In the past few decades, the United States has made excellent strides in promoting civil rights, especially for People of Color and other minority groups. We had our first African-American president, and we increasingly see People of Color in our government. This is cause for celebration.
Nevertheless, we still have a long way to go to overcome the legacy of past injustices against minorities and to create a country where everyone feels safe and is treated with dignity, no matter the color of their skin.
In order to create such a country, it is important to understand the oppression that People of Color still face on a daily basis. The word oppression can be confusing because the word often seems vague and hard to define, and it is also sometimes hard to understand how oppression differs from other kinds of mistreatment people endure.
Despite these difficulties with the word oppression, it is an important word to understand because it describes a very specific type of mistreatment certain people endure which results from certain political and social situations. Furthermore, oppression is also directly linked to racism. So, when we understand oppression, we are better able to combat it and racism as well.
Some preliminary Ideas
First, we should note that oppression is not the same as general mistreatment. Sometimes people mistreat other people in ways that are not oppression. For example, driving with road rage, being rude to someone in the grocery store, ignoring people in distress, or making fun of someone’s clothing are all an example of mistreatment, but they do not necessarily constitute oppression. (This does not diminish their injustice or evil, which I will address later.)
What Constitutes Oppression?
We use the word oppression to describe a very specific type of harm: namely the harm that occurs because of social and political power imbalances. Oppression almost always refers to power exercised by authorities or dominant groups over people with less power and social status.
It is important that we describe this kind of harm with a specific word—oppression—because this harm is different and often more insidious than general everyday mistreatment. To help us understand this, it is important to understand the concept of power imbalances in society.
Thinking about Power Imbalances
A power imbalance is a social and political relationship in which one group of people has significantly more political, legal, and social power than another group.
Sometimes power imbalances are natural and temporary and are for the sake of nurturing, training, and apprenticeship. For example, parents possess more power than children, and teachers have more power than students. These power imbalances exist temporarily so that the parent or the teacher can train the child to become a confident, autonomous adult.
Natural power imbalances are not usually oppressive. Problems only arise in these types of relationships when authority figures misuse their power (such as to benefit themselves) and fail to realize that the imbalance is temporary and for the sake of training the child.
There are other power imbalances, however, that are inherently oppressive and always dangerous. These power imbalances develop in a society when one group gains more political, legal, and social power through means such as unjust war, unjust wealth acquisition, and prejudice.
These kinds of power imbalances must be corrected as quickly as possible because left unchecked, it is very common for the dominant group to use their power consciously or unconsciously to deprive people in the oppressed group of rights, dignity, property, and even their very life. Situations like this always devolve into slavery, abuse, human rights violations, or genocides.
One of the insidious things about unjust power imbalances is that they inherently encourage aggression, greed, and prejudice. People with more power benefit from the imbalance and so, consciously or unconsciously, they do all they can to protect their position of power. This motivates them to develop elaborate narratives about why people with less power are weaker, inferior, immoral, lazy, or even dangerous.
It is important to note that even people who are normally very intelligent, moral, and upstanding people can develop these kinds of narratives because the psychological pull towards maintaining one’s power is so strong.
For instance, people in the U.S. who wanted to perpetuate the institution of slavery developed elaborate narratives about how African-Americans were less intelligent or less capable of leadership, or how God had ordained white people to rule the world—narratives which were all, of course, patently false. One of the greatest tragedies of slavery is that many Christians and other “good folk” believed and perpetuated these myths.
Having made the distinction between oppression and mistreatment, I would like to address several questions about oppression that I often hear people ask.
The United States has ended slavery and made great strides in civil rights. Does oppression still occur here?
We should note that power imbalances still exist in the United States, and so we should still expect to see instances of oppression in the United States, especially when these power imbalances are not corrected.
We have minority populations in the United which include People of Color, people with disabilities, and the LGTBQ community, among others. There are a lot of people who harbor a great deal of racism, stereotypes, ignorance, and misconceptions about these minority groups, and we still frequently see people in power (who harbor ill-will against these groups) actively work to deprive them of fair treatment and basic rights. This is oppression.
