Oppression and Power

Oppression and Power

“You can only be oppressed if you let yourself be oppressed.”

This chapter introduces the concept of power, which transforms group prejudice into oppression. We explain the difference between concepts such as “race prejudice” (which anyone can hold) and “racism,” which only the dominant racial group can impose. The chapter introduces the “ism” terms (e.g., racism, sexism, classism) and explains how these terms allow us to capture the dynamics of prejudice, discrimination, plus structural power at the group level.

Vocabulary to practice using: hegemony; power; oppression; internalized dominance; internalized oppression

Let’s return to the hiring committee vignette in Chapter 4. Regardless of the final choice the committee makes, it is impossible for the candidate’s gender not to play a role in the decision. Of course gender would play a role in the decision even if the committee had not openly discussed it, as our imaginary committee did. Gender would also play a role whether or not the committee was aware that it did. We all view people through the socialized lenses of group memberships—theirs and ours. This socialization is always at play.

For example, gender socialization influences every aspect of our perceptions and evaluations, both of ourselves and others. Returning to the glasses metaphor introduced in Chapter 3, gender is one of our key lenses. We are always wearing these lenses, and in the example of the hiring committee, always reading the resumes through them. We don’t notice the lenses—or they are unremarkable—when all of the resumes have matched what we expect to see in terms of gender. Because the open position is one traditionally held by women, we assume that we are reading women’s resumes. As soon as we come across a resume that does not match this assumption—one that is not normal for the context—we become conscious of the lens, or conscious of gender. We now begin to interpret the


candidate’s qualifications based on our gender expectations for male elementary school teachers.

Again, this does not mean that we were not interpreting the other resumes from our expectations for females, but because our expectations matched the resumes of female candidates, we are not aware that we are doing this; our gender lens is invisible to us because seeing the resumes of female applicants for this position is normal. Gender becomes consciously relevant only when we come across a resume that does not match what we expect to see.

If the candidate is not hired due to prejudice against him as a male, this will constitute discrimination but not oppression. However, if he is not hired because of prejudice against him based on an assumption that he is gay, this will constitute oppression. To put it another way, Mary (who is prejudiced against a gay candidate) is enacting oppression, but Liz (who is prejudiced against a male candidate) is not. Why?

To understand, we must build on the concepts of prejudice and discrimination by adding an understanding of oppression and power. But before we begin this discussion, let’s revisit an important element of critical thinking introduced in Chapter 2. Our distinguishing between the results of Mary’s prejudice and Liz’s prejudice unsettles common ideas about fairness and will likely seem unfair to many people, at least initially. But we remind readers that the way we have been taught to think about these relationships hides their operation in society. In this book we are providing a critical theory framework that is different from the one mainstream socialization provides; a critical theory framework is based on solid scholarship, study, and practice.

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