Power, Privilege and Oppression

What is oppression?1

Oppression has been defined as the following:

• It is institutionalised power that is historically formed and perpetuated over time;

• It allows certain ‘groups’ of people to assume a dominant position over ‘other groups’ and this dominance is maintained and continued at an institutional level.

This means oppression is built into institutions like government and education systems. It gives power and positions of dominance to some groups of people over other groups of people. For example, can you think of ways that heterosexism is built into laws around marriage, property ownership and raising children where you live, both presently and historically?

Sometimes you will hear the words ‘intersectionality’ or ‘systems of oppression.’ These terms point out:

• that there are multiple forms of oppression

• the extent and systemic nature of oppression

Systems of oppression run through our language and shape the way we act and do things in our culture. Because systems of oppression have a history – meaning they have formed over time in specific political, economic and social contexts – we cannot get rid of systems of oppression all at once. It will take carefully planned, strategic anti-oppressive organising and learning, as well as an understanding of histories of oppression.

Systems of oppression are built around what are understood to be “norms” in our societies. A norm signifies what is “normal,” acceptable, and desirable. “The norm” is something that is valued and supported in a society. It is also given a position of dominance, privilege and power over what is defined as non-dominant, abnormal and therefore invaluable or marginal. Norms are also considered to be stable or unchanging over time. They usually produce pairs of rules that define what is normal and what isn’t normal.

Check out this chart showing some forms and systems of oppression (see attachment also):

System or form of Oppression Race Oppression Gender Oppression Class Oppression Ability Oppression Sexual Oppression Age Oppression
Assumed norm: White Male-bodied Middle-upper Class ‘Able’-bodied Heterosexual Adults
What’s considered to be marginal/

not normal:

Black, people of colour, Roma, mixed race people Female-bodied, transgender, transsexual, intersex Working class, Poor ‘Disabled’ people Homosexual, Bisexual, Queer Children, Youth and Elderly
Your turn: list discriminatory practices which can into the categories
History Race’ and racism in the West developed during Europe- an colonialism (1492 onwards) and the advent of capitalism. There are different accounts of how gender oppression developed. Some attribute it to the beginnings of capitalism and private property. The development of capital- ism and private property in Europe. There are varying dates for this. Tied to the development of modern medicine (1800s) when ‘disability’ was medical- ised as an illness. In the European context: 1800s when modern medicine named the homosexual’. (The historical development of ageism was not readily available at the time of printing this kit.If you do find a history please share it.)
Form of discrimination based on this practise Racism Sexism, Transphobia Classism Ableism Heterosexism, Homophobia, biphobia, transphobia Ageism

Although this chart separates each form of oppression, placing them in their own columns, it is important to understand how all forms of oppression are linked and how they intersect. How are oppressions linked? Take for example the forms of discrimination a Roma woman may experience at a job. She may be earning less than her white coworkers (which includes both white men and white women) and less than any male Roma coworkers. She faces both racism and sexism at the same time. As well, she cannot separate the ‘racialised’ part of her identity from the ‘gendered’ part of her identity.

By acknowledging that systems of oppression are linked we avoid ranking oppressions or creating a hierarchy of oppressions. What does it mean to rank oppressions? Ranking oppressions means treating systems of oppression as separate from one another and then placing different forms of oppression in an order according to what you consider to be the most severe form of oppression to the least harmful form of oppression. For example, someone might rank oppressions by claiming that classism is the worst form of oppression when compared with racism or ableism.

The practice of ranking oppressions:

  • Doesn’t recognise how different forms of oppression can oppress people at the same time;
  • Leads to disputes over which forms of oppression are the worst and least severe;
  • Avoids looking at structures of power and privilege since people end up spending time arguing over which forms of oppression are the worst instead of focusing on how power structures divide struggles;
  • Overlooks the fact that all forms of oppression are harmful and unjust, failing to recognise that the best strategy to end oppression involves tackling all forms of oppression at once.

