Social Justice Usage
The systemic and pervasive nature of social inequality woven throughout social institutions as well as embedded within individual consciousness. Oppression fuses institutional and systemic discrimination, personal bias, bigotry and social prejudice in a complex web of relationships and structures that saturate most aspects of life in our society.
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 186.
The discrimination of one social group against another, backed by institutional power. Oppression occurs when one group is able to enforce its prejudice throughout society because it controls the institutions. Oppression occurs at the group or macro level, and it goes well beyond individuals. Sexism, racism, classism, ableism, and heterosexism are all forms of oppression.
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 39.
To oppress is to hold down—to press—and deny a social group full access and potential in a given society. Oppression describes a set of policies, practices, traditions, norms, definitions, and explanations (discourses), which function to systemically exploit one social group to the benefit of another social group. The group that benefits from this exploitation is called the dominant (or agent) group and the group that is exploited is called the minoritized (or target) group.
New Discourses Commentary
Oppression is one of the central concepts of the Critical Social Justice mentality. It is, alongside marginalization and other forms of social injustice, the chief concern of Social Justice, and the exposure and subsequent disruption and dismantling of any system of power that produces it (or these) is its primary agenda. This would, perhaps, be useful and poignant if the term were treated in a reasonable sense, speaking primarily about genuine oppression—particularly but not exclusively when institutional—rather than the far vaguer systemic oppressions that Theory is dedicated to exploring, which are often highly interpretive and, well, theoretical in nature.
According to Theory, oppression affects all minoritized groups, this including racial minorities, women, gender and sexual minorities, the disabled, the overweight, those from countries or cultures outside of “the West,” and indigenous people (see also, racism, cultural racism, institutional racism, anti-blackness, sexism, colonialism, imperialism, Eurocentrism, Western-centrism, ableism, fatphobia, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, transmisogyny, subaltern, and settler, and also, critical race Theory, queer Theory, postcolonial Theory, gender studies, women’s studies; feminism, black feminism, ethnic studies; disability studies, fat studies, cultural studies, masculinities studies, whiteness studies, decoloniality, orientalism, critical theory, and critical pedagogy). Oppression is the diametric opposite of (systemic) dominance (see also, patriarchy, white supremacy, whiteness, disableism, thinnormativity, heterosexism, heteronormativity, and compulsory heterosexuality). Dominance, in Theory, results from and is the result of the privilege of groups that have greater access to systemic and institutional power (see epistemic injustice, epistemic oppression, epistemic violence, and exclusion).
Theory reifies oppression, which is to say that it gives it a status of “real” within material reality. Specifically, Theory reifies oppression by systemic power, which it understands to operate primarily as a function of identity, having left economic class issues mostly (but not entirely) behind (see also, classism). In the same sense that Cartesian philosophy reifies being with the famous statement cogito, ergo sum—I think, therefore I am—the Theory of Critical Social Justice reifies oppression based on identity—I experience oppression, therefore I am—thus identity categories that it readily recognizes to be socially constructed (see also, structuralism, poststructrualism, postmodernism, and social constructivism). In that sense, oppression and group identity are the bedrock concepts of Critical Social Justice Theory, and these are specifically set aside as that which must not be deconstructed, even while everything else can and should be.
The mission of Theory (thus Social Justice) is to identify oppression (as it sees it) everywhere it occurs, make it more visible, expose the underlying hidden biases and assumptions that create and enable it, and problematize, subvert, disrupt, and dismantle the processes that enable its continuation, rationalization, or legitimation (by the powerful). To do this, it uses critical methods (specifically, critical theories, from which the term “Theory” is partially derived), which are tasked with these endeavors. To become aware of oppression (and thus privilege and domination) as Theory conceptualizes it is to develop a critical consciousness, which more recently under Social Justice has taken on the more specific meaning of “wokeness” (see also, false consciousness, consciousness raising, and feminist consciousness).
Oppression can be so subtle as to be undetectable even by the people who experience it until they develop a critical consciousness (become woke). This often leads people of color, women, and other minoritized groups to go along with the white, patriarchal, heteronormative social order and rationalize it as natural or good on its merits (see also, ideology, liberalism, meritocracy, human nature, and individualism). This leads oppressed people to develop a kind of false consciousness about their oppression—this being a concept that derives more or less directly, with modification, from Marx (see also, Marxism, Marxian, Neo-Marxism, Post-Marxism, Cultural Marxism, and Frankfurt School)—that requires exposure through adopting critical methods.
