Social Identities and Systems of Oppression

Systems of oppression are individual, institutional, and societal and their effects on people have a long history deeply rooted in American culture.

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.

 
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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.

Social Identities
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]

Learn More!

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.”

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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?

Take a moment to reflect

Let's Think

  • “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
    ​- Lilla Watson

    Watson, an Aboriginal, women’s activist, rejects people coming to "help" as she fights against oppression within her community. Why do you think she does so? Considering your own life and social identities, can you draw comparisons to her struggles?
     
  • “I learned a lot about systems of oppression and how they can be blind to one another by talking to black men. I was once talking about gender and a man said to me, ’Why does it have to be you as a woman? Why not you as a human being?’ This type of question is a way of silencing a person's specific experiences. Of course, I am a human being, but there are particular things that happen to me in the world because I am a woman.” - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie​
     
    • Why do you think Ngozi Adichie insisted on being able to talk directly about her specific identity as a woman?
    • What identities are important to you that others don’t always acknowledge?

Let's Talk

  • It can be hard to talk about oppression no matter what side you find yourself on. However, these conversations are needed to develop a deeper understanding of the issues and prevent further harm. An effective way to enter into these kinds of conversations is by thinking through your own social identity.
     
  • Do this “Social Identity Timeline Activity” with one or more people
  • Share about the process of your identity formation with your partners using the discussion questions.
     
  • WATCH: How the U.S. Suppressed Native American Identity

     
  • REFLECT:  In the video linked above, Dennis Banks shares how he and thousands of other Native American children were forced into boarding schools by the U.S. government (with the support of the dominant society).
     
    • How do you think individuals, institutions, and the dominant American society justified this cruel and inhumane treatment?
       
    • What kept those who had power and voice (government officials, school teachers, civic leaders, regular citizens, etc.) from acknowledging the humanity of these children and preventing this atrocity?
       
    • Banks connects historical oppression to current oppression faced by Native peoples. How can we join together as allies against this oppression?

Let's Act

  1. Work to be continuously self-reflective about your own privilege and power. Write self-reflections and revisit them so that you can seek out resources and supports to stop your own contributions to oppression.
     
  2. Be a Georgia Gilmore by joining with others in teaching, advocating, and organizing locally to dismantle systems of oppression where you are.