Power and Privilege

In order to effectively confront systems of oppression we must also address issues of power and privilege. It is often easier to focus on how people are oppressed, disadvantaged and discriminated against than it is to address how we as individuals may have privileges and as a result are able to exercise our power at the expense of others. The kind of self-scrutiny needed to look at ourselves and examine the ways we have benefited from different forms of privilege is difficult.2 When we focus on how people are oppressed we tend to think that forms of oppression like anti-Romaism is an issue that Roma face alone – not something that white people are also affected by. If we follow this line of thinking, Roma people are held responsible for eliminating Romaphobia and white people are left out of the picture. The truth is white people need to be part of the fight anti-Romaism by confronting white privilege and power. Similarly, men need to be part of feminist struggles to end sexism.

What is power?

The definition of power has been debated by many people and there continue to be different understandings of the term. One definition that we think is both simple and useful is: “the ability to get what you want.”3

Power is a relational term. It can only be understood as a relationship between human beings in a specific historical, economic and social setting. It must be exercised to be visible.

It is worth noting here the difference between forms of power that are ‘power-over’ and ‘power-with’. Power-over is power that is used in a discriminatory and oppressive way: It means having power over others and therefore domination and control over others (e.g. through coercion and violence). Power-with is power that is shared with all people in struggles for liberation and equality. In other words, it means using or exercising one’s power to work with others equitably, for example, in a social movement.4

What is privilege?

Privilege is an unearned, special advantage or right that a person is born into or acquires during their lifetime. It is supported by the formal and informal institutions of society and conferred to all members of a dominant group, by virtue of their group membership.

Privilege implies that wherever there is a system of oppression (such as capitalism, patriarchy, or white supremacy) there is an oppressed group and also a privileged group, who benefit from the oppressions that this system puts in place.5 Privilege and power are closely related: privilege often gives a person or group power over others.6

Sometimes the privileged group benefits from the system in obvious, material ways, such as when women are expected to do most or all of the housework, and male partners benefit from their unpaid labour. At other times the benefits are more subtle and invisible and involve certain pressures being taken off the privileged group and focused on others, such as Roma people being much more likely to be targeted and harassed by police.

Privilege is “an invisible package of unearned assets” that members of privileged groups “can count on cashing in every day,” but about which they “are meant to remain oblivious.”7 Privilege is usually invisible to those who have it because we’re taught not to see it, but nevertheless it puts them at an advantage over those who do not have it. A lot of people find it difficult to accept this idea when they belong to a ‘dominant’ group that is part of the ‘norm.’ After all, ‘they didn’t ask for it’ and ‘it’s not their fault.’ However, building awareness and understanding about the privileges you can count on and others cannot, due to systems of oppression, is an important part of building solidarity and becoming an ally.

It makes sense that where there is an oppressed group, there is a privileged group, because systems of oppression wouldn’t last long if nobody benefited from them. It is crucial to understand that members of the privileged group of any of these systems may also be oppressed by any of the others. This allows struggles to be divided and social change activity to be weakened. We are divided, socially and politically, by a lack of awareness of our privileges and how they are used to set our interests against each other and break our solidarity.8

It is also true that a privileged group can also, in some ways, be oppressed by the expectations of the system that privileges them. For example, men under patriarchy are expected not to show weakness or emotion. However, men are not oppressed by patriarchy for being men; they are oppressed in these ways because it is necessary in order to maintain women’s oppression. For women to see themselves as weak and irrational, they must believe that men are stronger and less emotional. For these reasons, men showing weakness, and emotion are punished by patriarchy for ‘letting the team down.’ 9

Let’s examine one form of privilege more closely: white privilege. Below you will find a number of statements that mark an invisible set of privileges that are enjoyed by white people, which people of other races and ethnicities cannot count on. Most likely, however, you will also find that depending on who you are there are other forms of oppression and privilege that will influence the truth of these statements for you, for example, issues of gender, class, education and physical ability (again, all forms of oppression are interconnected and are not separate from each other).

Place a check mark beside a statement if it holds true for you. With some questions, keep in mind how oppressions over-lap/intersect:10

