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Dismantling the Wheel of Oppression for a Winning World

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I read a question that asked, “What does winning look like in a world without [one of the forms of oppression, like, for example, racism or sexism]?” I briefly concluded that this is unimaginable only because it is the wrong question to ask.

We can visualize “oppression,” and its attendant dominant group privileges, as comprising a metaphorical wheel with the numerous spokes each representing the various forms oppression takes. These include racism, sexism, heterosexism, trans oppression, ableism, ethnocentrism, classism, religious oppression, ageism and adultism, lookism, and so forth. If somehow, we could dismantle or eliminate one of the spokes, the wheel will, nevertheless, continue to trample over the rights and the very lives of individuals and entire groups of people based on their many intersectional identities.

We must, therefore, work to dismantle the rim circling and linking the spokes together to begin imaging “what winning looks like.” I employ at least four disparate but connecting theoretical organizers to place a bright spotlight on what comprises the rim: Iris Marion Young’s “Faces of Oppression,” Rita Hardiman and Bailey Jackson’s “Levels of Oppression,” Suzanne Pharr’s “Elements of Oppression,” and Sherry Watt’s “Privilege Identity Exploration” (PIE) model.

Young’s taxonomy looks at oppression as involving a constellation of conditions divided into five categories (or “faces”) that include:

  • Powerlessness: linked to Karl Marx’s theory of socialism in which some people have the power to make decisions and have more control over their lives while other have less or no such power,
  • Exploitation: the act of using other people’s labors to benefit or profit oneself without giving fair compensation,
  • Marginalization: the act of consigning or relegating a group of people to a lower social status or at the outer edges of society,
  • Cultural Imperialism involves taking the culture of the ruling class and establishing and continually reproducing it as the norm (hegemony),
  • Violence is used by the dominant group to keep the powerless, exploited, and marginalized in fear of random and unprovoked attacks, intended to humiliate, damage, or destroy people.

Hardiman and Jackson investigate the ways in which societal privilege and oppression are constructed and maintained on overlapping and coexisting levels:

  • Personal/Interpersonal,
  • Institutional,
  • Societal/Cultural.

Pharr highlights the “common elements of oppression” comprising:

  • Defined Norm: Pharr explains as “…a standard of rightness and often of righteousness wherein all others are judged in relation to it. This norm must be backed up with institutional power, economic power, and both institutional and individual violence.”
  • Institutional Power: power in the social institutions including resources, laws, policies, political clout, political representation,
  • Economic Power: financial/material resources,
  • Myth of Scarcity: the socially-imposed fear and warning that there are not enough resources to go around,
  • Violence & Threats of Violence: the implicit or explicit societal messages intended to make people afraid, to fear harm, pain, suffering, etc. if they advocate for themselves or challenge oppressive conditions,
  • Lack of Prior Claim, according to Pharr, “…means that if you weren’t there when the original document (the Constitution, for example) was written, or when the organization was first created, then you have no right to inclusion.”
  • Othering: treating some people and groups as abnormal or different related to the defined norm. Those who seek their rights, who seek inclusion, who seek to control their own lives instead of having their lives controlled are the people who fall outside the norm….They are the Other.”
  • Invisibility: omitting, deleting, erasing the contributions, presence, existence of individuals and groups as if they have made no significant and important contributions, to underrepresent their histories,
  • Distortion: to revise history to reflect incomplete, inaccurate, or false histories,
  • Stereotyping: dehumanizing individuals and groups by denying individual characteristics and differences; applying the “fallacy of confirming instances” which involves seeking evidence for what one already believes and omitting or ignoring evidence that contradicts what one already believes,
  • Blaming the Victim: portraying oppression as deserved, and seeking explanations for the problems people face by blaming individual behaviors and failures of character, motivation, culture, etc.,
  • Internalized Oppression: coming to believe the falsehoods, derogatory characterizations, stereotypes, and myths society perpetuates about you and your group,
  • Horizontal Hostility: hatred, othering, prejudice and discrimination against, and/or competing with others who are also oppressed (instead of joining in solidarity and coalition with people who are underrepresented),
  • Identification with Power: identifying with, assuming, believing, falsely that those in positions of authority act in your best interests, and seeking to attain the favor of those in power (possibly because of desires to attain similar social status),
  • Exploiting Isolation: circumventing, interfering with, preventing solidarity and coalitions among groups and individuals, and/or taking advantage of the lack of solidarity among underrepresented groups and individuals, “divide and conquer,”
  • Assimilation and Tokenism: creating fake or mythical “model” representatives in an attempt to discredit or dispute claims of and challenges to oppression,
  • Individualized Solutions: responding to systemic problems by proposing that individuals need to work harder to persevere, and/or believing all people can equitably pull themselves up by their bootstraps without addressing systemic inequity, the “myth of meritocracy” syndrome.

Watt’s “Privilege Identity Exploration” (PIE) model addresses the forms of resistance around discussions that challenge dominant group privilege and social oppression. According to Watt, when raising and discussing issues of oppression and privilege, several forms of resistance may emerge:

  • Denial: A rejection of the concept of dominant group privilege.
  • Deflection: The notion that majority rules and that the minority cannot expect the majority to adhere to minority standards.
  • Rationalization: The notion that the individual did not set the conditions for the inequities that may exist in the society currently or historically.
  • Intellectualization: The assertion that the individual is not prejudiced and does not discriminate. The “my best friend is a …” attitude.
  • Principium: A defensive reaction arising from a personal or political belief. Though the person may feel badly that a certain social identity group may not have achieved full equality and equity within in society, this is the way it was meant to be.
  • False Envy: Sometimes manifesting a certain affection for a minoritized person or a group of people, it is an effort to deny the complexity of the social and political context. At times, it manifests itself in dominant groups’ claiming victimhood at the hands of minoritized groups.
  • Minimalization: Reducing the effect that social identity has upon one’s life chances, and that issues of oppression based on social identity are no longer a problem.
  • Benevolence: Projecting an excessively sensitive attitude toward a social and political issue or group based on a position of charity.

These are only a few of the many theoretical foundations on which we may place the rim of the wheel of oppression under the microscope so we may look at its structural composition for the purpose of taking it apart, dismantling its very substance before we toss its contents onto a trash heap of history. That’s what “winning” looks like.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

July 11th, 2017 at 9:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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