Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Can we talk about oppression?

So . . . Brit mentioned there may be some interest in this topic so here goes:

Can we talk about oppression?  Try to break it down, get our heads around it, and figure out constructive things we can do to dismantle it?

My own journey is distinctively Unitarian Universalist, and as a religion we pretty much can’t stop talking about it.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have participated in/facilitated the “Welcoming Congregation” [UU’s GLBT anti-oppression resource/process] process in two congregations and to have participated in or attended multiple anti-racism trainings, workshops, process groups, and the like.  Thus, I have quite a few print resources on hand as well as personal experiences that may be helpful.  I am by no means an expert.

My thinking, with the moose-like pace, there may be some good discussions, interactions, and learnings that we could share.

Today I’d like to put some concepts up for consideration.

What exactly is this thing, oppression?  I see it as a complex cultural system that privileges (provides unearned benefits) to members of some groups and targets or “others” non-members along irrational, arbitrary lines (I’ll call them identities).  Oppression is marked by psychological, psychic, and physical violence.  There are multiple lines of oppression: race, class, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, physical ability, religion.  Certainly others can name more.  

It is desirable to dismantle oppression because the system is hurtful and unjust.  It is difficult to dismantle oppression because it’s chaotic, pervasive, and powerful mechanisms exist to keep it in place.

Many people have multiple identities and are simultaneously privileged and oppressed.  For example, a white man may be from a working class background and gay.  A Black man may be heterosexual and Christian.  Etc.  This makes oppression work complicated, as each individual may be understandably preoccupied with problems associated with his or her own identities and he or she may have limited understanding of the experiences of people with other identities.  

A person is situated in his or her identities more or less randomly.   You don’t ask to be a Black lesbian, it happens.  You don’t ask to be an Asian working class person, it happens.  So the key is for people to understand their piece in the system.

If you’re privileged, you really have a responsibility to use your privilege to lift others up (essentially break privilege down and build up equality instead).  This is my opinion.  No, you didn’t ask to be born into privilege.  But taking it without doing something about it, that is not ethical.

Education is essential in coming to terms with oppression.  The system, institutionalized inequalities, is learned and can be unlearned.  There are common elements of oppression [for example, defined norm, invisibility, stereotyping, blame the victim, etc. (Suzanne Pharr)]  and particular histories and mechanisms [for example, slavery & Jim Crow (racism), lack of accessible facilities (ablism), lack of employment security (heterosexism/gender identity), etc.  These are examples and by no means a comparison or placing one thing over another].  You have to understand both the particulars and the general to be an effective advocate.

Oppression across all identities is hurtful.  It’s important to acknowledge the pain and to work to end the oppression across multiple lines.   This piece can get a little sticky!

The person affected is the best situated to tell you what oppression looks like.  For example, if you’re White, it’s a bad idea to tell a Black person what ‘real racism’ is.

In my view, shame and guilt are entirely counterproductive.   This is loving and joyful work.  It is also hard and painful work.  But it’s worth it.

So, my thinking is to go through the materials that I have and present them (probably in no particular order), see what others think of it, and basically have free-wheeling discussions to see what we can learn from each other and teach one another.   So with this stream of consciousness done, the floor is yours!

PS – Has anyone else had anti-oppression training?  If so, I would love to coordinate topics.  


  1. Noor B

    but I think there’s oppression even within privileged white families.  It can happen when an adult child rebels against family expectations.  If you think differently from your elders and are open and forthright about your perspectives, an authoritarian, domineering family is going to hammer you flat.  Some will say this is simply abuse, but I think of oppression as abuse on steroids.  Systemic abuse, extending over decades and perpetuated across generations, can be extremely oppressive.  It can even limit access to resources that assist achievement and restrict one’s vision of the life path.

    My UU congregation hasn’t done anti-oppression training in the year-plus I’ve been a member.  I’d love to learn more about it.  And I really want to hear more about how others see oppression.

  2. GlenThePlumber

    guidance with this issue. I expect I will follow the comments for days and continue to glean more insight (I like the pace of MM). As a straight white male atheist, I want to say, I’m picking up what you are putting down and you are my favorite black male minister (inside joke, if it bothers you, please read my sig line). I intend to drop more comments later. We all must try to see the world through other’s eyes, I think it’s called empathy, it’s a key ingredient in my wish for a more altruistic world.  

    Worth repeating…

    For example, if you’re White, it’s a bad idea to tell a Black person what ‘real racism’ is.

  3. mahakali overdrive

    a quote that I was just reading from Theorist Slavoj Zizek (whom I cannot say I generally carry for, but am reading for a specific purpose this fine evening).