This problem can manifest in two primary interrelated ways: internalization through socialization (a kind of brainwashing by the overarching culture – see also, hegemony) or through cynical self-interest, in which members of minoritized reject solidarity with the critical cause in favor of succeeding in the overarching dominant systems of power (see also, acting white and white adjacent). These can happen in various degrees in tandem.
In the first of these mechanisms—internalization through socialization—members of minoritized groups are essentially brainwashed (socialized) to accept and embrace the dominant system as natural, good, reasonable, or just the way it is (see also, status quo). In this case, with race, people of color may be socialized into supporting white supremacy (as Theory defines it) via “internalized racism,” women may support patriarchy via “internalized sexism” and “internalized misogyny,” LGBT people may support heteronormativity via “internalized homophobia” and “internalized heteronormativity” (see also, straight passing), the disabled may support ableism (thus disableism) via “internalized ableism,” overweight people might support thinnormativity via “internalized fatphobia,” and trans people may support cisnormativity through “internalized transphobia” and “internalized transsexism.” All of these are understood under a broader rubric of “internalized oppression” that posits that the social pressures that normalize the systems of dominance and oppression in society are so powerful, pervasive, and influential that they even trick people who are oppressed by them into supporting them. This, obviously, only works in the cases of Stockholm Syndrome or when the “oppression” in question is actually really vague, systemic, and perhaps not very much like oppression at all.
In the second—cynical self-interest—members of minoritized groups may realize, for good reasons or bad, that it is in their better interests to “sell out” and support the dominant paradigm rather than becoming a “critical” activist against it. This may lead people of color to seek white approval, to act white, or to position themselves as white adjacent. All of these concepts are ways in which minoritized racial groups can support whiteness, thus white supremacy, by actually believing in the things Theorized to be part of these systems or, more cynically, by taking care of their own interests rather than becoming radical activists aiming for a social revolution. (Of note, whiteness and white supremacy have been stated to be perpetuated and forwarded through ideas like punctuality, having a meeting agenda, and mathematics, so what Theory considers the “system” of whiteness may contain a lot of ideas that most sensible people—of color or not—would support.) Women may be said to be seeking male approval or patriarchal reward, or when patriarchy is Theorized as intrinsically tied up with capitalism, neoliberal reward. LGBT people will be accused of straight passing and thus not being authentically gay.
The flip side of these issues is also deeply Theorized as a way that oppression is maintained by the dominant, who (in keeping consistent with the critical mindset) are not only usually unaware of the oppression they’re causing but are comfortable as such and don’t want to (or aren’t able to) engage that reality without considerable work. This leads to concepts like internalized dominance, where dominant people are socialized to believe that their dominance is natural and earned (see also, human nature and meritocracy). It is also the site of a host of rather abusive concepts that try to explain how this works and, frankly, use it as a cudgel to induce guilt and shame in members of “dominant” groups. These include a dizzying array of largely fictional (perhaps projected) concepts: the racial contract, active ignorance, pernicious ignorance, willful ignorance, white talk, colortalk, white comfort, white equilibrium, complicity and white complicity, white solidarity, aversive racism, white fragility, white woman tears, male tears, racial stress, racial stamina, white innocence, and white ignorance, more or less any of which could be generalized then respecified along other axes of systemic oppression based on identity (see also, intersectionality).
Oppression, in Social Justice, can be pretty mild. It might include genuine oppression and discrimination, on the one hand, and it can include having to endure microaggressions, hearing someone disagree with Theory, or meeting the basic expectations of civil society (which, in the West, are deemed to be manifestations of whiteness or patriarchy). For example, the existence of the once-popular 1990s television show Friends is considered highly problematic and thus oppressive to various minoritized groups, including trans people, LGBT, disabled, and fat people (due to some of the jokes used in the show) and people of color (especially black people) because of the show’s racial demography (and that it in many respects remade an earlier 1990s television show with an almost all-black cast called Living Single). In the Washington state legislature’s Equity Task Force, making a meeting agenda, showing up on time to the meeting, and getting things done in the agenda are described as “white supremacy,” which we can conclude induce oppression, presumably of people of color (it is further suggested in that meeting that these standards wouldn’t be expected or kept in South Africa, which is held up as a favorable model for the Washington state government). People (especially men) generally preferring it when women look nice is also a form of oppression of women, as is the typical higher cost of women’s hair styling, despite it usually being a bigger job (that is mostly done by other women who have clearly internalized misogyny along the way). Other examples (or “proofs”) of systemic oppression can be found in disparate outcomes by race and gender on mathematics tests, leading some Theorists (like Tian An and Rochelle Gutierrez) to explain that mathematics is “operating as whiteness.”
