Faces of Oppression

Gender, race and class: these describe relationships, identities and experiences that are shaped by and reinforcing of conditions of oppression. They also are sources of resistance and hope. A Presidential race where we have a strong African American candidate in a contest with a powerful woman candidate could provide us with openings for elevating an analysis of oppression that looks at how these identities and experiences intersect.

As I noted in my previous blog, the media relishes ‘gender trumps race’ and/or ‘race trumps gender’ narratives. It is up to us to draw attention to less polarizing ways of understanding this historic moment.

Social justice groups that have relationships with communities, workers, constituencies and congregations are in a position to turn this into a ‘teachable moment,’ to encourage a deeper analysis of race, gender and class. I encourage readers to take a look at Iris Marion Young’s framework -- the 'Five Faces of Oppression -- as a way of exploring these intersections. GPP has adopted Young's framework in our series of writings and workshops on democracy, difference and oppression (which you can find under ‘Democracy and Difference’ on this site). Here’s a condensed summary of the ‘five faces,’ as we describe them in our workshop materials.

1. Exploitation. Exploitation has to do with the difference between the wealth that workers create through their labor power and the actual wages that workers get paid. Exploitation is built into the market economy; bosses want to increase profits by lowering wages. The wage and wealth gap between the wealthy owners and managers, on the one hand, and the masses of working people, on the other, is an indication of the degree of exploitation that exists in a society.
2. Marginalization. This refers to being left out of the labor market. Those who are unable to get and keep steady employment – because of disabilities, education levels, age, historic discrimination, lack of jobs in neighborhoods, the conditions of poverty, etc. – are experiencing marginalization.
3. Powerlessness. In this particular context, ‘powerlessness’ refers to the way in which workers are divided and segmented into jobs with autonomy and authority and jobs with little or no autonomy and authority. Workers in lower-status jobs experience more powerlessness (both on the job and in the sphere of politics) than workers with professional jobs. At the same time, giving some workers a little bit of autonomy on the job can undermine a sense of solidarity that they might otherwise feel towards all workers.
4. Cultural Dominance. This refers to the way that one group’s experiences, cultural expressions and history are defined as superior to all other groups’ experiences and histories. It is not necessary for anyone to say: “my group’s culture is superior;” it simply has to be treated as universal –– representing the best in all of humanity. It is considered ‘normal,’ which means that all others are either ‘strange,’ or ‘invisible’ or both.
5. Violence. Our nation’s history is full of examples where violence has been used to keep a group ‘in its place.’ State-sanctioned violence has been used to enforce racial segregation, to keep workers from organizing and to break up strikes. Everyday violence also reminds social groups of what happens when they resist oppressive conditions: Black youths straying into a white neighborhood, gay men harrassed and beaten outside of bars and clubs, women in the military being harrassed and sometimes raped -- these are examples of the brutality of everyday life for so many of us. And the ways in which violent crimes are dealt with often reflects social and cultural biases; crime is 'contained' within neigborhoods that law enforcement has written off.

Each of these five forms of oppression overlaps with the other. Each is related to and reinforced by the many ideological ‘–isms’ and phobias that exist in our society: racism, classism, homophobia and heterosexism, xenophobia and extreme forms of nationalism, ageism, and more.

Most people in society experience one or more of these forms of oppression at some point in their lives. Most, if not all, working people experience exploitation. Racism runs through each of these kinds of oppression, intensifying the experience of exploitation, powerlessness, cultural dominance and everyday violence. Gay men as a group experience cultural dominance and the threat of violence, but they may not necessarily experience other forms of oppression, depending on their class and occupational status. White professional women experience cultural dominance, fear of sexual violence and a degree of powerlessness -- especially if they constantly have to prove themselves worthy of their status. Black professional men also have to constantly prove themselves. Some people experience all five of these kinds of oppression. Their political powerlessness tends to render them invisible.

These five ways of looking at oppression help us see that people cannot be divided neatly into the ‘oppressed’ and the ‘oppressor’ columns. We need to build upon people’s different as well as shared experiences of oppression to encourage them to get involved in collective action for social change, and to join with others, whose experiences with oppression may look somewhat different from their own.

A structural analysis of oppression that looks at the intersections of race, gender and class allows us to unmask the ways in which these social and economic divisions reflect and reinforce existing power relations in society. It highlights the need for organizational and institutional allies who recognize their shared responsibility to fight oppression in all its forms.

--Sandra Hinson


a comment

hi, i hope you can add something about Simone Weil's view about oppression... :)
Great article!

Very intelligent viewpoint

It appears you have a pretty good handle on some preconditions of oppression. Looking at this from a Canadian perpective I may be missing some differences between the two cultures and the dynamics inherent in oppression. I think that dynamic is pretty universal though; only the forms differ. I will have to download your article so I can read it at a more liesurely pace.
Cheers, Paul M. in Korea