As another example, women are not usually considered to be a minority group, but many women have historically suffered oppressive situations.
For example, women historically have born the lion’s share of the responsibility for raising children—often an extremely large number of children. In the past when women had less access to modern amenities (i.e. washing machines, refrigerators, etc.), tending to their very large families (and the related pregnancy, nursing, meal preparation, and laundry) often consumed all of women’s time and prevented them from pursuing higher education, working outside of the home, and participating in the military, opportunities which built their social and political power.
These conditions were not unjust or immoral in themselves, but they certainly led to a power imbalance between men and women, and in some situations, men consciously and unconsciously exploited this power over women. Some people still do this today. For instance, when men with political power insult women’s appearance or intelligence or natural female bodily processes (like menstruation or nursing), this is an example of men exploiting historical power imbalances. You can read more about this here.
Here is another example of oppression that still exists in the U.S. today: Several research studies conducted on views of women in the workplace showed that when people are given the same resume, one with a man’s name on it and one with a woman’s name on it, people rate the “man” as the most qualified candidate, even though the resumes are the same. Similar studies with People of Color and other minority groups show these same findings.
Two: Does oppression occur only within groups, or can it also occur between two people in every day relationships?
The word oppression is most often used to describe situations in which a majority group uses power unjustly to harm a minority group. However, oppression can also exist between individual people. For example, if a white person uses his or her power to emotionally and psychologically harm a Person of Color, this would be an example of oppression.
For example, a friend of mine, who is an African-American woman, was walking down the street one day, and a guy drove buy her in a pickup and called her the N word.
In addition, recently the President of the United States (who is white, in case anyone forgot) told four congress women with whom he disagreed, all Women of Color, that they should “go back to their own country”. Three out of the four women were born in the U.S. and are U.S. citizens, just like the President. The fourth one, Ilhan Omar, fled with her family from a bloody civil war in Somalia. They sought refugee status in the U.S. after four years in a refugee camp and were eventually granted asylum and full citizenship to the U.S. Omar became a U.S. citizen in 2000 when she was 17.
Both of these are an example of one person oppressing another person, which reflects larger social patterns of oppression.
Three: Can a person who is a member of a majority group (like a white person in the U.S.) be oppressed?
This is a tricky question to answer because most of us simultaneously belong to multiple social groups, some of which may be minority groups that suffer from political power imbalances and some of which may not.
For instance, let’s consider a white woman living in the U.S. As a white person, she is a part of a majority group with the most power. However, women have historically been an oppressed group because in the past they have been deprived of rights like voting and education. Therefore, she may suffer oppression, not because of being white, but because of being a woman.
Or let’s consider a white man in the U.S. who is from Appalachia. The Appalachian community has suffered from power imbalances because of land exploitation, stereotyping, and other issues. Therefore, this man could be oppressed, not because he is white, but because he is from Appalachia.
Thus, a person in a majority group can be oppressed, not because of their membership in the majority group but because of their simultaneous membership in other minority groups.
For oppression to occur, people must have their rights and dignity stolen from them through political power, and it is very hard for minority groups in a society to do this.
We should note that while people in majority groups cannot usually be oppressed in the technical sense of the term, they can most certainly be mistreated. (See next question.)
Four: Can people in majority groups be mistreated?
Of course. People in majority groups can be demeaned, insulted, abused, robbed, beaten, lied to, kidnapped, mocked, and treated in all other manner of horrible ways. They cannot technically be oppressed (specifically as a person of a majority group) because they don’t suffer from a political power imbalance, but this does not mean their mistreatment doesn’t matter or that we shouldn’t care about it.
For example, if a white male is slandered and beaten by people who hate him, this may not be an example of oppression, technically speaking, but it is most certainly an example of injustice, vicious behavior, and violence. It is immoral, and we should all be horrified and work to bring him justice if we can.
Five: What is white privilege?
White privilege is a type of political and social power that white people have just because they are white. They can use this power for good or for ill.
To help illustrate white privilege, let me tell a brief story about an African-American friend of mine. Some white friends of hers went on vacation and asked my friend if she would house sit for them. My friend wanted to help out her friends, but she was apprehensive to do so.
