Whether we are aware of it or not, we are all assigned multiple social identities. Within each category, there is a hierarchy - a social status with dominant and non-dominant groups. As with race, dominant members can bestow benefits to members they deem "normal," or limit opportunities to members that fall into "other" categories.
A person of the non-dominant group can experience oppression in the form of limitations, disadvantages, or disapproval. They may even suffer abuse from individuals, institutions, or cultural practices. "Oppression" refers to a combination of prejudice and institutional power that creates a system that regularly and severely discriminates against some groups and benefits other groups.
Systems of Oppression
The term "systems of oppression" helps us better identify inequity by calling attention to the historical and organized patterns of mistreatment. In the United States, systems of oppression (like systemic racism) are woven into the very foundation of American culture, society, and laws. Other examples of systems of oppression are sexism, heterosexism, ableism, classism, ageism, and anti-Semitism. Society's institutions, such as government, education, and culture, all contribute or reinforce the oppression of marginalized social groups while elevating dominant social groups.
A social identity is both internally constructed and externally applied, occurring simultaneously. Educators from oneTILT define social identity as having these three characteristics:
- Exists (or is consistently used) to bestow power, benefits, or disadvantage.
- Is used to explain differences in outcomes, effort, or ability.
- Is immutable or otherwise sticky (difficult, costly, or dangerous) to change.
Stop and Think!
Explore your own social identities [view PDF]
It can be difficult to understand the relationships between social groups, privilege, and oppression. For this reason, sociologists have developed tools like The Matrix of Oppression (below) to help us more clearly see and think through how different social groups experience American society. Tools like this remind us that although we all live in one America, our individual experiences can be profoundly different.
Download this fact sheet on privilege and oppression in American society from Kalamazoo College
There is no hierarchy of oppressions.Audre Lorde
Oppression causes deep suffering, but trying to decide whether one oppression is worse than others is problematic. It diminishes lived experiences and divides communities that should be working together. Many people experience abuse based on multiple social identities. Often, oppressions overlap to cause people even more hardship. This overlapping of oppressed groups is referred to as "intersectionality." Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in the 1980s to describe how black women faced heightened struggles and suffering in American society because they belonged to multiple oppressed social groups.
Watch: A short video on black women and the concept of intersectionality. From the NMAAHC, #APeoplesJourney, "African American Women and the Struggle for Equality.”
During the time Crenshaw was articulating the concept of intersectionality, poet-scholar and social activist Audre Lorde warned America against fighting against some oppressions but not others. She insisted, "There is no hierarchy of oppression." All oppressions must be recognized and fought against simultaneously. She pushed American society to understand that although we possess different identities, we are all connected as human beings.
Stop and Think!
“So long as we are divided because of our particular identities we cannot join together in effective political action.”
Audre Lorde cautioned us about the ways that our various identities can prevent us from seeing our shared humanity. Why do you think she felt this was a danger to all people?
In American society, systems of oppression and their effects on people have a long, profound history. However, America and our society can change. As our country continues to evolve, we can acknowledge its problems and work to make changes for the better. We can join together to resist the status quo and the systemic barriers that exist to create new systems of justice, fairness, and compassion for us all.
To make this better America, each of us should look at our own privileges and power. Some people have more power or influence than others, and this can shift quickly according to circumstances. Do you enjoy power, privilege, or influence? If so, what do you do with it? Do you silently enjoy your moments of comfort? Or, do you take risks to stand in solidarity with others?