    It strikes me as on topic.

    From his “Fantasy as a Political Category: A Lacanian Approach” (The Journal of Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society, 1996), he writes:

    “One of the most repulsive rituals from the American Old South was to force the African-Americans cornered by a white gang to commit the first gesture of insult: while the African-American was held tightly by his captors, a white racist thug shouted at him, “Spit on me! Tell me I’m scum!” and so in, in order to extort from him the “occasion” for a brutal beating or lynching — as if the white racist wanted to set up retroactively the proper dialogical context for his violent outburst.”

    By no means is this meaningful for all forms of oppression. However, in light of how oppression can manifest, how victimization can be constructed and perpetuated, and equally, how what is or is not the behavior of the aggressor or oppressive person, it strikes me as all-too-true.

    In my own experience, I cannot begin to count how many times I’ve watched fights break out before me. And in no way is the person who throws the first punch always the oppressor. That’s so deeply ingrained in my understanding of the world, so deeply a part of my human experience, that I’ve never even stopped to consider the way that some categorize “oppressors” as the one who always volleys the first blow. Yet that seems to be a fairly bad assumption too many people make.

    Anti-oppression training? No. Never have had it. I’ve been a pacifist, however, for most of my life. That’s not the same though. Still, generally I see the world a little differently than many people might. Just from training. I’m not reactive if someone is “oppressive” toward me or is. But cannot abide social or systemic oppression whatsoever, particularly when there is any historical attachment to it. More than anything, I just want to break out of the models of dominator-dominated/oppressor-oppressed. But realize that to do that is very difficult (and quite in the vein of Hegel and others responding to him; I’m not going to be boring now… or, well, I’m going to try not to…).

    It is bad to tell a black person what racism is. It is bad to tell anyone what their legitimate and lived reality is, no matter who they are. Bad because it promotes false truths of your reality over their reality, which is a kind of oppressive act in and of itself. Particularly because identity is so hybrid, it’s not only unethical but also just plain false to tell anyone what their existence is like, what “reality” is. Like you know any better. Life is like the story of the blind men and the elephant, each grabbing a different part of the animal and claiming that it is everything from a snake to a fan to a rope. We each see what we see and know what we know, and every one of us does so only from our own vantage point. In fact, one of the central journeys of life is trying to ever see through the eyes of another. Many would say this struggle is one of the great motivating forces behind art, literature, and even love.

    So what do we do when facing oppression? We counter it. What do we do when claims of oppression are made? We listen. Who is the authority on oppression? The oppressed. Obviously. Otherwise, we’re complicit in the system of oppression itself. Otherwise we’re caught up in promoting realities that benefit no one by benefiting only ourselves. I cannot abide that.

    Ranting, sorry. Been reading and typing all day.

    At any rate, hope the quote sees someone in good health. I thought it was a ray of light (in an otherwise blah-Lacan article).


  4. Stipes

    I really look forward to the comments that come out of this, since I expect this to be a great conversation.

    I’m here to listen and learn.

  5. i too was raised unitarian universalist. thank you so much for your insight. i love what you say here…

    “In my view, shame and guilt are entirely counterproductive.   This is loving and joyful work.  It is also hard and painful work.  But it’s worth it.”             i know that i need to remind myself to come from a place of love. i can get so judgmental not only of others but towards myself.. this shuts down conversation… and fear can consume me… i will be afraid to speak out and to start a conversation and instead will have an entire conversation in my head…  anyway thanks again for starting the conversation..

  6. sberel

    So, I thought next week, I would begin to present the ‘elements of oppression’ from Suzanne Pharr’s (sorry don’t know how to link) Homophobia, a weapon of sexism.  In the interest of (my) time, I would be using the short discussion from the UUA’s Welcoming Congregation handbook, but basically it’s what I started listing above.  There are something like 15 of them so this would be several weeks of discussion.  After that, I have an attitude/action continuum analysis that I find very helpful.

    Let me know how this sounds to y’all.  

  7. this is where it starts. i readily admit that i do not understand race-relations in the US. though i do have a couple of personal stories that tell me its very different than in canada. first one was a black friend who years ago went to nyc to go to university. she recounted the story where she walked into a store and realized several minutes later that she was being followed to ensure she wouldn’t shoplift. this was shocking, to her, to me. but later she explained that this was pretty commonplace for black people – in nyc!

    the second was that i was on a cruise that left from new orleans and encountered some people who openly and readily used slurs against black people abashedly. my husband and i were literally in shock at both the sentiment and brashness of it all.

    to me, oppression of a different kind is ingrained in who i am since i trace my roots to eastern europe and most – well all really – didn’t make it past the WW2.