She had had several African-American friends and family members who had been interrogated by the police, not because they were doing anything wrong, but simply because they were walking around in predominantly white neighborhoods. My black friend was afraid that if someone saw her walking out of a white person’s house in a white neighborhood that they would call the police on her, even though she has never been in trouble with the police.
I have had several other African-American friends express fear of being pulled over by the police, even though they have never broken any laws or been in trouble of any sort. They were afraid of how they would be treated or that they might even be put in jail for a crime they didn’t commit or even shot. Most of them have friends or family members who have faced this kind of mistreatment.
Meanwhile, I have never once in my life feared that I would get in trouble with the police for visiting a friend’s house while they are on vacation or for walking down a street in a neighborhood where I don’t live. (In fact, I walk all the time and do this quite frequently.) I have also never been called a derogatory ethnic slur by a stranger, and I have never been afraid of being pulled over or shot by the police for any reason.
That is because I have white privilege. And I am not a bad person for having white privilege. I do not have control over the world I was born into, but I do have control over the world I help to create. Being a white person in the United States means I do not have to deal with people scrutinizing me, stereotyping me, or insulting or harming me because of my skin color. This gives me power and privilege.
It is the power and privilege of being a member in the dominant social group that sets the norms, values, and customs of our country and has done so for hundreds of years. I need to use this power for good. Writing this post is one way I do that.
If you would like to read a story about some friends of mine using their white privilege to help combat oppression and racism, you might like this post.
Six: How are oppression and racism related?
Racism is a type of oppression. When white people and political leaders (like the President), threaten, or demean People of Color, they are using their white privilege to bully and silence minority groups.
When white people do this, they are in essence saying, “You are different from me because of the color of your skin, and you do not deserve the same respect as me.” This is an expression of racism. You can read more about this here.
Seven: Why should we care about oppression and racism?
There are many reasons we should care about oppression and racism, but I will focus on three briefly.
First, when we passively or actively condone oppression and racism, we open the door for ourselves and the people we love to be oppressed because we communicate that “Oppression and racism are okay.” So, every time we oppress others, we actually oppress ourselves and the people we love, and we make the world less safe for us and others. (It would be the same if we started to condone robbery or rape.)
Second, when we passively or actively condone oppression or racism, we degrade the best values of the United States. The U.S. is not a perfect country, but in our best moments, we have always championed the rights of every human being–especially the weak, the powerless, and the oppressed. When we passively or actively condone oppression, we degrade the best values of our country and make it decidedly Un-Great again.
Third, when we passively or actively condone oppression or racism, we open the doors for greater acts of violence and misery to occur. All genocides, holocausts, and other gross human rights violations began by unchecked smaller acts of oppression that snowballed.
We would be ignorant if we think that these types of atrocities cannot happen in the United States. They have happened before (i.e. Japanese internment camps in World War II), and they are more likely to reoccur when we permit oppressive attitudes and behaviors to go unchecked.
One of the most important parts of working for justice in the world is working to create a country and world where every human being is treated with dignity. Identifying and stopping oppression (in all its forms) is one of the best ways to do this.
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If you would like to read more about oppression, how it develops, and its various expressions, I recommend these books.
Hannah Arendt–Eichmann in Jerusalem
W.E.B. DuBois–The Souls of Black Folk
Paulo Freire–Pedagogy of the Oppressed
bell hooks–Men, Masculinity, and Love: The Will to Change
Cornwell West–Prophesy Deliverance
 Of course, many Christians also fought to abolish slavery. For instance, Quakers (a Christian denomination) were on the front lines of the abolition movement.
 In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire often uses the word dehumanization to refer to conditions of oppression. Dehumanization occurs when people’s rights to reflect on the world, name it, and transform it for greater humanization. It always, exists in situations of oppression because usually only people with power can deprive other people of these basic human rights. See Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem for a powerful and terrifying exploration of how every day average people like you and me can become a part of oppressive and deadly power imbalances.
 This is certainly not a criticism of women who choose to stay at home or who forgo, for instance, higher education. Rather, this is a criticism of situations in which women did not have the choice in the past to do these things, which often lead to significant social power imbalances.