Oppression circles

Overview Oppression takes different forms in different cultures, countries, communities, families and relationships. This exercise works to build understanding of how oppression works, by exploring oppression on all levels.

Time 15-30 minutes

Materials 1 piece flip chart paper, paper and pen for each participant


Instructions Prepare the flip chart in advance with five concentric circles. Label the circles, from smallest to largest, as they appear above: internal, individual, group, community and institution. Explain what each circle means, and ask the group to give additional examples of each form of oppression:

  • Internalized oppression is the process by which people who are the targets of oppression begin to believe the prejudices directed against them. Example: A deaf man thinks that he deserves to be treated poorly because he is deaf.
  • Individual oppression occurs between people in one-on-one interactions. Example: A landlord refuses to rent an apartment to a prospective tenant because of the tenant’s race, gender or sexual orientation.
  • Group oppression is oppression a person feels within a group of people. Example: A group of friends makes plans to take a trip together without recognizing that one member of the group cannot afford to participate.
  • Community oppression is oppression that one experiences within a community to which they belong. Example: A lesbian attends a house of worship that preaches homosexuality is a sin.
  • Institutionalized oppression occurs when society gives privilege to one group at the expense of another through the use of language, media, education, religion, economics and laws. Example: When a person watches TV, they see primarily white people as actors, news presenters and talk-show hosts.

Once you have gone over the oppression circles, ask each participant to think about the times that they have been oppressive or have used their privilege over someone else. Give group members about 5-10 minutes for this brainstorming. You can ask participants to write down their responses. Once everyone is finished, return to the large group and ask for volunteers to share their responses. Use the following questions to spark a discussion:

  • What forms of oppression do you see occur most frequently in society? How and where do they take place? In which of the oppression circles does this behaviour fit?
  • How did it feel to think about oppressing someone else?
  • What steps can you take to help end oppression on each of the five levels addressed in this activity?

Facilitator Tips

  • Working to understand oppression at individual and institutional levels can bring up some strongly held beliefs. Analysing them requires sensitivity and experienced facilitation.
  • The activity will work best with groups which already have strong group dynamics and in secure environments where participants feels comfortable with each other.

Source: GLSEN Jump-start Guide

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