Oppression, Power, and Privilege


“A person is oppressed when they are held back, either physically or psychologically, from the goals they aspire to, and the norms of society … oppression is closely linked to devaluation and loss of power.” (Al Condeluci, in “Interdependence”, pg. 16)

Denial of freedom is an act of oppression; whether conscious or unconscious.

Denial of self expression is an act of oppression; whether conscious or unconscious.

Denial of self determination is an act of oppression; whether conscious or unconscious.

Denial of difference and its value is an act of oppression whether conscious or unconscious (whether difference of race, creed, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, age, height, weight, physical or mental ability) because it presumes “I am “better than…”. And you must then be “less than…” in order for me to be superior; thereby

Tunnel of Oppression

assuming inherent inequality.

Oppression is a form of violence.

“Violence is anytime a person violates the identity or integrity of another person” (Parker Palmer, Quaker definition of violence).

Here, Parker Palmer takes it a step deeper into my own heart and identifies a “fascism of the heart”: “I also failed to learn that I have within myself a certain ‘fascism of the heart.’ When the difference between you and me gets too great, when your version of what is good or true or beautiful becomes too threatening to mine, I will find some way to kill you. I won’t do it with a bullet or a gas chamber. But I will do it with a label, a dismissive name, any way of rendering you irrelevant to my life in order to reduce the tension between your view of reality and mine.” http://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/200707/backpage.cfm

Thoughts from Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire


  • Any oppression “constitutes violence.”
  • “Oppressive reality absorbs those within it” (both the oppressor and the oppressed)
  • It “acts to submerge human beings’ consciousness.” (both the oppressor and the oppressed)
  • Oppression is sustained and controlled by changing animate into inanimate (people into objects)
  • This condition “unquestionably corresponds with a tendency to sadism.”


  • “To no longer be prey to its force, one must emerge from it and turn upon it. This can be done only by means of the praxis: reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.”
  • Freire continues to explain that thought and words are rendered meaningless and powerless without action. Reflection allows a person to step back and look at a situation without being trapped within it. Individual and collective dialogue compels a person to act upon the realities that emerge as a person becomes more and more conscious of the underlying realities of structural inequality.

[i] Further quotes from Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire:

“Any situation in which ‘A’ objectively exploits ‘B’ or hinders his self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression. Such a situation in itself constitutes violence, even when sweetened by false generosity, because it interferes with the individual’s ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human. With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun.” (p. 51)

“One of the obstacles to the achievement of liberation is that oppressive reality absorbs those within it and thereby acts to submerge human beings’ consciousness. Functionally, oppression is domesticating. To no longer be prey to its force, one must emerge from it and turn upon it. This can be done only by means of the praxis: reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.” (p. 51)

“And the more the oppressors control the oppressed the more they change them into apparently inanimate ‘things.’ This tendency of the oppressor consciousness to ‘in-animate’ everything and everyone it encounters, in its eagerness to possess, unquestionably corresponds with a tendency to sadism.” (p. 59)

Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion.” (p. 47)

“[T]he more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.”
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

See also,

The Violence of the Machine

The Bubble of Indifference

Familiarity and Exclusion, Freedom and Oppression

The Unseen Forces of Inequality

Structural Inequality

Listening for Unheard Voices

My Guiding Principles

The Five Faces of Oppression

In “Five Faces of Oppression” (Chapter 2 in the book, Justice & the Politics of Difference), Iris Marion Young argues that oppression is structural, part of the existing system. There might not be a clear oppressor anymore; no tyrant to point to. Instead the relations between groups are marred with oppression, even if that oppression is not administered consciously. Importantly, there are many groups in society that are oppressed. No group’s oppression has “causal or moral primacy” (42).

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.” http://www.strategicpractice.org/commentary/faces-oppression

The BASIC Institute examines and cross-examines the intersections between the -isms of oppression that exist across race, creed, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, age, height, weight, physical or mental ability

The BASIC Institute

on structural inequality

focusing on racism, classism, and ableism

BASIC = Building Alliances, SustainingInstitutional Change:
An Allies for Change Social Justice Institute

Basic Glossary of Terms


SEMINAR Preparation

Defining Racism: “Can We Talk?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum

Defining Racism Tatum final.doc

The Mountain by Eli Clare

Eli Clare — The Mountain.doc

There Is No Hierarchy of Oppressions by Audre Lorde

No Hierarchy of Oppressions.doc


DAYS ONE & TWO (Ableism)

1. The BASIC Institute power point slides.

BASIC Institute — Seminar One.ppt

2. The slides used during Melinda’s presentation about disability-related language.

Day One Language.ppt

3. The Gallery Walk slides that we put together.

Gallery Walk Ideas.pptx

4. The history of ADAPT that Bill sent us

History of ADAPT.doc

5. The link to the video “What Is Disability Pride” –http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qEOb7-E-hOs

