Built into the very fabric of our society are cultural values and habits which support the oppression of some persons and groups of people by other persons and groups. These systems take on many forms but they all have essentially the same structure. If we are to effectively end the oppression, we have to understand the factors which maintain the systems themselves and address the things we do to support the maintenance of those systems.
The largest most oppressive legal structure in American history was the institution of slavery. The proposition that one person could own another was limited first by the Emancipation Proclamation and then rendered illegal by the Thirteenth Amendment. Those actions came less than 150 years ago.
While slavery was not only about whites' oppression of blacks (there were some blacks who owned slaves), the oppressive system continues in the form of racism. While all cultures have their own variations to the theme of oppression based on race, the general idea is that the darker one's skin, the less social value and power one has. Those with the lightest skin color have a right to dominate those who are dark.
Our culture tends to value males above females. While the culture is rapidly changing in the ways men are favored over women, especially in the developed world, there is still widespread physical abuse of women by men in some settings and very few places in which men and women have equal power. This attribution of rights and responsibilities based on sex is known as sexism.
Less visually obvious, but perhaps more pervasive, is the practice of extending to those with money and influence a level of privilege and protection which is not extended to all. We call this classism.
When a group of people who all identify as being members of a single nation claim a right to dominance over people they see as members of a different nation, we refer to this as nationalism.
When the members of a sect who hold a particular set of beliefs claim they have a right to dominate or otherwise disenfranchise others on behalf of their god, they are understood to be practicing sectarianism.
When people who identify a heterosexual orientation as the only correct one claim a right to limit the rights of those who are gay, they are practicing heterosexism.
There are many ways we can identify people as members of a particular group and, on the basis of that identification, deny them rights. Some are too young or to old (ageism), some have disabilities (ableism), and the list goes on and on.
Each of these "isms" has certain common characteristics. These fall within four key areas.
Patterns of Abuse: Systems of oppression are created by a series of acts of abuse which establish and maintain dominance. (Racism is not created by a single redlining, but by years of lynching and discriminatory laws and unfair labor practices.)
Social Justification: These acts are justified by the dominant group in the dominant culture as being ways to maintain the "appropriate social order." (The Bible says that there shall be slaves and that they shall come from the descendants of Abraham's servant girl.)
Secrecy: Nevertheless, the specific acts of abuse themselves are hidden in some sense from public view. They are not to be witnessed. (When the Klan rides out, they wear hoods.)
Internal distress: And the conflicts that appear to be between the oppressor and the oppressed are actually conflicts that are interior to the oppressor but acted out in relationship to the oppressed. (Anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany was not about the behavior of Jews but about the anxiety of Aryans who couldn't tolerate the humiliation of World War I.)
These systems are not simply the construction of those at the "top." There are women who teach their sons the lessons of patriarchy. Some light skinned Blacks lord it over darker skinned. And some who have a little look down on those with less and the whole system seems to conspire to keep the oppression going. At every level there are those who give themselves the right to be better than someone else.
Let's take a look at how these four features are present in a variety of oppressive scenarios.
A group of urban young men are standing on a street corner on a hot summer night. They all know each other; all went to high school together, some of them worked with each other until a couple of weeks ago when the plant closed. They have already collected the last check and none of those who just lost their job has found another one. The men had been at the top of the order because they had the best jobs around ...but now those jobs are gone and their place is no longer secure.
They get to talking about how the good jobs are all gone and the problem is those immigrants who are coming in and taking the jobs. They remember when life was good and all their dads were working and how that was before all the Asians started arriving.
There is a convenience store on the corner that is owned by a Korean family. Someone throws a brick. Before anyone quite knows how, the shop is in flames.
This becomes one of a series of events that cause Asian families to feel at risk in that town (pattern of abuse). The men who started it are clear that they are just trying to reassert the natural order of things (social justification). They won't say anything to the cops about how it started (secrecy). They don't have a problem with that Korean family; the problem is with their own confidence about supporting their own families (internal distress).
A small not-for-profit company is starting to make some very positive turns in their public presence with a new logo and a new Executive Director when the Administrative Assistant--who has almost single handedly kept things going during some rough times in the past--develops carpal tunnel syndrome. Disability insurance covers some of the costs and she has medical insurance through her husband, but she can't work and continuing to pay her is getting very expensive for the company. Some members of the Board begin to fear that her illness will drag the company down just when things are starting to look up.
She would never resign; she loves the work and the people it serves. She could never be fired; she is far too beloved. The Personnel Committee, feeling the panic of the Executive Committee, sets up a meeting with her in which she is grilled about any financial irregularity they can find over the past couple of years. She is horrified about the implications of the questions, baffled at how they can be suspicious of her, and, finally, furious at the idea that they believe she would do anything to hurt the mission of the organization. When, in the end, she is asked for her resignation, she gives it, goes out to her car and sobs for half an hour until she can pull it together to drive home.
