Oppression is malicious or unjust treatment or exercise of power, often under the guise of governmental authority or cultural opprobrium. a) A tyrannical or cruel exercise of authority or control the continuing oppression of the underclasses— H. A. Daniels. b) something that oppresses, especially in an unjust or excessive exercise of power. Oppression, depending on how practiced, can be overt or covert. Examples of systems of oppression are sexism, heterosexism, ableism, classism, ageism, and anti-Semitism. Society’s institutions, such as government, education, and culture, all contribute to or reinforce the oppression of marginalized social groups while elevating dominant social groups.
The Five Faces of Oppression
- Exploitation. Refers to using people’s labors to produce profit while not compensating them fairly.
- Marginalization. transitive verb. : to relegate to an unimportant or powerless position within a society or group.
- Powerlessness. Fragility, helplessness, lack of control, and power to achieve the proposed results for recovery and adaptation.
- Cultural Imperialism. Cultural imperialism comprises the cultural dimensions. “imperialism” often describes practices in which a social entity engages culture to create and maintain unequal relationships between social groups.
- Violence. Physical violence, sexual violence, psychological violence, and neglect.
Systemic oppression manifests on the individual, institutional, and structural levels, and we offer examples.
Individual: A teacher holds an unconscious mental model that her students of color are not “college material.” This belief, left unchecked, leads to lower expectations of work quality, which allows for less rigorous teaching methods, and finally produces a gap in the basic skills and preparation of these very students. Similarly, a college counselor might push lower-income students toward community colleges or job training programs while counseling more privileged students to apply to four-year universities. These scenarios are all too real and, we would argue, a result of unexamined belief systems nurtured by an oppressive system.
Institutional: By institution, we mean a single school or organization with its own internal norms, policies, and practices. On this level, we might witness a discipline policy that correlates to a disproportionate number of African American boys being sent out of class or a master schedule that de facto tracks English Language Learners into lower-level coursework. It may be that an organization creates a culture centered on a dominant culture that makes it inhospitable to people of color. Though one might argue that these policies stem from individual belief systems, the institutional lens reveals how an organization’s patterns are self-sustaining and thus more than the sum of its individual actors.
Structural: Structural oppression involves the macro-relationship between institutions that perpetuate or exacerbate children’s unequal outcomes. Despite its title, we would posit the “No Child Left Behind” Act as a prime example of structural oppression. In her recent piece “A Nation’s Education Left Behind” 1, former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch writes, “We have now had ten years of No Child Left Behind, and we now know that there has been very little change in the gaps between the children of the rich and the children of the poor, between black children and white children… Just this week, the federal government released the urban district test results, and we could see that the gap remained as large as ever. After ten years of NCLB, the children were still at the bottom.” By critically analyzing this policy, we can see how politicians colluded with financial interests to create a hollow discourse of opportunity while, in fact, sowing the seeds of oppression.
A racial equity lens is grounded in several assumptions cut across the abovementioned three levels. These assumptions help us understand how and why oppression continues in schools staffed with good, well-intentioned people. What we know is that inequitable racialized outcomes do not require racist actors. A person can be committed to a child’s care, well-being, and educational progress and unconsciously participate in systemic oppression.
Here are the core assumptions we offer for understanding oppression:
• Oppression and injustice are human creations and phenomena built into our current economic system and, therefore, can be undone.
• Oppression (e.g., racism, colonialism, class oppression, patriarchy, and homophobia) is more than just the sum of individual prejudices. Its patterns are systemic and, therefore, self-sustaining without dramatic interruption.
• Systemic oppression exists at the level of institutions (harmful policies and practices) and across structures (education, health, transportation, economy, etc.) that are interconnected and reinforcing over time.
• Systemic oppression has historical antecedents. We must face our national legacy and current racism and economic inequality manifestations to transform them.
• Without rigorous examination, behavior is reproductive. By default, current practices, cultural norms, and institutional arrangements foster and maintain inequitable outcomes.
• To undo systemic oppression, we must forge multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual alliances and create democratic processes that give voice to new organizing systems for humanity.
• Addressing oppression and bias (conscious and unconscious) inevitably raises strong emotions in clients, and we must be prepared and trained to address these feelings. We also offer a set of analytical questions to ask while applying this lens:
1. How do we understand the economic and racial forces behind our current inequities? How might we name the “system” in which we are all sitting?
2. What level of consciousness do colleagues, partners, and affiliates possess about the forces underlying inequity?
3. How are we discussing the problem we are trying to solve? Is the conversation digging down to root causes in a way that could lead to productive action?
4. Who are the people affected by the current structure of oppression? Are they at the table? “Inequitable racialized outcomes do not require racist actors.” John Powell
5. Who shapes the dominant narrative about those being served at any given moment? How are different constituents described? How would they tell their story? Is there a counter-narrative coming from those being served?
6. What are the specific disparities/inequities we seek to eliminate through this collective focus and action? What barriers stand in the way of achieving more equitable outcomes?
7. What are the population and geographic targets for our effort? Specifically, for whom and where are we trying to make a difference?
8. What will an equitable OUTCOME look like? How will we KNOW we have made progress? When do we expect to see results? What is our timeframe?
9. Who does and does not have power in this institution and community? What is power based on here?
10. How safe is it for different people to share their truths here, and how can I foster a culture of safety and relational trust to move forward?
11. How can I build my practice as a leader for equity, starting with who I am and how I understand my own experiences around oppression?
12. How can I build the alliances to move forward in making decisions that interrupt reproductive practices?
The whole picture suggests oppression and repression. It is brutal and obstinate cruelty from which there is no escape. It is a Will that has not understood anything beyond its dull purpose, it’s “lust of result,” and will devour itself in its evoked conflagrations.
Passing social and economic programs is a politician’s measure of success, not the legislation’s outcome. (EZM)
WE&P by: EZorrillaM.
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