less power, and this oppression further exasperates social divisions between those with less and more power. They show that the experience of oppression is both constant and in flux, impacted by the changing circumstances of different groups. Usually resilient over long periods of time, the divisions between groups can vary quickly in intense periods of social change (p. 16). Young (1990) says that oppression is “a central category of political discourse” (p. 39) for contemporary social movements and activist organizing, even if many in the Western world hesitate to apply the term to injustices they perceive around them.
Anti-oppression activists and thinkers have identified different forms that oppression takes—racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ageism and ableism, to name the most common. Despite the heady analysis, we can view oppression more simply. Some groups of people are considered less worthy of power, rights and respect than others. Those “less worthy” of power, rights and respect in today’s society are racialized, women or transgendered, living in poverty, physically or mentally disabled, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer, elderly, and/or young (Young, 1990, p. 40). Other social divisions factor into a person’s experience of oppression, such as their immigration status, their HIV status, and the social isolation or connectedness of the region where they live (Clifford & Burke, 2008, p. 19).
Since oppression is based on “unquestioned norms, habits, symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules,” it occurs on both a personal and systemic level (Young, 1990, p. 41). It impacts how individuals and communities view and treat themselves and others; how they behave and communicate; and how they envisage their position, worth, entitlement to resources, and validity in the world. Women, for example, share a collective experience of discrimination where they tend to be paid less for doing the same jobs as men (Johnson, 2009). Women are also statistically more likely to be murdered by male intimate partners or family members—the violence is a manifestation of systemic sexism women face in society, reproduced in their individual lives and most intimate experiences (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2005; Porter, 2006, pp. 25-27).
People who employ anti-oppression principles name, dissect and challenge society’s mainstream systems and structures, that is, the “normal” way of life or the “way things are”, making visible the invisible. They acknowledge that what most people view as normal is determined by the perspectives, interests and desires of powerful and dominant groups. Dichotomies are often used to define groups and assign characteristics to them—white and black, man and woman, gay and straight, and rich and poor. This is how individuals and groups who are less powerful are placed on the far end of the spectrum of normalcy (Collins, 1986, p. S20). Those who are less powerful may be labeled exotic, special, fringe or different, but in dominant thinking, they tend to be marked as “Other” (Young, 1990, pp. 58-59). Individuals who face oppression can internalize this otherness and develop negative understandings about themselves, taking them in even if they logically know them to be untrue. In a similar way, people who belong to dominant groups learn favorable messages about themselves. They internalize their own dominance and privilege (Sinclair, 2003, p. 127). Anti-oppression, on the other hand, argues for multiplicity of voices, opinions and ways of thinking and being of marginalized groups in order to counter the narrow dichotomies. Dalrymple and Burke (2006) explain that “different perspectives on the truth” are necessary because “no one group or individual possesses the theory or methodology that allows it to discover the absolute truth about other people’s experiences” (p. 11).
Personal “Reflexivity” and Anti-Oppressive Ethics
Employing anti-oppression as an individual requires reflection about the power one holds and oppression one faces. It requires sensitivity to the reality that anyone can unintentionally oppress other people and experience oppression at the same time (Clifford & Burke, 2008, p. 18). It encourages an individual to examine personal values, internalized dominance and oppression, and deeply held stereotypes, biases, and prejudices—the same ones so often reproduced in systems like the media, government, law and education.
Making reference to social workers, Kondrat (1999) says that self-awareness involves understanding one’s own “social location”—that is, where a person’s membership in various groups places them in society’s matrix of power, privileges, oppressions and access to respect and resources. It is an examination of personal values and behaviors, how they may reproduce oppression or challenge it (p. 464). Those in grassroots, community, and activist circles have stressed that anti-oppressive self-reflection, or “reflexivity,” cannot be left to theory. It must penetrate the very core of who one is and how one thinks of themselves and their place in the world. Barbara Findlay reveals that scrutinizing her own social location “in the world as a white person” was “painful and shameful” and that “the work of looking at internalized dominance is very difficult” (1992, p. 47).
Anti-oppression practice is often referred to as a conscious decision, an individual choice to be challenged in order to promote values like equity, justice, inclusion, and a shared quality of life. Clifford and Burke (2008) note, “the aim of anti-oppressive ethics is to provide guidance to oppose, minimize and/or overcome those aspects of human relationships that express and consolidate oppression” (p. 16). While they do not assume that a fully articulated position on anti-oppression ethics exists, they speak to a useful approach to ethics using anti-oppressive concepts that incorporates a critical analysis of power, social differences and divisions, the impact of social systems and relationships, and the histories of individuals and groups.
In general, then, anti-oppression involves an analysis of power imbalances between groups and involves thinking and action, where individuals understand their place in groups and the broader society. Anti-oppression is deeply personal. People must consider the privileges they hold and oppressions they perpetuate in order to act ethically, based on reflection and critical thinking.