The Complex Task of Unpacking Oppression

Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece on the coexistence of oppression and privilege at the Planned Parenthood rally in Denver. It contained an implicit assumption about what it means to be oppressed—defining oppression in a way that allows it to coexist with privilege.

Cartoon by Charlotte Wall

The definition of oppression has been dynamic over the past century, not static, and to assume it to be intuitive denies the serious implications of the concept’s understanding. Typing “is oppression a” into a Google search yields suggestions including “is oppression a feeling,” “is oppression a theme,” “is oppression a state of mind,” “is oppression a form of discrimination,” and “is oppression a sin.” Each of these is rooted in an honest attempt to understand a system of power and subjugation, but each has a distinct and important connotation that changes how we approach oppression as a problem. A feeling is subjective: a condition is not. A form of discrimination implies intentionality; often times oppression is both systematic and subliminal. A sin implies immorality, but not necessarily illegality.

The word “oppression” is derived from the Latin word “oppressus,” which is the past participle of “opprimere,” meaning “to press down.” Certainly, the word is still associated with a sense of downward motion: that more abstract notion of the weight of one social class on another, or the feeling of being pressed down. But an understanding of oppression as one thing applying force on another, even in the figurative sense, has been rejected by most academics. Instead, oppression describes, as one sociologist puts it, “a system of advantage and disadvantage based on social group membership.”

Thus, it encompasses both the intentional and the systemic, the explicit and the implicit, the coercive and the hegemonic, the hard and the soft power. Different disciplines use different words, but oppression in an unequal society refers to the way in which a person’s life experience is contingent upon his or her social group identity. To the degree that he or she may belong to multiple social groups, oppression shapes their experience in contradicting ways—hence the coexistence of oppression and privilege.

But if oppression rests on social group membership, who gets to decide who’s a member of a particular social group? “Oppressed” is, of course, an adjective in the Oxford English dictionary, because it describes a noun. But is the noun singular or plural? Is an individual oppressed because he or she belongs to a certain group, or is the individual part of a group that is oppressed? Is it their self-identification that matters or the identity ascribed to them by a society that assumes their race, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status? Is “oppressed” temporary or permanent? Can a person be oppressed even if they don’t realize it?

Most would argue that oppression exists whether or not it is acknowledged—that you can’t decide if you’re oppressed. You can’t, after all, opt out of a social system. At the same time, if the goal of studying oppression is to eliminate it, it seems counterproductive to deny agency to those already disadvantaged. It is important, then, to note that disadvantaged does not equal unsuccessful, or inferior, or passive. And while a group might be subordinated, that does not mean its members are necessarily subordinate. It simply means that, ignoring all other factors (which, of course, is impossible except in the theoretical), members of an oppressed group start out with a larger share of obstacles. A greater probability of living in low-income housing, a lesser ability to withdraw loans for school or housing, a greater chance of being involved in a violent police encounters, and unequal pay can’t just be decided against. In other words, oppression is not a measure of achievement or of potential, but the “uphill battle,” so to speak.

Another way to think about oppression is in terms of voice, where the voices of the advantaged are magnified and those of the disadvantaged are suppressed. While less concrete—because the loudness of a voice is intangible—this notion is apt because it points to the paradox of defining oppression in a society where oppression exists. The power of voice lies in the ability to define words and ascribe words to a reality that then becomes actuality. So, can the West ever produce an accurate description of how it, itself, has subordinated other cultures? Can white, male scholarship discuss oppression without contributing to its own domination of the academic sphere?

There will always be this quandary in defining inequality when inequality remains present. But the danger in doing so is less than the danger of neglecting to define it at all. Perhaps finding a complete definition of oppression is less important than the acknowledgment that oppression is a pressing issue—both of crucial importance and requiring critical thought. Oppression can be invisible to the naked eye, and therefore it is useful to political leaders and powerful figures who are able to manipulate its meaning to personal ends. Consider Donald Trump’s claims that the electoral process is “rigged against him.” Think of Hugo Chavez claiming to be one of the oppressed even after he came to control the entirety of Venezuela’s oil supply. They are able to make these claims because they retain a monopoly on definition, a monopoly on voice, a monopoly on privilege, which, while not mutually exclusive, remains oppression’s opposite.

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