The way oppression is usually Theorized is under a doctrine of its being immanent, that is, everywhere, always, pervasive, and just beneath the surface, although it’s rarely explicitly phrased that way. We hear critical race Theorists (e.g., Robin DiAngelo) insist, however, that “racism is permanent and ordinary” and instruct that “the question is not ‘did racism occur?’ but ‘how did racism manifest in that situation?’” This, of course, assumes the racism was there to begin with, hidden just beneath the surface and needing a critical awareness to find and expose. That is, Theory begins with the assumption that certain demographic groups suffer oppression from vague systemic forces and then goes looking for the evidence to support that assumption. Other groups—straight (or, specifically, cishet) white, Western men who are wealthy—benefit from privilege and have dominance.
Anything that can be found (or close-read and interpreted into existence – see also, discourse analysis) that is consistent in any sense with this presupposition of immanent oppression is then treated as “evidence” not only that oppression is occurring but also that it is immanent (ordinary and hidden just beneath a nicer-looking surface – see also, code and mask). The circular reasoning here is as obvious as the invitation to both confirmation bias and desirability bias.
If oppression is anything that holds a demographic group down and this is understood to include vague, nebulous and subjectively interpreted manifestations of things like sexism and racism that are posited to always be present but difficult to see, it is hard to see how it can ever be overcome and won’t just continue to be detected in increasingly subtle and subjective ways. This is precisely what seems to be happening.
Ableism; Acting white; Active ignorance; Anti-blackness; Authentic; Aversive racism; Bias; Black feminism; Cishet; Classism; Close reading; Code; Colonialism; Colortalk; Complicity; Compulsory heterosexuality; Consciousness raising; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical pedagogy; Critical race Theory; Critical theory; Cultural Marxism; Cultural racism; Cultural studies; Decoloniality; Deconstruction; Disableism; Dis/ability; Disability studies; Discourse analysis; Dismantle; Disrupt; Dominance; Epistemic injustice; Epistemic oppression; Epistemic violence; Ethnic studies; Eurocentrism; Equity; Exclusion; False consciousness; Fatphobia; Feminism; Feminist consciousness; Frankfurt School; Gender; Gender studies; Hegemony; Heteronormativity; Heterosexism; Homophobia; Human nature; Identity; Ideology; Imperialism; Indigeneity; Individualism; Injustice; Institutional racism; Internalized ableism; Internalized dominance; Internalized misogyny; Internalized oppression; Internalized racism; Internalized sexism; Internalized transphobia; Intersectionality; Legitimate; Liberalism; Male approval; Male tears; Marginalization; Marxian; Marxism; Masculinism; Mask; Meritocracy; Microaggression; Minoritize; Neoliberal reward; Neo-Marxism; Orientalism; Patriarchal reward; Patriarchy; People of color; Pernicious ignorance; Postcolonial Theory; Post-Marxism; Postmodern; Poststructrualism; Privilege; Problematize; Queer Theory; Race; Racial contract; Racial stamina; Racial stress; Racism (systemic); Radical; Revolution; Settler; Sex; Sexism (systemic); Sexuality; Social construction; Social constructivism; Social Justice; Socialization; Solidarity; Status quo; Straight passing; Structuralism; Subaltern; Subversion; Systemic power; Theory, Thinnormativity; Transmisogyny; Transphobia; Transsexism; West, the; Western; Western-centric; White; White adjacent; White approval; White comfort; White complicity; White equilibrium; White fragility; White ignorance; White innocence; White solidarity; White supremacy; White talk; White woman tears; Whiteness; Whiteness studies; Willful ignorance; Woke/Wokeness; Women’s studies
Revision date: 2/5/20