There are many examples of people losing employment over physical disabilities (pattern of abuse). The mission of the agency cannot be compromised simply for the welfare of a single employee (social justification). The minutes of the Personnel Committee where the strategy was discussed are, of course, sealed (secrecy). The Executive Committee is afraid that it cannot keep the operation afloat with a disabled Administrative Assistant (internal distress).
A wife gets a call from her businessman husband to say that he will be late getting home. She can hear the stress in his voice. She knows whenever he has a hard day at work he is easily upset when he gets home. He is very intolerant of any sort of disorder and sometimes he rages at her when the dishes aren't done or toys aren't put away. She gets all the kids busy cleaning and the house is spotless when he arrives.
She greets him cheerfully and has all the smiling children with her. He scowls and looks around the home for something out of place. The fact that all is in order doesn't seem to please him and he continues to scan for some disarray. Finally he confronts the nine-year old boy, "Aaron, do you have a handkerchief?" When it becomes clear that the boy does not have a handkerchief in his pocket, he finally erupts and tells his wife, "This is why things are such a mess in our life. I don't understand why you can't maintain a little order in this home!"
This is a scenario which happens whenever he is stressed by work (pattern of abuse). He is the one who gets to decide who is and who is not doing their job because he is the "head of the household" (social justification). When he pushes her down the stairs and the neighbors call the police they are told that she slipped (secrecy). There is nothing she can do that will stop his outbursts because they are not about her. Indeed, the more she makes it hard for him to blame her, the more violent his outbursts are likely to become. He is getting relief by finding things in the home to be out of place as a projection of his own sense of things being out of place within himself (internal distress).
We are all profoundly impacted by the systems of oppression in the cultures in which we live. When someone stands up and proudly proclaims their privilege on the basis of their white skin, we don't have any trouble giving them the label racist. Even if people are not so overt, this doesn't mean they aren't influenced by a culture of racism to value people of color differently. Even people of color are influenced to value themselves differently on the basis of skin color. Saying we are not influenced by systems of oppression doesn't make it so. We swim in the cultural soup of oppression and we internalize the maps which lead us to expect either entitlement or that we will not have our rights recognized.
The only way to get free of the influence of such powerful cultural systems of meaning-making is to act out of the assumption that we are held in their sway. Trusting that it is true for us in ways to which we are blind, our task becomes finding out how, and to address these issues as they arise in our experience. Non-cooperation with systems of oppression is only going to happen if we make a conscious effort to identify, in our own lives, how oppression is constructed and to work to deconstruct it in our own choices.
As the systems of oppression are constructed by these four aspects, we use the four to help us discover how we are co-constructing the oppression in our own lives.
Patterns of Abuse: I can notice the patterns of abuse in my relationships with others that create and maintain dominance. There are patterns of conflict in all of our relationships. Some of those conflicts evoke behaviors that are abusive as a tactic for addressing the conflict. But some of those tactics establish and maintain dominance, even in very subtle ways, and that is evidence of oppression.
Social Justification: I can notice the ways in which such dominance is explained or excused. This can be because of personal, familial or cultural history. It can be because of widely shared values, even religious values. It can even be the law. But, if it sustains oppression, it is unjust.
Secrecy: I can notice the ways in which I or others in the system work to maintain secrets. There is an important distinction to be made between secrecy and privacy. Secrecy is about keeping others from finding out what they have a right to know. Privacy is keeping others from finding out what they have no right to know.
Internal Distress: I can notice how my own internal conflicts get acted out in my relationships with others, especially with those I am closest to, and how the other's internal conflicts get acted out in relationship to me. If I am anxious and I don't know what it is about, I am almost certainly going to express that anxiety in a manner that tries to get someone else to take care of me. That is oppressive to them (unless I am a child and they are my caregiver, an exception we will look at in more depth later).
So, whenever I feel as though I have a right to dominate another, by whatever reason I might construct, and then act towards the other in ways I want to keep secret to soothe my own anxiety, I am constructing a system of oppression. Such behavior is unhealthy for the relationship and is harmful to me. This is nowhere more a concern than in our most intimate relationships.
The oppression that is domestic violence or battering is truly horrific in some relationships. We like to see it as a social anomaly that is present in some relationships but not in others. We especially like to believe it is not present in our own relationships. But oppression is so pervasive in our society that it is hard to imagine that there might be any culture, even the ones we create with our own significant others, which are not, in powerful ways, shaped (or misshaped) by these systems.
 This vignette is adapted from a story from the video, "Broken Vows" by FaithTrust.
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