6. The name of the video shown during the gallery walk is “Disability Culture Rap by Advocating Change Together.”

7. You can order Feisty and Non-Compliant shirts athttp://www.zazzle.com/mdrc_feistywear

8. To get more information about ADAPT, go to www.adapt.org


PPT: Four Levels of Oppression & Change

1. Authenticity in a Community Setting: A Tool for Self-Reflection and Changeby Dionardo Pizaña. As the titles states, this article is a critically important tool for those of us who wish to be change agents in the organizations with which we are affiliated. Dionardo has provided reflection questions related to four key elements necessary for building alliances and sustaining inclusive communities. Please use this self-reflection tool as you explore the change work that needs to be done within your spheres of influence.


2. Modern Racism by Valerie Batts. As you read and reflect on this article, take a moment to apply this information to your different identities related to Target and Non-Target groups. Although the author, Valerie Batts, shares from her experience as a Black Women (Target) dealing with issues related to White people (Non-Target) and racism, the concepts and realities related to Modernisms, Internalized Oppression and Alternative Behaviors apply across all forms of oppression and identities. This article may be helpful for us to see both the overt and covert ways that oppression is maintained at the personal, interpersonal, institutional and cultural levels.

Modern Racism Batts.pdf

3. From White Racist to White Anti-Racist by Tema Okun. The author is a white woman who has worked for many years in social justice movements in North Carolina. She is one of the founders of ChangeWork, a multiracial training group that facilitates long-term anti-racism, anti-oppression work. This article, which addresses the stages white people often go through as they grow in awareness and commitment to racial justice, is a reflection on her own journey as well as her years-long work educating white people about racism and white privilege.

White Anti Racist.docx

4. Changing the Framework: Disability Justice by Mia Mingus. The author is a writer and organizer working for disability justice and transformative justice to end child sexual abuse. She identifies as a queer physically disabled korean woman transracial and transnational adoptee, raised in the Caribbean, nurtured in the South and now living on the west coast. This article challenges the disability community to move beyond issues of access and equality to issues of justice at the intersections. Other writings by Mia can be found at her blog entitled “Leaving Evidence.”

Changing the Framework.docx



Overcoming the Silence of Generational Poverty by Donna Beegle

overcoming the silence of generational poverty.pdf

The Uses of Anger by Audre Lorde

The Uses of Anger by A Lorde.doc

The Culture of Power by Paul Kivel

The Culture of Power Kivel.pdf

What Can We Do? (pages 136-153) by Allan Johnson

What Can We Do 2006 Version.pdf


In Our Own Voice: African-American Stories of Oppression, Survival and Recovery in Mental Health Systems by Vanessa Jackson


Becoming Trustworthy White Allies by Melanie S. Morrison

Morrison – Becoming Trustworthy White Allies.pdf


“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
If violence is recognized as a form of insanity, as aggression or anger or hatred grossly disproportionate to what an isolated individual could ever be capable of, then every instance of violence, is and has always been, a product of group thinking, a product of that unnatural surrender of one’s personal values to the artificial “values” of the community or state.
Members of a community might find themselves committing acts of violence that they never imagined themselves to be capable of when they were on their own. It is certainly true that there is power in numbers, but what is also true, and which the inspiring narrative of our great leaders ignores, is that any form of power beyond the natural quantum that an individual is born with, will, as a rule, be misused. (Rajiv Pande)


Inward source of domination

If we can understand the compulsion behind our desire to dominate or to be dominated, then perhaps we can be free from the crippling effects of authority. We crave to be certain, to be right, to be successful, to know; and this desire for certainty, for permanence, builds up within ourselves the authority of personal experience, while outwardly it creates the authority of society, of the family, of religion, and so on. But merely to ignore authority, to shake off its outward symbols, is of very little significance. To break away from one tradition and conform to another, to leave this leader and follow that, is but a superficial gesture. If we are to be aware of the whole process of authority, if we are to see the inwardness of it, if we are to understand and transcend the desire for certainty, then we must have extensive awareness and insight, we must be free, not at the end, but at the beginning.”
– Krishnamurti, J. The Book of Life

Structural inequality. Empire, by nature, is constructed on the building blocks of structural inequality, working across and at the intersections of target groups. Prestige and privilege serve to create structures of power that have a backlash of oppression among targeted groups of the powerless. Empire maintains itself through structural inequality which is itself maintained by invisibility. By suppressing and oppressing those that benefit the least from the privileges and power of empire, dissenting voices are also suppressed allowing for the ambivalence that is the “turning away” needed for the continuance of empire unquestioned. https://ronirvine.wordpress.com/christ-empire/


White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh

“I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group”

matrix of oppression.png

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