  8. left rev

    by participating in COSROW (Committee on the Status and Role of Women) and an anti-racism task force through my denomination (UMC). Interestingly, it wasn’t referred to as “anti-oppression,” but that was clearly an aspect of it, on balance I’d say with accountability.

    I’ve been playing around with writing an article on privilege as the “anti-grace,” so I do appreciate the perspectives and resources you’ve linked here. Eventually, I actually get around to writing it 🙂

    I also was thinking of writing a post on the dynamics of privilege in dialogue and our reluctance to truly discuss it, but Peter beat me to it. His is better.

    I wish I could stay around and keep talking, but I’ve got a fwe things to do away from the computer. I’ll check back later to read some more.

  9. …especially since I encouraged you to post on it. I’m fairly exhausted by yesterday’s hangover, and today’s diary which Denise asked me to write.

    But don’t worry: I’ll be back pontificating over stuff I know little about very soon


  10. sricki

    rather than just the diary. I watched John and princss6 go back and forth a bit. I see some semantic disagreements here and there. I think everyone has good things to say, and I KNOW everyone here on the Moose means well and is speaking in good faith.

    Here’s my 2 cents, and maybe a bit more. (After all, what can you buy with a penny these days?)

    Look, I don’t get it.

    Racism, that is.

    Oh, I know what racism is. I can define it in dictionary terms if you like. I’ve taken classes that deal with multiculturalism — nowadays, with the world changing, most books and classes in my field place a lot of emphasis on counselors/psychologists familiarizing themselves with other cultural perspectives. I passed the “multicultural” section of my comprehensive exams with flying colors. I’ve read about and have participated actively in the emic/etic debate. I can talk about a plethora of psychological, physiological, and socioeconomic effects that racism (in both its overt and covert forms) causes. I can recount horror stories I’ve read/heard from people who’ve experienced racism in their day-to-day lives. Hell, I’ve even seen it first hand myself.

    Part of me would love to say, I “get” racism.

    But yeah, when I’m honest with myself, I really don’t get it.

    Get it as in… well, understand on a visceral level.

    I have a great imagination. I’m a daydreamer and always have been. I think it’s because I’m an insomniac — as a child, I used to build whole worlds in my mind in the hours before I fell asleep at night. Even now, if I’m struggling to sleep… I’m actively daydreaming. I can close my eyes and imagine myself before a lynch mob. I can imagine the taunts, the threats, the denigration. Behind my eyes, I can imagine the fear and the helplessness and the anger and the anguish all mixed up into a huge roiling ball of conflicting, mind-numbing, paralyzing emotion. I can even feel my breathing quicken and my heart rate increase. It’s all plenty vivid and terrifying.

    But I cannot (without hallucinogenic drugs) fully separate what’s going on in that vivid imagination of mine from the part of my mind that knows that all I have to do to feel safe and calm again is… open my eyes. So I can’t really be there, or truly know what it feels like to stand before that mob with my skin darker than theirs and no way to defend myself.

    And it’s almost “easy” for an empathetic person to take a really horrifying slice of history and an overt evil like lynching and think, “I can imagine that fear in that moment.” Easy as in overly simplistic. It is relatively more difficult to try to imagine the long term strain caused by day-in and day-out racism that people of color in this country face. Especially the covert, or “subtle,” sorts — what some might call “milder” racism. It isn’t really mild at all, though, and its insidiousness is one of the most nightmarish, dangerous, and soul-crushing things about it.

    When I think of the covert racism which is prevalent today, and the effects it must have on the people who live with it… for some reason Chinese water torture comes to mind. I don’t actually know much about it, so I may be talking out my rear here based on a bit of pop culture knowledge. But my limited understanding is that the victims were placed in a position where they could barely move/fight back, and water was dripped slowly onto their foreheads — for a really long time. It’s something that any among us might be able to “put up with” for a little while, but what I’ve heard of it indicates that it eventually drove people insane.

    Covert racism — though no, I have not felt it and cannot fully “get” it — strikes me a little like that. If there were just a couple of instances of it, maybe it wouldn’t be so difficult to endure. But that’s not the case — it is ongoing, and for some people… constant. After all, as John pointed out himself, racism is deeply embedded in our very legal system.

    The kind of racism prevalent in this society which makes African Americans and other people of color fear getting into a car because someone might think they look “suspicious” and pull them over and harass them for no reason does damage every single day to the persons who experience that fear. Even if a given individual never gets pulled over once, s/he has still been harmed — by the fear and the expectation and the anxiety of living in a place where racism still abounds and lurks around every corner.