  • I can go shopping alone most of the time and be fairly certain that I will not be followed or harassed by security or shop clerks.
  • I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see my race or ethnicity widely represented in a positive light.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilisation’ I am shown that people of my colour and ethnicity made it what it is.
  • Whether I use cheques, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin colour and ethnicity not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  • I can speak in public to a powerful group without the group looking at me as a representative of my entire race or ethnicity.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial/ethnic group.
  • If a police officer stops me or my tax return is audited, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race/ethnicity.
  • I can choose makeup or bandages in ‘flesh’ colour and have them more or less match my skin tone.
  • I can go home from most meetings of organisations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.
  • I can take a job with an ‘equal opportunities employer’ without having colleagues on the job suspect I got it because of my race/ethnicity.
  • If my day, week, or month is going badly, I don’t need to ask of each negative situation whether it has racial/ethnic overtones.
  • I can criticise our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behaviour without being seen as a cultural outsider.
  • If my family needs to move, we can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing accommodation in an area we can afford and in which we would want to live.
  • I can be pretty sure that my neighbours in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  • My school curriculum included studies about people of my race and ethnicity.
  • I will not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily protection.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a ‘credit to my race.’
  • I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  • I will feel welcomed and ‘normal’ in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.

After reading the above statements, can you think of similar statements that can be made for gender privilege, age privilege, class privilege and other forms of privilege?

Probably quite a few of the statements do not seem like ‘privileges’ but rather what should be the default experience for everyone. The problem is, if not experiencing oppression is the standard experience, then experiencing the oppression puts you outside the normal experience, in a special category, which leads to a lot of the oppression becoming invisible. To talk about privilege reveals what is normal to those without the oppression, yet cannot be taken for granted by those with it.11

For example, talking about homophobia alone can reveal the existence of prejudices and discrimination – stereotypes about how gays and lesbians behave perhaps, or violence targeted against people for their sexuality. However, talking about heterosexual privilege, shows the other side of the system, the invisible side: what behaviour is considered “typical” for heterosexual people? There isn’t one – heterosexual isn’t treated like a sexual category, it is treated like the absence of “gay.” You don’t have to worry about whether you come across as “too heterosexual” when you’re going to a job interview, whether your gay friends will be uncomfortable if you take them to a heterosexual bar or if they’ll embarrass you by saying something ignorant about somebody of a different gender flirting with them. This goes beyond discrimination and prejudice, to the very heart of what we consider normal and neutral, what we consider different and other, what needs explaining, what’s taken as given – the prejudices in favour of being heterosexual aren’t recognisable as prejudices, because they’re built into our very perceptions of what is the default way to be.

What is prejudice? 12

Prejudice is an attitude or belief about another person or group that is based on stereotypes instead of on experience or reason. When thinking about prejudice, it’s important to remember that power is not involved with the definition or with the act of being prejudiced. A woman – who in our society does not have as much power as a man – can be prejudiced against men. She may, for example, think that all men are weak. We know that this is not a true statement; this is one woman’s prejudiced belief about men. If we reverse that situation and think about a man who believes all women were weak, that would be sexism.

What is anti-oppression?

Anti-oppression involves making your views of the world large enough to include everyone—looking for ways to make connections among different people’s struggles and finding ways to think about how issues affect different people in different ways. It means not just not accepting ‘norms,’ ‘isms’ and oppressive dynamics, but actively working to make the invisible visible, and challenging the systems that hold them in place.

Also, an anti-oppression analysis acknowledges that all forms of oppression are linked and that the best way to organise against oppression is to take into account that all oppressions are linked.

What is anti-oppression organising?

Anti-oppression organising means confronting systems of power and privilege on an ongoing basis in your daily life and in social change work. Power relationships are part of our organisations and our activism too.

Anti-oppressive organising involves being inclusive. Being inclusive can involve making meetings accessible to people with physical disabilities, or being aware of what groups of people in your organisation speak the most and which people speak the least. There are many different ways of to be inclusive in your organising and there is no single way to organize anti-oppressively. Anti-oppressive organising practices will vary according to the issues you confront; they will vary across time, location, the people you are working with, the resources you have and so on. There isn’t one recipe for organising anti-oppressively but there are some anti-oppressive concepts and tools that you can use.13 Check out some of them in the rest of this toolkit and in the resource section.

1Much of this section has been adapted from the Green Justice Retreat Resource Kit.

2Green Justice Retreat Resource Kit

3GLSEN Jump-start Guide!

4Green Justice Retreat Resource Kit

5Organise! Issue 80

6GLSEN Jump-start Guide!

7Amplify, p. 227.

8Organise! Issue 80

9Organise! Issue 80

10This list is adapted from Peggy McIntosh’s ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’

11Organise! Issue 80

12GLSEN Jump-start Guide!

13Green Justice Retreat Resource Guide

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