Oppression 101

Overcoming oppression is one of the primary things that clients need your help to do. They may not realize it, because they may not understand yet the ways they’ve been hurt and limited by oppression. That makes it all the more important that YOU understand oppression. Here’s a 10-minute crash course in the basics. The main points are summarized below the video.

Here’s your crash course in Oppression 101. Oppression is a social power structure in which some groups of people are systematically mistreated, disadvantaged, and treated as less than fully human, while other groups benefit from a disproportionate, unearned advantage at the cost of thethe advantaged groups. As a result, the social identity groups your grow up in (your gender, race, economic class background, etc.) will determine the sources of support you automatically receive and the sources of stress you automatically have to deal with.

There are three components of oppression:

  1. Prejudice: negative feelings about groups of people and everyone in them
  2. Stereotypes: oversimplified or derogatory beliefs about groups of people
  3. Discrimination: inequitable treatment of groups of people

Prejudice is about feelings, stereotyping about beliefs, and discrimination about behavior. If you take these three ingredients and power to the mix, you’ve got oppression. As it’s often said, OPPRESSION = PREJUDICE + POWER.

There are also three level of oppression:

  1. Institutional: oppressive structures built into legislation, law enforcement, the economy, the media, the education system, religious institutions, etc.
  2. Interpersonal: oppressive interactions between people and in groups of people that train us to take on the roles of oppressor and victim
  3. Internalized: ways that oppressive practices continue to make the rounds within and between members of groups that have been targeted by oppression, even when no members of the group that is the agent of oppression are around

Once you’ve got the basics, down, here some of the goals of anti-oppression efforts in counseling:

  1. Reclaiming Power: stepping outside the victim role to regain the sense of power that oppression takes from us
  2. Becoming an Ally: stepping outside the oppressor role to learn how to help people from various social identity groups overcome the specific oppressions that have hurt and limited them
  3. Social Identity Development: learning about the ways oppression has effected us in each of our social identities, in part to discover that many of things we have struggled with our entire lives have never been personal, never been about us as individuals

More on how all this works all this later. In the meanhwhile, enjoy overcoming oppression!