    A person of color in this country doesn’t have to have a lynch mob after him — and he doesn’t even have to see his job applications turned down because his name is Jamal — to suffer the impact of racism. For example, even if we can imagine that anyone could lead a charmed life, the most financially/economically/socially “privileged” black person in America, who never directly experiences racism thrown at him/her directly… is still going to suffer many of the negative effects of racism. He’ll experience it through his friends. He will always be aware of ways in which he could be treated differently, even if he personally gets “lucky.” Just the awareness — of common perceptions, of statistics, of the persistent mentality in some places that people of color are in any way “less” than whites… that mere awareness must provoke anxiety. And racism is just still… “in the air” in a lot of places.

    So no, I don’t really understand. I’ve never lived with any of that.

    I’m white, and yes, along with that comes privilege. I actually think I articulated my thoughts on that decently once before on dKos:

    Diaries about white privilege seem to get a lot of the flames. To be honest, if I wanted to deny the objective reality of the way the world (and this site, for that matter) works, I could probably get pretty offended by some of the diaries on white privilege. They’re not “comfortable” to read. At all. It kind of sucks to have to face up to the fact that I am sometimes inadvertently complicit in the perpetuation of a pervasive racist/bigoted mentality that in turn benefits me in many ways. But what I imagine sucks a whole lot more is NOT being on the receiving end of those privileges… and having to fight twice as hard just to get by in this society.

    So am I always comfortable acknowledging all of this? No, but thank goodness I know it — the injustices we are aware of, we can rail against. Those we are oblivious to, we are helpless to fight.

    Do I sometimes read comments by African American kossacks that make me wince? Yes — and here’s why: They have the courage to cast the hard, ugly , undiluted truth and the stark, objective, painful reality of the situation — here and elsewhere — into harsh bright light.

    Good. And thank you.

    Be merciless in doing so. Plenty of people need to be reminded because many of the folks who enjoy white privilege every day of their lives can easily forget. It’s cozier and safer and easier to deny that the lack of diversity around here is a problem — or that the insensitive or flat-out racist commentary sometimes found here is a problem — or that being silent in the face of all of the above is a problem.

    My privilege has been a hard truth for me to learn over the years, but it’s still a truth.

    Hard truths show up all the time. I’ve been dealing with plenty lately.

    I’ve got a client whose father hates African Americans, and though I have not seen it “in person,” I know that he is teaching his children to hate them too. Precious, innocent children… already being trained to hate. And oh I know I’m a coward. My client’s father has said “nigger” plain (and loud) as day in front of me. What would have been the right thing for me to do? My conscience says I should have dressed him down… or given him a lecture… or quit working with his family. My cowardice — my fear of being completely unemployed with no job prospects — said, Leave it alone, let it go, ignore it!  

    the end I opted for a polite and nervous, “I’m sorry, but I’m not really comfortable with that language… and I don’t ever discuss ideology with the clients.”

    Don’t discuss “ideology”?


    Yeah, and I apologized.

    For being offended by a slur.

    And in so doing, I failed to right a wrong, inasmuch as it might could have been “righted.” Could I have changed the guy’s opinion? No, I’d have a better chance of getting him into Princeton on scholarship. But could I have at least stood my ground and let him know that I find his views morally reprehensible and wildly offensive? Yeah, I could have. Probably wouldn’t even have lost my job over it. But I didn’t. In the heat of the moment, on my first day at work, I bit my tongue hard and just… let it go.

    It is part of my white privilege that I can just… do that.

    And go home.

    And push it from my mind.

    And it is something to feel deeply ashamed of. And I believe that most of you here, regardless of the color of your skin or your background, would have stood up to that man better than I did — showed more guts and backbone and principle than I did. But… I did what I did, and it’s done. Maybe I can do something to “right” the wrong I committed when I see him later this week, at which time I have to meet with him as well as with his child’s teacher. Because his child will not obey the woman in class.

    Because she is black.

    I yammered longer than anyone in the thread, and all I really had to say was… I sympathize with people of color. I empathize as much as I am capable. I want to help in the fight to end racism. But I don’t really get it — I don’t understand. And when it comes to discussing such matters, yes, I would rather the people who truly understand and have lived it… light and lead the way.  

  11. creamer

    Our schools teach us how great it is to be an American because anyone can succeed. Anyone can be CEO of a fortune 500 company. Anyone can be president.

    They don’t tell you the odds get longer based on your parents income and status. Or that if you grow up in a trailer park or an inner-city the path to success is much steeper.

      They tell you that everyone has a equal opportunity, and if you don’t make it, your to blame. Its on you. You start to believe them. I’m not smart enough. I’ll just settle into my role. Take what they give me.Stay in my class.


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