View Video Transcript
Oppression 101
Steve Bearman
December 16, 2012

Just as all counselors need to know something about how to help people to heal, how to help people to grow and develop, and how to help people get free from unnecessary limitations, all counselors should know something about how to help people overcome oppression. So this is a crash course in Oppression 101 for counselors. Oppression is a social system in which some groups of people are systematically disadvantaged, mistreated, and often treated as less than fully human. While other groups of people, benefit from a kind of disproportionate unearned advantage at the cost of the disadvantaged groups. It’s a social power structure, in which much of your life experience is determined by the social identities that you belong to. So for instance, if you are a person of race or a person of gender, which race and which gender will determine the kinds of sources of support that you automatically benefit from and the kinds of sources of stress that you automatically will have to deal with. There is a kind of equation that people sometimes use to explain oppression in brief, and it goes ‘oppression = prejudice + power.’ Now to explain what that means, I want to explain something about these three different components of oppression and then I will come back to the question of power. So one component of oppression is that often people experience prejudice. Prejudice refers to a kind of set of feelings that I might have about an entire group of people and any member of that group. So let’s say the group that we are talking about is Steves, and maybe I feel uneasy around Steves, or maybe I feel guilty around Steves because I think Steves think that I am oppressive. Or maybe I just have a kind of aesthetic feeling about Steves where I don’t like being around them as much because they are kind of unfamiliar and alien to me. That’s a feeling of prejudice. I might also think Steves were the best ever, sort of a love prejudice like people have often for their own children just because they are their children. Prejudice is about a set of feelings that you have about a group of people. A second component of oppression is stereotypes. Stereotypes are a set of beliefs that you have about a group of people that then get applied sort of indiscriminately to every member of that group. So if I think that Steves are all really smart or that Steves are all bad drivers or that Steves smell bad or that Steves are not the kind of people that I could trust with my children, those are stereotypes about Steves that I will just apply to all Steves. It’s a kind of belief. Its cognitive. It occurs in the mind, whereas prejudice occurs in feelings. A third component of oppression is discrimination. If I treat all Steves in a particular way, that’s discriminatory. I treat people in a particular way just because they are Steves, like maybe I leave them out, I don’t want to invite Steves into my club or to my event, I don’t think that Steves should be around. So I am sort of exclusive towards Steves. Or maybe I look down on Steves or I say kinds of demeaning things to Steves. That’s discrimination because I am acting on it, it occurs in behavior. So prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination occur in feelings, thoughts and behavior, and there are these three different components of oppression. Now, none of them, by themselves, is oppression per se, because unless they are backed by a societal system of power, then they don’t form oppression. So for instance, there are phrases like reverse sexism and reverse racism that people use that don’t really make sense. Reverse sexism doesn’t make sense because we don’t have a wide network of men’s shelters where men need to go to get away from the physical or sexual abuse that they receive from women and from their wives. We don’t have a long history of solely female presidents such that boys growing up in the world have a sense like, how could they be president; there have never been any male presidents before. The system of power is asymmetrical, it moves in one direction. And so when you put power behind prejudice (and stereotyping and discrimination), then what you’ve got is oppression. Now oppression actually also occurs on three levels. So to really understand it we have to talk about the three different levels of oppression, in addition to the three components of oppression. The first level of oppression is that there’s a kind of structural oppression, or what’s often called institutional or institutionalized oppression. So, if we take an oppression like heterosexism, for instance, which discriminates against people who are not heterosexual (who are gay and lesbian and bisexual or queer or trans in some other way), then an example of institutionalized oppression is the notion that "marriage is between a man and a woman". This is a law. It’s a law in legislation that limits the rights of a particular group of people. So it’s built into an institutional structure. And there are lots of these institutions, like the legal system and the prison system and law enforcement. But institutionalized oppression also occurs through institutions that inform people of things, and in this case, misinform people about groups of people. So, like the media or the school system or religious institutions - are all ways that people learn about the world, and if people are systematically misinformed about what particular groups of people are liked by those institutions, that’s a form of institutionalized oppression. A second level of oppression is interpersonal or individual oppression. This occurs on a much smaller scale than institutions. So if we take heterosexism again, we can imagine an example where a young person comes out to their parents and the parents judge them or maybe even disown them. That’s a form of interpersonal oppression. We all grow up experiencing interpersonal oppression in a very sort of close one-on-one scale and in small groups. And so we are trained into particular roles. If you are in a group that is the target of oppression you will learn to play the victim role where because you have been victimized in your past, you learn to feel powerless and act powerlessly. If you are in a group that is the agent of a particular form of oppression you learn to play the oppressor role and you will be setup to be an oppressor towards people in other groups. So part of what happens at the level of interpersonal oppression is that we learn to play these oppressor and victim roles that are both dehumanizing for everybody who is caught up in the system. A third level of oppression is internalized oppression. Again coming back to heterosexism, if someone who is gay or queer in some way, feels like they don’t belong, that’s internalized oppression. The external oppression marginalizes people, it says you don’t belong and don’t fit in. If you belong to a group that’s been marginalized and you sort of feel like you don’t fit in maybe you don’t even feel like you belong to the community of queer people, then that’s internalized oppression. Internalized oppression has a huge role to play in the perpetuation of oppression and it’s talked about the least of all of these three levels, but it’s essential to understand what internalized oppression is. Okay, so you understand something about what oppression is and how oppression works, but why is this important in counseling? Well, I want to say a few of the goals of the work of overcoming oppression and counseling, now that you understand something about how oppression works in a kind of large scale. The first is that, we want to help people reclaim power. Part of being in the victim role, means that we are robbed of a sense of power and so we don’t have a sense of how much we can impact the world and change the world around us to become more how we would like it to be. The work of reclaiming power is the work of stepping outside the victim role. A second goal is we want to help people learn to become allies. Learning to become an ally is a way of stepping outside the oppressor role. It’s a way of saying I want to make it my business to understand what it’s like for people in different groups to grow up under the effects of oppression, and learn to be allies in helping those people overcome the internalized oppression and helping them reclaim their power so they can work to stop the oppression and to create change in the world. So becoming an ally is the second goal. Now the third goal has to do with social identity development. In all of the social identity groups that you belong to like gender, race, age. sexual orientation, religious background, ethnic background, class background and more, in each of those you can develop your identity more than it is now. Which means that you may not know that much about what it’s like for people in your own group. Coming to understand that, means that you start to realize how much you have actually been affected by oppression that you may not realize. It also means that you come to realize that things that you’ve always thought were about you are not personal at all. There are ways that people in your group tend to get treated and so they have affected you personally, but they are not personal to you. And this means a lot of the things that we think of as just individual problems, turn out not to be. Like if you’ve been disempowered your entire life you can become depressed, because that’s one of the effects of not having a sense of your own power to make the world how you want it to be. If you have been alienated your entire life and excluded, well then you can feel this kind of alienation or lack of belonging in the world. If you have been in a group that is subject to violence or threats of violence then you may feel a kind of anxiety that just gets built into your experience of the world and mistrust of people, but they are not personal. Those are effects of oppression. Only by understanding oppression and how it works, only by coming to develop our experience of our social identities, are we able to do the work of overcoming oppression as counselors and for ourselves and one another. I will talk a lot more about oppression in future series of videos; this is your crash course, Oppression 101 Intro.

About the Author

Steve Bearman, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He founded Interchange Counseling Institute in 2002 and is the lead teacher of Interchange's San Francisco-based year-long counseling and coaching training. When he's not counseling people, leading workshops, and advocating for social justice, Steve climbs mountains, adventures in the urban wilderness, explores the edges and limits of what's possible, deconstructs everything, and finds new ways to put it all back together.